submission info
Why Has This Six-Year-Old
Aboriginal Girl Left Home?

by Dan Lukiv

please note: this introductory story,
"A Residential School Experience", is from
(a Capilano College-based website, by Valerie Conrad)

We have to change our clothes right away, and give everything we brought from home to the sisters. [I'm six.] They are going to take care of us. They don't look too friendly. They are nuns, but we have to call them sisters. All of them wear grey dresses. Some of them are fat, others skinny. They even give us numbers. I'm number ten. Number ten is written on all the clothes they gave me. Our numbers are like our names, so if they want a certain kid, they just call that number. All the kids dress the same.

I wonder how my brother is doing. He's five years old. We were separated when we got off the bus. Boys on one side. Girls on the other. At least I have my sister. She's the oldest of us. She's seven.

The cafeteria is the biggest room I've ever seen. Hey, there's my brother. I'll go sit beside him. These food trays are heavy. I have to balance my tray. The girl ahead of me drops hers, and the nun yells at her. Can't wait to talk to my brother. He's the smallest boy. An angry voice calls for me to sit in the junior girls' section. My brother has tears in his eyes.

There are six girls in my dorm. I don't know why my sister and I are in different dorms. I ask if we could be together, but the nun gives me an unfriendly stare, and doesn't say a word. I don't understand.

It's bedtime. All the girls get a rosary. We have to say our thirty "Hail Mary's," four "Our Father's," and a couple of others. Am I ever going to learn all these prayers? I hear some girls in my dorm say we have to learn them, because if we don't, the nun says we'll go to hell. Yikes! I better learn all those prayers.

The rosary isn't helping me fall asleep. I begin thinking about my granny. What am I going to do without her? I'll miss her. I loved sleeping at her and grandpa's house. They used to make a bed for me on the floor close to them. I slept on top of a caribou fur. Warm and cozy. In the morning my grandpa lit the fire, and I got up when it was nice and warm...

It's morning. We dress and go for breakfast. I'm number ten, so I have to be tenth every time we line up. My sister is number eight. She's close by. In the cafeteria, we are happy to see my brother.

Something odd happens this morning. The nun inspects the way we make our bed. If it's not done right, she strips it, and we have to start over. It takes a long time to make a bed. One corner is out, so she strips my bed. I am angry. I feel like crying, but I don't. She also gives me extra chores to do because my bed wasn't perfect.

In the afternoon, we get playtime. I'm playing jacks by the stairs. Another little girl is sliding down the stairs. She is having fun and laughing. Then the nun comes. She starts yelling at us, and starts getting upset with me. She squeezes me by the arm, and I have a hard time keeping my feet on the floor. She is hurting me. She yells as she takes me to her room, and I feel terrible because all the other girls are staring at me. That room scares me. Sometimes I hear other girls screaming from there. In her room, she begins beating me with my own runner. In my whole life, I have never felt such pain, but I don't cry. Finally I realize if I don't cry, she is going to keep hurting me. That's when I begin crying. I have never cried so hard in my life. I want my mommy.

why has this six-year-old Aboriginal girl left home to live in a residential school? The answer, in short, is what Gulliver brags about to the king of the giant Brobdingnags. Gulliver swells to speak of England's "trade, and wars by sea and land, of...schisms in religion, and parties in the state [among other things]".1

The king, "after an hearty fit of [sarcastic] laughing", says that Britons have "their titles and distinctions of honour; they contrive little nests and burrows, that they call houses and cities; they make a figure in dress and equipage; they love, they fight, they dispute, they cheat, they betray."2 The king is describing British Imperialism--the fire in Gulliver's heart. How does it relate to the Indian girl's going to a residential school? I'll add Timothy J. Stanley's comment about Imperialism to what the king says: "Imperialism and racism went hand in hand. Imperial expansion required the subjugation of the peoples already inhabiting the land. In Canada, expansion was not a peaceful process, but was carried out by the same means employed in other parts of the British Empire: troops, gunboats, police, government agents, civilian traders and missionaries."3

The Federal Government of Canada used missionaries and residential schools to promote Imperialisim, to teach the White man's ways and the White man's religions [to Imperialize Aboriginals]. Jean Barman explains this governmental direction: "In 1885 the newly established School Branch of the Department of Indian Affairs laid down a...curriculum [for Aborginal children. The curriculum]...proclaimed [the] federal goal of Aboriginal people's assimilation...."4 Assimilation into what? Stanley puts it this way: "Between 1885 and 1925 textbooks presented...students with..."wider knowledge" in order to instill patriotic feelings. The "wonderful acts" of "national growth," that is, Britain's imperialistic expansion, linked Canadian classrooms [including residential schools] to the Empire."5

"[The missionaries and their] churches believed, and the department of Indian Affairs concurred," says Barman, "that Christianity [from Britain] and civilization were coterminous and, more specifically, that civilization was a White perogative. To Christianize [through the major players: the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches] an Indian was to civilize him, and to civilize him was to socialize him into the dominant culture [Imperialistic Canada]."6

Naturally, those Aboriginal students needed to learn English if they were to be truly Imperialized. "Aboriginal children were expected, once in school, totally to abandon their Aboriginal tongue in favor of English...."7 The adandonment of their mother language contributed to their cultural genocide. The time line that ends with such genocide begins "at the beginning of the white man's rule...[when] Aboriginal people were confined to reserves, most of them far away from schools. When the government was finally forced to do something about the lack of educational facilities, the solution was a partnership between church and state to set up residential schools. Children were removed from their communities and placed in an alien environment that almost destroyed their culture and their language; we call it cultural genocide."8

Why did these children leave "an affectionate environment without restraints or punishments[, with its] and band" to become Imperialized in "a closely regulated alien environment"?9 Barman notes that "an early...public teacher reported that "it will be a difficult matter to get them [Aboriginals] to attend school as their respected progenitors believe them to be as well off without book learning as with it."10 Many an Indian agent reported that "parents see in education the downfall of all their most cherished customs."11 So, again, why did Aboriginal children go to, and why did their parents send them to, residential schools?

Barman provides insight. "Aboriginal parents...sent their children...,as one former pupil put it, "to learn White people's ways."12 A woman born in 1931 remembered her mother's words: "You're going to have to learn to read and write because when you grow up you're going to have to get a job [in a White man's world].""13

My original question is "Why has this six-year-old Aboriginal girl left home to live in a residential school?" The generic answer is to learn the ways of the White man. But there are other answers--to forget the language of her ancestors, to become a British Canadian, to become a Canadian patriot, and, literally, to become a good Imperialist in "a White supremacist society."14 Doesn't the answer depend on the point of view of the person asking my question?

In spite of problems/nightmares related to residential schools--"Recent critics of residential schools have very persuasively drawn attention to a range of unacceptable practises from prohibitions on speaking Aboriginal languages to incidents of physical and sexual abuse, and to the consequences for the quality of Aboriginal life in Canada into the late twentieth century"15 --Gulliver, no doubt, even armed with knowledge of such woes, would have applauded the concept of Imperializing Aboriginals. But that giant, that king of the Brobdingnags, who was "struck with horror at the description [Gulliver had given of English cannons that had often silenced anti-Imperialistic voices]", would likely have found residential schools and their problems another reason to be "struck with horror.…"16


1 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (London, England: Penguin Classics, 1985), 145, 146
2 Ibid., 146.
3 Timothy J. Stanley, "White Supremacy And The Rhetoric Of Educational Indoctrination: A Canadian Case Study," in Jean Barman, Neil Sutherland and J. Donald Wilson, eds., Children, Teachers & Schools: In the History of British Columbia (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1995), 40.
4Jean Barman, "Schooled For Inequality: The Education Of British Columbia Aboriginal Children," in Jean Barman, Neil Sutherland and J. Donald Wilson, eds., Children, Teachers & Schools: In the History of British Columbia (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1995), 62.
5 Hugh Cunningham, "The Language Of Patriotism, 1750-1914," History Workshop: A Journal of Socialist Historians, No. 12 (Autumn 1981), 8-33, cited in Stanley, "White Supremacy…", 43.
6Jean Barman, "Separate And Unequal: Indian And White Girls At All Hallows School, 1884-1920," in Jean Barman, Neil Sutherland and J. Donald Wilson, eds., Children, Teachers & Schools: In the History of British Columbia (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises Ltd., 1995), 342.
7Barman, "Schooled For Inequality...", 66.
8 Bridget Moran, cited in Barman, "Schooled For Inequality...", 73, Justa: A First Nations Leader (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1994), 155-6.
9 Barman, "Separate And Unequal...", 342.
10Thomas Leduc, teacher at Lillooet, to John Jessop, Lillooet, 8 January 1876, in British Columbia Superintendent of Education, Inward Correspondence, cited in Barman, "Schooled For Inequality...", 70.
11Department of Indian Affairs, Annual Report, 1888, 104, cited in Barman, "Schooled For Inequality...", 70.
12 Clara Clare, in Barman, Herbert and McCaskill, Indian Education, v. 1, 112, cited in Barman, "Schooled For Inequality...", 70.
13 Ruth Cook, quoted in Dorothy Haegert, Children of the First People (Vancouver: Tillicum, 1983), 21, cited in Barman, "Schooled For Inequality...", 70,
14 Stanley, "White Supremacy...", 39.
15Barman, "Schooled For Inequality...", 57.
16 Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 175.

Dan Lukiv is a poet, novelist, short story writer, and article writer. He and his wife are raising three girls in Quesnel, BC, where he teaches creative writing at McNaughton Centre. He also edits a literary journal, CHALLENGER international, which focuses attention on young, up-and-coming Canadian poets.

read his book The Germans From Dortmund online.

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