This is a rewrite of the the article originally published for linchpin, it ties things together better and adds new information that better contextualizes res-schools.
On June 11th 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, claimed to apologize for residential schools and the government’s plan to destroy the cultures of Indigenous peoples in Canada. This apology came after a similar apology was given to indigenous people in Australia. Residential or boarding schools were part of colonial policy in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada. Harper’s apology talked about the abuses and cultural assimilation of Indigenous peoples in Canada by the Canadian government, especially the forced removal of children from their families. However, there is so much that Harper did not say. What he left out was that the residential schools were just one aspect of colonization.
On September 25th 2009, before the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada had no history of colonialism. According to Harper, this made Canada the envy of the world. So in just over a year Harper has shown that in the eyes of the government residential schools can be viewed as a single event, an abnormality of Canadian history, rather than as an institution that symbolizes the basic policy of Canadian state towards the majority of Indigenous peoples.
Residential schools were run by churches, led by the Department of Indian Affairs for most of their existence. They focused on a total approach to assimilation: physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. The Indigenous children stolen from their families were to be made into Canadians by force. The curriculum was created to allow the destruction of Indigenous ways of living on the land. The idea of “killing the Indian and saving the man,” was really about making way for capitalist ways of living on the land. In essence, residential schools aimed at handing over Indigenous land to corporations and turning Indigenous people into workers. Since Canadian society was based on private property while most Indigenous communities held the land in common, residential schools taught skills for private property ownership and taught the values of a capitalist society to the children. In the mind of the churches and the government, the Indigenous person was to become a settler and worker for the ruling class. But always these workers were expendable if they took jobs from white workers.
The residential schools were first called Manual Labour or Industrial schools and this says a lot about their actual purpose. The schools spent a half day teaching lessons in the classroom, the other half was spent learning trades or housework. The schools aimed to produce workers that were able to be exploited for wages or for their crops. The students were taught to be hard working and obedient like all good white Christian workers. Or in other words, to respect the authority of the church, state and the capitalist bosses. This is the same idea as the workhouse or poorhouse in Europe, to discipline and create the working class. In other words, to develop a mentality that accepts being ordered and is comfortable with submission.
Authority and fear were central to the goals and methods of the residential schools. Indigenous societies were very free and equal. European society on the other hand used discipline and power to control people. Residential schools used power and violence to train Indigenous peoples to submit to settler society and the figures of authority in it. Indigenous peoples were taught to behave like white people or face punishment, just like all settler children are taught to behave or face punishment. Those who ran residential schools argued that Indigenous parents did not exercise proper authority over their children.
The residential school curriculum tried to destroy Indigenous languages in order to remove the people from the land. This created a cultural barrier between successive generations of speakers and non-speakers which severed the transfer of knowledge in how to live traditionally. The elimination of this knowledge through the teaching of English imposed settler ways of living, because the necessary knowledge to live Indigenous was lost or not transferable. These policies were so successful that language loss is now an experience that is almost universally Indigenous.
Residential Schools also taught sexism and the rule of men over women (patriarchy). Girls were taught to be domestic and remain in the home, while very often Indigenous women had more freedom and could do many jobs outside the home. Women were taught that Christian marriage was right rather than be brought up in a clan system where women’s solidarity and collective power protected women from male oppression. Women were taught to be inferior and this destroyed the backbone of the gender equality in Indigenous societies. This inequality was essential to the development of the working class in all European societies. The production of the Christian nuclear family is the linchpin of capitalist society.
At the same time as being Indigenous children were being put through residential school their families were experiencing the displacement and dislocation of other Indian policies administered by the federal government. Indigenous ceremonies such as the Sundance and potlatch were made punishable because they were very important to the redistributive/prestige economy of particular Indigenous peoples. People would travel great distances to attend ceremonies and often leave their farming responsibilities to participate. The federal government found this behaviour to be a barrier to the civilization of the Indian. The government instituted a pass system which prevent Indigenous people from travelling off their reserves. This served many purposes, including preventing families from visiting children at residential schools, but also to prevent attending ceremonies.
The federal government also continually failed to protect the livelihood of Indigenous people as they attempted to survive in the emerging capitalist economy. They consistently adopted policies which benefited the settler population at the expense of the Indigenous. Whether it was fishing regulations or timber laws, commercial enterprise of the settler was privileged over Indigenous subsistence economies. The federal government through a process of displacement forced Indigenous communities to rely on welfare as they slowly eroded all of the communities’ alternatives and resources to combat poverty independently. The goal was to give Indigenous people two options wage labour or dependency on relief. Residential schools existed as an institution in this overall scheme of destroying the Indigenous societies that used the land before Canadian capitalism.
To wrap up, residential schools were a project to spread capitalism. Residential schools were meant to turn Indigenous peoples into settlers and make them workers and peasants for the capitalist system. Harper will never apologize for the real goals of the residential schools. Many Indigenous peoples, such as the Assembly of First Nations, are even scared to admit how colonized they remain. Really discussing decolonization will require the unsettling of capitalism. Recognizing that colonization and capitalism are the same process shows us that the struggle for Indigenous freedom from the authority of bosses and the government is a natural ally with the anarchist struggle for freedom.