House of Commons Debates from the 4th Session of the 13th Parliament on Residential Schools

At present as part of my candidacy proposal/dissertation work, I am doing something kind of akin to archival research, which is reading Hansard transcriptions. More specifically, I am reading through Canadian House of Commons debates to try and fill in some of the governmental process behind changes to the Indian Act with respect to First Nations education.

I came across some significant dialogue about residential schools today. The spirit and intent of what I’ve been reading (and copying verbatim in a lot of cases) is not previously unknown to me.  Nevertheless, it serves as an important reminder of how the Canadian government functioned at the time. What follows are excerpts from the 4th session of the 13th Parliament, which took place June 8th 1920 and I’ve cobbled together into a narrative.

MP Johnson discusses two letters he received from the principal of Gordon’s Indian Boarding school in Punnichy, Saskatchewan; the from 1918 and the other dated February 3rd 1920.  The letters outline the conditions of the school, which was built around 1892. Commenting on the first letter, MP Johnson stated,

“In the spring of 1918 I received a letter from the principal of the school asking that I should have this matter brought to the attention of the Government. The war being on, I replied to the effect that I did not think it would be possible that the Government would take into consideration at the time and I did not feel like asking them to do so.”

Commenting on the structure of the building in his 1920 letter, the principal said,

“The floors are worn out, the basement, so long without drainage (up to 1914), is unsanitary, the window frames are decayed, the roof leaking, the chimneys unsafe; there is no heating system, eleven stoves have to be kept up, there is no water supply, water for laundry, baths and scrubbing, having to be drawn from a lake two miles distant, about fifteen barrels a week; water for cooking from a well half a mile distant; there is no room in building for isolation of a pupil suffering from any infectious or contagious disease, a staff-room having to be given up for that purpose when occasion requires. During the Flu epidemic in 1918, there were fifty-one pupils lying ill in the dormitories, and there was not one sanitary closet in the building; a man had to be hired to empty pails and disinfect them, from the boys’ dormitory, and the ladies of the staff, in addition to nursing and care of the sick, had to do this work in the girls’ dormitories.”

Saskatchewan’s Inspector of Schools, J. G. McKechnie, upon a visit to the school declared that “the buildings and equipment are quite inadequate for the purposes of the school.”   Furthermore, he continues,

“The danger of fire in the present building, lighted as it is by kerosene lamps and heated by stoves and without an adequate water supply is very great. It is providential that no tragedy has so far occurred. The Federal Authorities should be vigorously informed that a new and up-to-date school building is absolutely necessary for carrying on this important work” [I am assuming he means Christian education, which he mentioned in the previous paragraph].

The points of the two men above were again reiterated by MP Johnson to the rest of the House:

“This school building, besides being unsanitary, is wholly inadequate to accommodate nearly all the children who desire to attend. There are other reserves close to the Gordon’s reserve without school buildings and the children from these reserves would attend this school if there was room to accommodate them. These children are growing up without a chance of getting an education.”

MP Meighten, in his response to MP Johnson said that Gordon’s Indian Boarding School “is not the property of the department. It is the property of the Church of England and is conducted by them. The direct obligation of the department is to provide a measure of sustenance per pupil that we provide generally in such case. That is done in this case.”

Based on further commentary in the transcript, the House did not opt to make improvements to this school because they did not own it. I’m not entirely certain, but it seems as though the school was constructed as part of the movement to “kill the Indian in the child” through the mandatory attendance at residential schools, which makes me believe the government was responsible for maintenance as well.

This is also a clear, undisputed documentation about how the physical structuring of the buildings was inadequate, and that even with knowledge of disease transmission students in the schools were at risk of infecting each other due to the proximity of healthy and ill children. This is not the first time this information presented to the House of Commons either: Dr. P. H. Bryce’s 1907 report on Indian Residential Schools in Manitoba and  the North West Territories was buried because it showed how high the fatality rates in IRS were.

But there is no history of colonialism in Canada, right?

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