“The school was a circle—an all-encompassing environment of resocialization. The curriculum was not simply an academic schedule or practical trades training but comprised the whole life of the child in the school. One culture was to be replaced by another through the work of the surrogate parent, the teacher.”
-John Milloy, author of A National Crime: the Canadian government and the Residential School System, 1879-1986 (1999)
In A national crime, John Milloy provides us with two sharply contrasting photographs of Thomas Moore, a First Nation schoolboy. These photographs capture poignantly the massive resocialization project, launched in the late nineteenth century, to “move Aboriginal communities from their “’savage’ state to that of ‘civilization’ and thus to make in Canada but one community—a non-Aboriginal one.”
In one photograph, youthful Thomas poses against a fur robe. He is in his beaded dress, his hair braided and he is holding a gun. The “symbols of the past—of Aboriginal costume and culture, of hunting, of the disorder and violence of warfare and of the cross-cultural partnerships of the fur trade and of the military alliances that had dominated life in Canada since the late sixteenth century” are displayed for the viewer.
Although these alliances and partnerships had enabled Europeans to find their way in the new land, the founding of the new nation in 1867 had little or no role whatsoever for Indigenous people. Their knowledge and skills of fishing, hunting, trapping, arts and crafts were cast out of the “circle of knowledge” and deemed of no worth for a future of “settlement, agriculture, manufacturing, lawfulness, and Christianity.” Politicians, civil servants and missionaries all thought that Aboriginal knowledge was “neither necessary nor desirable in a land that was to be dominated by European industry and, therefore, by Europeans and their culture.”
The other photograph of Thomas Moore portrays this young, now confident schooled lad with barbered short hair, standing confidently and fashionably with one arm on his hip and the other leaning on a pedestal. His feet are crossed; his hat laid on a large piece of furniture. Close to his right arm, sits a flowering pot. Portraits teach us much. They are coded images. Milloy comments: “Here he is framed by the horizontal and vertical lines of wall and pedestal—the geometry of social and economic order; of place and class, and of private property the foundation of industriousness, the cardinal virtue of late Victorian culture. But most telling of all, perhaps, is the potted plant. Elevated above him, it is the symbol of civilized life, of agriculture. Like Thomas, the plant is cultivated nature no longer wild. Like it, Thomas has been, the Department suggests, reduced to civility in the time he has lived within the confines of the Regina Industrial School” (pp. 3-6).
Another captivating photograph in Milloy’s book, “Quewich and his children,” carries significant propaganda value. Everyone involved in Indian Affairs, with the exception of Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Frank Oliver, believed that Native children must be separated from their parents. They had to be relieved from the “influences of Indianism” and brought “under those of civilization.” The children were, in a sense, farmed out to the residential school for cultivation.
The Quewich photograph illustrates the “confident conviction” that a coercive assimilative pedagogy was necessary to kill the Indian in the child to save the man. “The ‘weak child,’ the ‘influences of Indianism,’ the father, stooped and wrinkled, already a figure of the past, having reached the limit of evolution, appears to be decaying right in front of the camera, dying off, as was his culture. In sharp contrast, his children, neatly attired in European clothing, the boy’s cadet cap a symbol of citizenship, are, like Thomas Moore after tuition, examples of the future, of the great transformation to be wrought by, separation and education in the residential school” (p. 28).
Children, fearful children, entered the White World to be transformed into something they were not. It was if they were of a different order of human, something akin to Aristotle’s “natural slaves.” The transformation was symbolized, Milloy comments, by the “shearing of Aboriginal locks and the donning of European clothes and boots”. After this rite de passage, they would live like White children within a “round of days, weeks, months and years punctuated by the rituals of European culture” (p. 36). They were socialized into the round of rituals of the European Christian calendar. Reversing the child’s “cultural clock,” to act with precision, concerned the Department greatly. “Innate in him [the Aboriginal child] has inherited from his parents … an utter disregard of time and an ignorance of its value” (cited, p. 28).
Thus: “The temporal orchestration of life heard in the sounds of water breaking through spring ice and leaves rustling in freshening fall breezes was to be replaced by ticking locks and ringing bells—the influence of the wigwam replaced by the factory” (ibid.). Indians had to abandon their dances and festivals. They could not roam freely any longer.
These photographs codify essential elements of the “founding vision” of residential schools. They capture the Canadian government’s desire to totally re-socialize the Indigenous people, so intensely pursued in the period from around Confederation in 1867 to the 1960s. This project was, in the end, calamitous, leaving a ghastly legacy of spiritual desolation and brokenness.