Residential Roots

Stephen Henighan

From the early 188s until 1996 Indigenous children in Canada were taken away from their parents and interned in residential schools. The children were prohibited from speaking their languages, trained to despise their culture, fed a poor diet, taught an impoverished curriculum, forced to perform manual labour and catechized with the Christian religion. In nearly all of these schools, as documented by the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, children were physically and sexually abused by their teachers. These experiences left many residential school survivors unfit for adult life. In addition to the annihilation of cultures and languages, the system’s legacies include family breakdown, unemployment, mental illness and substance abuse.

No adult Canadian today was taught this history in school. When we asked our teachers about social problems among Indigenous people, the more liberal ones gave answers such as, “They’re trying to preserve a stone-age culture.” Less enlightened teachers eschewed condescension for flat-out racist stereotyping. Our ignorance of the residential school system lent apparent credence to racist explanations for the social problems suffered by Indigenous people. Books such as Richard Wagamese’s novel Indian Horse (212) or Joseph Auguste Merasty’s memoir The Education of Augie Merasty (215) hadn’t yet been written. To learn about racism, we were given Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (196) and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961)—books that taught us that racism happened in the USA, not Canada, and in the past, not the present.

It is impossible to imagine what Canada would be like today had the residential school system never existed: would we have a country in which two million people, rather than the current 2,, speak Indigenous languages? Would social problems among Indigenous people be no more widespread than among other sectors of the population? Such speculation overlooks the fact that the residential school system was part of a complex of colonial policies, including reservations, disdain for treaties and the targeted importation of European settlers. The schools did not exist in isolation. Indigenous intellectuals urge the use of the term “colonial” to contextualize the residential schools. Some politicians have adopted this usage. In his apology to former students of the residential schools of Newfoundland and Labrador, delivered in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on November 24, 217, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognized that “we know today that this colonial way of thinking led to practices that caused deep harm.”

The Canada that implemented the residential school network in the 188s as official policy (scattered residential schools operated in earlier generations) was only fifteen years past Confederation. Colonial assumptions were a potent everyday reality. Yet to interpret the roots of residential schools purely in terms of colonialism is to decontextualize them. The conquest of Indigenous America by Europeans is a hemispheric phenomenon that extended from the southern tip of Chile to Ellesmere Island. This history passed through recognizable stages, often characterized by parallel developments in different regions.

The initial impact of European settlement in the Americas, in the sixteenth century, was the death of approximately ninety percent of the Indigenous population from European diseases, abetted by forced labour and bouts of outright slaughter. By the late seventeenth century, though, the Indigenous population began to grow again. In much of the Americas, including many regions of Canada, Indigenous cultures maintained their worldviews, languages and customs (Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau’s novel L’amant du Lac [213] portrays this pre-residential schools Indigenous society in its northwest Quebec variant). It is risky to claim that European racism was less virulent in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than it later became, yet there is reason to believe that this is the case. Certain governments in the Americas, such as the dictatorship of Dr. Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814–4) in Paraguay, or the presidency of Rafael Carrera (1844–48, 1851–65) in Guatemala, became well known for defending Indigenous communities and their languages.

The adoption of positivism by elites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries destroyed this recovery. Based on the French philosopher Auguste Comte’s application of scientific method to the perception of reality, positivism in its Western hemisphere form morphed into prescriptive social policy animated by a pseudo-scientific dogma of white racial superiority. The two countries most invested in neoEuropean identity, Argentina and the United States, started genocidal wars against their Indigenous populations, known respectively as the Conquest of the Desert (1875–84) and the Indian Wars (186–late 189s). In 1881 Chile launched renewed campaigns to subdue the Mapuche people, who had never submitted to government control. Two Brazilian followers of Comte, Miguel Lemos and Raimundo Teixeira Mendes, made his doctrines so popular in their homeland that in 1889 the Comtean motto “Order and Progress” was added to Brazil’s flag. In Mexico and Central America, anticlerical, free-market liberalism took power, in a movement known as La Reforma, and passed legislation depriving Indigenous communities of their lands. La Reforma represented white elites though it was not always led by them: the first Mexican president associated with this movement, Benito Juárez (1858–72), was a native speaker of Zapotec; the second, Porfirio Díaz (1876–191), was a mestizo who wore make-up to lighten his skin.

The hemispheric context reveals the roots of the residential school system. In mid-nineteenth-century Canada, the influential philosopher W.D. LeSueur fused Comtean positivism with a passionate idealism. Though Christians did not approve of LeSueur’s materialism, and the authors of the notorious Indian Advancement Act of 1884, which deprived Indigenous people of their autonomy, did not quote him, LeSueur’s thought, a recognizably Canadian variant on the positivism sweeping the hemisphere, is expressive of the intellectual foundations of the residential school project. Destroying Indigenous cultures, along with tightening control over the national territory through the extension of railways and telegraph lines, was a positivist policy from Patagonia to Dawson City. Residential schools may have reflected colonialist convictions of white superiority, but these convictions were nourished by an ideology that was hemispheric. The residential school system, its goals and consequences, cannot be understood without an awareness of the common positivist outlook of governing classes throughout the Western hemisphere.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.


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