This article was published to remind Canadians of our past relationships with indigenous peoples in honour of Canada’s National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21st.
CW/TW: death, physical, emotional and sexual abuse
Violence against a large group of people may be perpetrated on a mass scale, but the experiences and interpretations of violence are no less personal. An individual will have different feelings or outlooks on their experience based on their age, race and gender. This is true of the Canadian Residential School system, as there were many differences between the male and female experience. This is not to say that one victim of residential schools suffered more or less than another, but it highlights the different forms of violence beyond the common definition of physical violence. The evidence suggests that violence in residential schools took many forms, including physical, emotional and spiritual abuse. It occurred through the removal of children from their families, the separation of children by gender, and was then cemented in an education that erased children’s links to their indigenous culture. The content indigenous children were taught served to erase their culture and connections to family, forcing them to fit into Western ideals of class, religion and gender roles. The system then imposed physical disciplining when children did not conform to school rules and created an environment where sexual abuse was rampant. While the testimonies from “The Survivors Speak” report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada give insight into how the violence was systematically perpetrated, they also show notable differences between male and female survivors, including how they were abused, and how they reacted to the abuse they were forced to endure.
The first form of violence occurred when children were separated from their families, which prevented them from forming emotional bonds with parents, grandparents, and even siblings attending the same school. The process of cultural separation in the residential school system began with children’s dislocation from family and entry into a foreign place. Upon arrival, females had their hair cut short while males had their heads shaved bald. For Campbell Papequash, the humiliation started in this moment, as his long, dark hair had been a symbol of his spirituality and his culture, and the experience of having that taken away from him made the separation from his family all the more real. Children were then given English names, which was yet another symbol of having their culture ripped away and replaced by something they were not familiar with (Basil Ambers). From hereon, the female and male experiences diverged, as they were sent to separate dorms and received different educational experiences.
The profound effect of gender separation was highlighted by the testimony of Lucille Mattess, a survivor of the Lejac Indian Residential School who had been separated from her brother and older sister. Her inability to interact with her siblings resulted in a feeling of lacking emotional connection. Certain rules in the residential schools also attempted to prevent students from interacting with the opposite sex, but some students found a way around this in search of comfort and companionship. For example, the boundaries between male and female students did not prevent John Edwards from meeting his future wife. A supervisor caught him sneaking into the female dorm, where he went to tell his future wife that he was in love with her and would never hurt her. Edwards was punished and forced to call his parents to tell them what he had done, while other students received more severe punishments for breaking this rule.
Physical violence was a common form of discipline. Andy Norwegian recalled how a few of his fellow classmates were caught trying to talk to girls: they were forced to strip down to their undershorts and to lay down on a table in the gymnasium where a supervisor beat them with a strap. The punishment was two fold: physical and emotional, as the boys were humiliated publicly, which cemented fear into the minds of others. Interestingly, the experience of separation was intertwined with education, as Western gender norms determined the content taught to students.
Educational experiences in residential schools were tailored to the gender roles that the supervisors wished to see indigenous children fill. Additionally, a strict regimen of religious and practical training was meant to aid in erasing the children’s connection with their culture and family. This attempted erasure through educational means was shocking, intended harm, and was thus violent. Students would often receive some form of academic education for half the day, but during the other half they would be taught the tasks that suited their gender. For male students, this took the form of agriculture. For female students, it meant learning domestic skills such as sewing, cleaning, and cooking Western foods, which were foreign tasks that would not translate back to their indigenous communities.
The emotional abuse toward indigenous girls can also be seen in the control that was exerted over their personal lives. The school supervisors would “out” the girls as labourers to white women as a source of supplemental income, and then, when they became too old to stay in school, would find them husbands (who were often white). In 1953, Violet Beaulieu, a twenty-one year old orphan who was still living at Fort Resolution Residential school, was forced to marry a man by the name of Jonas after she had refused several of the “visitors” that the Sisters had chosen for her. In her testimony, Beaulieu recalls feeling sick at the prospect of the engagement being announced, and that she kept hearing her future sister-in-law’s voice in her head saying, “Don’t say no.” She did not want to marry Jonas, but that was her only option. She was not allowed to return to her community, or to choose when (or if) she wanted to get married. Both the engagement announcement and the wedding took place in a church, a place that held memories of spiritual abuse that young boys and girls endured through religious education in residential schools.
The children’s spiritual traditions were replaced by strict Catholicism or Christianity that enforced praying. The testimonies of female and male survivors differed when they recalled being forced to pray: the majority of female testimonies focused on the physical consequences of the prayer schedule, a condition that Louise Large referred to as “boarding school knees.” Many women recalled the pain of constantly being on their knees, evidence of which took the form of arthritis and calluses that affect them to this day. Conversely, many of the male testimonies included the fear their supervisors imposed on them, which included discussion of how only good boys would go to heaven, as well as a shocking description of hell and the Devil. Fred Brass remembered being shown a picture which depicted heaven and the fiery hell below where the Indian people who looked like him were burning. While these feelings were not exclusive to either gender, they speak to the gendered educational experience they received.
Canadian residential schools also did not offer sufficient sex education: the women who spent their formative years there were often confused by natural biological processes such as giving birth. Furthermore, girls were told little about the changes they would experience during puberty and were often made to feel ashamed of such natural changes. Girls who got their periods for the first time were scared that they would be punished by the nuns for making a mess of their clothing. Once the girls got their periods, they were given rags which were stained from previous use, and they were forced to use the rags while continuing to be confused about what was happening to them. The lack of adequate sex education also affected women as they became mothers, as many confessed that they did not know how to raise their children because they did not have the example of their own mothers or grandmothers.
The institution of the residential school was a biopolitical institution which used a “carceral space” to shape indigenous children into beings that would fit inside their western social order. Therefore, the education children received reinforced their racially predetermined political position and their bodies became machines needed to contribute to agricultural and domestic situations. The white supervisors also kept their power by biological means, as discipline took the form of physical and sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the insufficiencies in sex education produced extreme emotional reactions to natural biological processes and led to further confusion following sexual assault by supervisors.
Sexual abuse both affected and was influenced by other experiences within the residential schools. The lack of education regarding sex affected students when they experienced abuse and it left them with feelings of confusion and shame. Andrew Captain and Elaine Durocher were both sexually abused by supervisors of the opposite sex, and they described how the supervisors first gained their trust before asking them to perform sexual acts. However, the confusion that followed varied. Andrew Captain was unsure of whether the sexual encounters with the staff member were right or wrong, as there was a sense of care and attachment between them. Durocher wondered how her supposedly kind friend could cause her so much pain. The supervisors preyed upon Captain and Durocher while using their positions of power to gain trust, and the victims’ lack of adequate sex education prevented them from understanding their feelings surrounding the experiences they endured.
Another point of difference lies in the students’ description of how the abuse occurred. Many of the female students felt it happened because supervisors would take advantage of their innocence in certain situations, such as rubbing up against them when they sat on their lap. Some were even bribed with an incentive, which taught them to trade sexual favours for money or candy. Unfortunately, Elaine Durocher said that this was the only notable education that she received at Residential School.
Conversely, many of the male students explained that the abuse occurred on a scheduled and systematic basis. For example, Mervin Mirasty was sexually abused by a priest after bringing lunch to the priest’s room. He had not been warned that this would happen to him, but other students were aware of what bringing lunch to the priest meant, as they were smiling mockingly at Mirasty when he returned. Mirasty warned his younger brother never to bring lunch to the priest, and told him what would happen if he did. Unfortunately, his warning could not prevent his brother from being put in the same situation.
Male and female students were abused under different circumstances, and some emotions were more prevalent in one gender than the other. Female students expressed feelings of resilience and/or fear when they were abused. Carole Dawson had the most distinct outlook on her situation, as she claims the abuse led her to become the person that she is. She tried to run away from St Michael’s Residential School after experiencing it there; and as she heard the whimpers of other girls at night while supervisors led them away to be molested. As a result, she became motivated to act. In an attempt with her cousin to help her younger sisters escape the abuse, Dawson heroically diverted the attention of the RCMP so that her younger sister could escape, but was raped by the RCMP officer who caught her before returning her to her school. Dawson held on to her anger and pursued legal action. She was not ashamed or humiliated by her experience: she said that it taught her not to trust authority and that it made her stronger.
For male students, on the other hand, an overwhelming number of testimonies focused on a feeling of humiliation after experiencing sexual abuse. Anthony Wilson remembered that he was “so messed up” after being abused that he was always wanting to hide, and Richard Hall recalled constantly fearing that the older boys would catch him and bring him to the supervisor so that he could be molested. Nevertheless, fear, hiding and humiliation were a common feeling amongst male survivors.
The evidence provided by the testimonies of residential school survivors suggests that experiences of violence differed based on gender, beginning with the physical separation of children from their families, but continuing as children experienced further degrees of separation within the schools based on their gender. The types of education the children received was also gendered, as the institutions practiced “biopolitics” to mold indigenous children into beings that would perform based on the western ideals of gender and race. This separation and education then culminated in the sexual abuse that students were forced to endure and subsequently, the emotional responses to the trauma of being assaulted by the supervisors. This would often lead to future generational trauma.
Through the brutal assault of Chief Allan Adam by an RCMP officer in Fort McMurray on March 10, 2020, and the murder of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi by police officers in New Brunswick on June 4th and 12th respectively, it is clear that racism is entrenched in Canadian institutions. It is systemic. Whether it be the predominantly white perspective from which academic curriculums are written, or a lack of diverse representation in the workplace, or difficult access to public facilities and services such as sports centres and healthcare, indigenous peoples remain one of the least visible and most neglected groups in Canada as well as countries such as the United States and Australia. Not only is it important to address violence against indigenous peoples in the past, but it is crucial to understand how this violence persists in a gendered manner today.
Elisa Pharaon graduated from Simon Fraser University in June 2019, with a major in history. Her interests are Canadian history and politics, as well as the roles that gender and sexuality play in history and culture around the world.
Banner image by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives from Canada, courtesy of Wikipedia.