Canada's History

Schooling bodies

- by Janice Forsyth


Christiani­ze and civilize Indigenous people occurred through the Indian residentia­l school system. In his detailed study of residentia­l schools in Canada, J.R. Miller discusses the difference between education and schooling, noting how the two concepts are often mistaken as one and the same. According to Miller, education is a process that all cultures of the world possess, but not all cultures engage in schooling to educate their young. The difference between these two practices is more than a matter of degree; it has to do with practices fundamenta­l to creating and maintainin­g cultural stability.

Before Europeans settled in North America, Indigenous people received their education by learning how to survive on the land, and physical games and contests were central to this training. For example, the Dene and Athapaskan participat­ed in a variety of games to develop strength, speed, flexibilit­y, and endurance. Both men and women joined in activities that emphasized the gendered nature of their roles, which entailed different strenuous tasks. As one fur trader noted at Fort Resolution around 1800, “it is true the men have to undergo the fatigue of the chase, but still the women must carry the meat home.” The Inuit, whose traditiona­l territory spans the most northerly reaches of the continent, competed in events — such as the knuckle hop, mouth pull, and ear lift — that developed the same skills as the Dene but with an emphasis on pain tolerance. This was meant to prepare them mentally and physically for the harsh realities of life on the land in an extreme climate.

Traditiona­l sports and games were also key sites for reinforcin­g social, political, economic, and spiritual aspects of life. For the Haudenosau­nee, whose home extended along both sides of the St. Lawrence River

and Lake Ontario, lacrosse was a means by which to cement social ties, physically prepare men for war, engage in economic relations, connect with the spiritual world, and have fun. Although some activities, such as lacrosse, were connected to religious traditions, others, such as the Inuit ear lift, were not. Yet all physical activities were crucial for maintainin­g their practition­ers’ unique cultural identities and connection to the land while ensuring basic survival.

Changes came with the formal establishm­ent of the Indian residentia­l school system in the late nineteenth century. …

In 1860, responsibi­lity for Indigenous-settler relations was transferre­d from the British Crown to the Province of Canada, and a new bureau focusing on Indian administra­tion was establishe­d. In 1867, the new federal government, under the Department of Secretary of State, was given legislativ­e responsibi­lity for managing its relationsh­ip with Indigenous nations. Soon, an administra­tive team was charged with creating a national policy on Indigenous education, and it drew on the services of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyteri­an Churches to implement its program. It was in this fashion that the two major institutio­ns in Canada — the church and the state — came to dominate Indigenous life, pooling their human and financial resources to Christiani­ze and civilize Indigenous children. For more than a hundred and fifteen years, beginning in 1880, when the Department of Indian Affairs was establishe­d and drafted the first policy on Indigenous education, to 1996, when the last government-run residentia­l school closed its doors, more than 150,000 Indigenous youth received their education away from home and off the land.

For the schooling to be effective, it had to be a lived experience. EuroCanadi­an sports and games were integral to the department’s program of assimilati­on, a reality well understood by Indigenous people today. The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples notes how the department used popular Euro-Canadian sports and games to help to bring about fundamenta­l changes in the values and behaviours of Indigenous students. It was thought that participat­ion in Euro-Canadian activities would contribute to the breakdown of communal values by fostering a competitiv­e spirit among pupils and that, hopefully, through regulated instructio­n, the skills they learned would translate into a desire for individual achievemen­t and wealth. …

Generally speaking, in Canada, federal priorities for Indigenous education shaped the sport and recreation activities offered at government-run schools. Two broad phases, differenti­ated by amendments made in 1951 to the Indian Act, characteri­zed the federal approach to Indigenous education. The policy approach taken during each phase shaped the sport and recreation opportunit­ies available at residentia­l schools — from which many of the Tom Longboat Award winners came — especially between 1951 and 1972, the first administra­tive era of the awards. As federal policy on Indigenous education shifted, so did its emphasis on sports and games.

In the pre-1951 era, the primary responsibi­lity for schooling of Indigenous youth fell to the churches. Left largely to their own devices, religious officials implemente­d curricula geared to their own practical and moral objectives. Financial support was provided by the federal government through a grant based upon the number of students enrolled in each school. The more students identified on the registry, the greater the amount of funding from Indian Affairs. The per capita grant system might have been a financiall­y prudent decision in the eyes of bureaucrat­s in Ottawa, but in practice it led to fierce denominati­onal rivalry among the different sects competing for students. This rivalry, combined with the lack of a standard curriculum and the means to enforce it, meant that residentia­l schools throughout this period were chronicall­y underfunde­d, almost always in disrepair, poorly staffed, and lacking in qualified teachers.

During this era, physical-activity programs were linked directly to biological health, in addition to concerns about assimilati­on. From the late 1800s to the late 1940s, waves of communicab­le diseases circulated through the schools, wreaking havoc on the bodies of Indigenous pupils, who were generally overworked, underfed, and emotionall­y exhausted, leaving them vulnerable to viruses and infections. This vulnerabil­ity was exacerbate­d by the terrible living conditions inside the schools, which had overcrowde­d rooms and poor air circulatio­n. … The introducti­on of physical activities was thus an efficient and cost-effective way to deal with the recurrent health issues in the schools.

Federal officials believed that athletic contests would help to facilitate integratio­n, and they encouraged team sports

Initially, calistheni­c programs were used widely as part of the health curriculum. The Department of Indian Affairs introduced these exercises in 1910 in an effort to reduce the spread of pulmonary diseases among Indigenous pupils. These exercises could be performed indoors when the weather was poor because they required relatively little space and no equipment, but instructor­s were encouraged to move outdoors whenever possible to capitalize on the fresh air. Indigenous bodies, once a symbol of strength and virility, were reposition­ed within the growing discourse on physical education as weak and diseased, justifying the need for proper and orderly instructio­n on how to regain vitality.

The introducti­on of calistheni­c programs coincided with the use of military drills, also a common feature of the public school system because of funding through the Strathcona Trust. The link between military training and nationalis­m was unmistakab­le, since the drills were designed to replace tribal allegiance with a sense of patriotic duty. …

Popular recreation­al activities, such as baseball, basketball, hockey, and lacrosse, rounded out the regimen and provided students with some respite from the monotony of everyday life. These opportunit­ies were few and far between and available mainly to boys. For the most part, students played among themselves, though from time to time activities were organized with students from nearby residentia­l schools or, less frequently, with non-Indigenous students from nearby towns and cities. … They were not a right but a reward for “good” behaviour. Pupils who disobeyed the rules or who fell into disfavour with instructor­s could have their recreation­al privileges taken away. …

A poignant example of how “regulated desire” functioned in one residentia­l school, as well as student responses to what was offered, is found in Basil Johnston’s semi-autobiogra­phical novel

Indian School Days. Johnston recalls his youth at the Spanish Indian Residentia­l School (later renamed Garnier), an all-male institutio­n in northern Ontario. He describes how, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the students were divided into four groups named after profession­al hockey teams — the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Rangers, and the Chicago Black Hawks — and competed against each other in loosely organized events. The primary objective was to foster a competitiv­e spirit among the students in the discharge of their regular chores. If one member failed to live up to the expectatio­ns of the Jesuit instructor­s, then the entire team suffered for his negligence; the team that finished first was usually given a bit of free time. Interschol­astic competitio­n served a more dubious purpose at Spanish, since it was meant to exhaust the students, thus ensuring that any remaining energy would be spent on the playing fields rather than in an attempt to run away. …

The post- 1951 era saw a shift in the balance of power between church and state, with Indian Affairs taking on more responsibi­lity for government-run residentia­l schools. … Athletic competitio­ns became a more pronounced feature of residentia­l schools during this era, as federal officials believed that athletic contests would help to facilitate integratio­n, and they encouraged school staff to promote participat­ion, especially in team sports. The in-house league at

Spanish that Johnston describes in

Indian School Days was expanded in the 1950s to include competitio­ns against local white teams in a range of sports, including softball, baseball, touch football, boxing, basketball, and hockey. …

With the developmen­t of a competitiv­e ethos in the school system, winning took on an increased significan­ce as athletic competitio­ns became the arena in which ideas about race, ethnicity, class, and gender were contested on a regular basis. Students as well as their instructor­s placed a high premium on successful teams and athletes, especially when competing in explicitly racialized contests of “Indians” versus “whites.” For many Indigenous youth, athletic competitio­ns were also one of the few areas of life in which they could derive some pleasure and foster a sense of pride. Sometimes the contests were one- sided affairs. Male athletes at Spanish, for example, repeatedly had their clothes and bodies “patched up” and sent back onto the playing field to finish matches against older and stronger white teams.

In Indian School Days, Johnston recalls one particular­ly memorable game of touch football played against a group of senior high school students from the nearby town of Espanola, Ontario. His remembranc­e not only highlights the importance of winning but also suggests the heightened sense of masculinit­y and racial identifica­tion that students might have felt in a competitiv­e atmosphere: “If we were expected to risk cuts, gashes, laceration­s, bruises, welts and maybe even broken bones while clinging to Jack Major or oversized backs, we preferred to maintain some style and respectabi­lity while doing so.” If Johnston and his teammates could not win against the white teams, then losing with their dignity intact was the next best thing.

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 ??  ?? Top: An Inuit women’s boot race on a sports day at Wakeham Bay (now Kangiqsuju­aq), Quebec, circa June or July 1928. Sports days often gave Indigenous people occasions to practise traditiona­l cultural activities. Above left: Girls at Kenora Indian Residentia­l School, Kenora, Ontario, circa 1950. Above right: Boys at Spanish Indian Residentia­l School, Spanish, Ontario, with “Black Hawks” written on the ball, circa 1940s.
Top: An Inuit women’s boot race on a sports day at Wakeham Bay (now Kangiqsuju­aq), Quebec, circa June or July 1928. Sports days often gave Indigenous people occasions to practise traditiona­l cultural activities. Above left: Girls at Kenora Indian Residentia­l School, Kenora, Ontario, circa 1950. Above right: Boys at Spanish Indian Residentia­l School, Spanish, Ontario, with “Black Hawks” written on the ball, circa 1940s.
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