In “Aboriginal People, Resilience, and the Residential School Legacy,” authors Stout and Kipling provide an expansive examination of how Canadians schools so long held to educational practices isolating Aboriginal children in boarding schools distant from their communities and families, creating a system based only on the perceived need for the children to assimilate as Westerners. This is the article’s emphasis, although the authors also stress how, in some children, coping mechanisms developed saving them from the self-destructive behaviors engaged in by many of their peers. Importantly, however, these skills reflected the same cultural identities the system was attempting to eliminate. As the following supports, and despite Stout’s and Kipling’s recognition of how certain children were able to survive and thrive in the Canadian residential schools, the primary point remains that, for well over a century, the government insisted on an educational system damaging to indigenous Aboriginal culture and students, intolerant of childhood needs, and ultimately an expression of colonial ideologies of repression.
When the article is taken in as a whole, one reality dominates. The Canadian demand that Aboriginal children be removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools was evidently motivated by social and governmental agendas to promote assimilation. Virtually everything Stout and Kipling supports a deliberate strategy seen in how other European and Western societies have often treated the natives over whom they have authority. This in turn is linked to the prevalent European ideal of the Christian faith and ideology as needed to “save” the indigenous people. The article, in fact, traces the history of these residential schools to the direct efforts of Christian religious orders of the past to create them. It seems that children were identified as the population most likely to be converted, as: “Education was the best means of moulding Aboriginal individuals into good Christians with an appreciation for settler mores” (Stout, Kipling, 2017, p. 189). The article notes that the government promised, in the mid-19th century, to provide First Nation communities with their own schools. This did not occur, however, as the ongoing agenda of cultural and religious assimilation remained in place (p. 189). Until only recently, then, the Canadian residential or industrial schools became the mandatory homes for vast numbers of Aboriginal children.
The impacts of these extended efforts were not entirely negative. In any relatively hostile or alien environment, it does happen that some children create personal strategies enabling them to resist external pressures, develop coping skills, and mature into strong adults. Coping strategies themselves may easily be self-destructive, as was the case for many such children in this system, but they may also reflect the resilience seen in survivors of the residential schools. These survivors adapted and took on aspects of autonomy to survive and retain their native identities. As Stout and Kipling observe, the tactics were as well remarkably mature, ranging from covert conversations in their native languages and refusing to inform on other students, to protecting younger children from abuse (p. 192). These children then constructed safe environments within the hostile one of the school which drew upon resiliency and survival skills saving them from harmful behaviors in later life. The implication here supports how in any setting in which children face oppression in some form, there are invariably some children who defy the situation and rise above the oppression.
The survivor population notwithstanding, however, the greater reality is that the consistent efforts of the government and the religious factions relentlessly pursued what may only be called assimilation. It is evident that children are innately vulnerable, and that external social forces have complex emotional and psychological impacts on them. The processes were unconscionable: “Students were made to feel ashamed of their ancestry, while teachers…sought to reinforce the innate superiority of ‘white’ society and values” (p. 190). Then, and inevitably, this system had wider effects, equally negative. Families suffered multiple traumas as children were literally taken from their parents, and those parents knew the forms of abuse their children would face. The article even notes that parents were sometimes not informed when their child died at school, just as survivors have not been immune to cycles of perpetuating the abuse they experienced (p.191). These impacts on children and families then must link to damage to Aboriginal communities, as all communities rely on families as their basic social units. No matter some evidence of successful survival strategies, then, the greater reality is that the Aboriginal residential school system essentially violated multiple human rights, and through the even more unethical exploitation of children.
On a personal level, I found the article to be both informative and disturbing. It is always difficult to confront historical truth which reveals unacceptable governmental policies, and policies maintained until only recently. I also believe that the subject of the Aboriginal schools demands greater attention, and in a way expanding on what Stout and Kipling offer here. More exactly, it would be interesting to learn about whatever efforts were made over the years, from settlers or Aborigines, to defy this unjust system. Similarly, I would like to know the ways in which the government presented reasons for this system, as well as what social tides worked to finally oppose it. Lastly, it would be interesting as well to see how this research could be integrated into wider studies of childhood abuse in general, as the school abuse was noted as psychological, physical, and sexual. Ultimately, nonetheless, I feel this is a fascinating article.
- Kennedy, R. (Ed.). (201). Reading in Sociology, 2nd Ed. Toronto, Canada: Nelson Education.