Schooling Small Canadian Minds


I didn’t know about any of this. They didn’t tell us when we got here. We didn’t learn about it in school.

That was my mother-in-law referring to the mass grave of 215 children found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. Well, that was my former mother-in-law. I was divorced more than twenty years ago but still talk to my mother-in-law regularly. She might be the kindest person I know. Maybe. I know a lot of kind Canadians. She arrived in Canada at age nine from Macedonia with her mom, dad and older sister. She and her sister attended Glen Ames Public and then Monarch Park Secondary schools in Toronto.

Elders such as former Senator Murray Sinclair, who served as the chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are warning more burials will be discovered. The Commission estimated the dead residential school children at over 4,000. That’s one in fifty pupils. Some observers are noting that Kamloops was open for almost 80 years meaning an average of only 2 to 3 dead children per year. Many other people are saying that it is not socially acceptable to rationalize death like this even if tuberculosis was then rampant.

Disease wasn’t the British Empire’s only weapon though. And at the schools, neglect may have been a bigger factor. But germ warfare was a British strategy in North America even if your history teacher refused to discuss it. We have towns named for the perpetrators. Ever heard of Amherstburg, Ontario? It was named for British North American Commander-in-Chief Jeffery Amherst. Lord Amherst’s letters discuss spreading smallpox among Indigenous North American peoples with “genocidal intent” according University of Massachusetts (at Amherst) Political Science Professor Peter d’Errico.

It could be that the stories about genocide and Jeffery Amherst’s war strategies are less restrained in the United States than in Canada, where the Lord and Commander-in-Chief remained on the side of reason and law. From my experience, through the 1990s these types of “seditious” tales about British and Canadian genocide stayed out of lesson plans, at least in Canada’s largest province Ontario. In elementary and secondary school and introductory history at university. I stopped taking the subject after first year because of history’s failure to take itself seriously. Anthropology was preferable. I read history but left the prescribed curriculum behind.

When Ontario’s Ministry of Education introduced head-to-head competition for public and separate school courses, it also began a program of unacknowledged censorship. The province’s textbook catalogue Circular 14 was a nationally relevant serial distributed across Canada. Ontario’s textbooks became the country’s de-facto textbooks. It’s my estimate that as many as 450 books were covertly censored just from the 1960s to 1980s using a combination of staged peer review, falsified rejection letters and evaluation confidentiality. I have discovered 87 books so far whose authors and publishers were not judiciously rewarded for their efforts.

1989 Circular 14 Catalogue of Approved Textbooks, Ontario.

Many generations of school children were tricked into loathing Canada’s original cultural diversity, its economics and identities, whether they were Indigenous residential or day school attendees, or immigrants. Why? Thomas Wells, Minister of Education from 1972 to 1978 under Premier Bill Davis, probably summed it up best.

Indians don’t get very good treatment in our school history texts…We won, after all, and to the victors go not only the spoils, but also the opportunity to write the history.1

Until very recently, this was how Canadian history and social studies education was filtered. Baby Boomer and Generation X Canadians suffered under a white supremacist textbook catalogue by design. Teachers, students and parents didn’t know. Unlike films rated and censored at Ontario’s Film Review Board, the Ministry of Education suppressed books in secret.

In Canada, education was a weapon on par with germ warfare and starvation. The effects are known to critics and officials alike. Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist from Martinique and undercover fighter in Algeria’s struggle for independence from French colonialism, explained the terrible effects of settler curriculum on Indigenous people in his book The Wretched of the Earth. There is demoralization. There is alienation.

The Atlantic powers play coy but Canada, the United States and Britain fought for decades as a bloc with other settler societies internationally against cultural forms of genocide, like school, from being included in the official terminology. Diplomats show up at United Nations forums with a good understanding of the big picture.


It is possible to review what publishers were up against when making a submission in Ontario. Toronto-based James Lewis & Samuel submitted Heather Robertson’s Reservations Are For Indians shortly after its original publication in 1970. Robertson, who passed away in 2014, was a CBC radio producer and previously reported for the Winnipeg Tribune newspaper. For the book, Robertson visited and interviewed people in four communities.

1970 Edition Front Cover

One of the towns Robertson visited was Norway House, Manitoba on Little Playgreen Lake. This is 457 km North from Winnipeg as the Beaver flies. Norway House was a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post. There was also a residential school. Norway House Residential School was operated 1900-46 by the Methodist Missionary Society before burning down. A new residential school was then run from 1952 to 1965 by the United Church before being phased out. A day school was begun in the 1850s and then again in 1967 according to the United Church Archives.

Second Norway House Residential School. United Church Archives.

Heather Robertson provided a grim description of the Norway House Residential School.

The residential school grabs the Indian children out of their homes at the age of six and locks them up in an ugly, dark, cabbage-stinking barracks ten months of the year for ten years. The children sleep in tiny white iron cots in large dormitories, side by side. There is no privacy.2

One teacher at the school didn’t appear kind or considerate.

One boy, who seemed a bit slow but by no means an idiot, has an IQ of three, I was told by the teacher in the school.3

Robertson also wrote about the Assumption (Hay Lakes) Residential School in Assumption, Alberta run by the Catholic Church. But Canadian schoolchildren were prevented from learning about this iconic part of British and Canadian history. Details were kept out of the catalogue surreptitiously. This was a country-sized social engineering project. The project could have been named “Forgetting the First 15,000 Years.”

Reservations Are For Indians back cover

Five of its six reviewers recommended that Reservations Are For Indians be approved for school use. Even one of the education officers approved. They were usually more critical than the external consultants in the peer group. The assigned evaluation manager though alerted his superior about Robertson’s description of Dominion City, Manitoba’s leading men being locked up for “keeping a chain gang of girls” and of an Indian urinating on a pool table “with a fine fountain-like spray.” The word “shit” appeared in the text. Branch Director Crossley advised that “we cannot approve profanity” even if that’s not what the guidelines said.

Publisher James Lewis & Samuel resubmitted the book in 1971. But the subsequent submission did not even result in the book being granted a review. James Lorimer published a new edition in 1991. If it was resubmitted for evaluation in Ontario, Circular 14 has no record of it being approved for the following five years.

What are the consequences for a Canadian society that doesn’t even know or respect itself? Former Chief Justice of Ontario Sidney B. Linden, who chaired the province’s Ipperwash Inquiry, said that public education was seen by all as critical for greater understanding between peoples.

The need for localized or regional public education is particularly important to help diffuse or mitigate local conflicts. The risk of violence at an Aboriginal occupation or protest increases when the local non-Aboriginal population, especially those immediately affected by the direct action, have little knowledge or understanding of the rights at issue.4

My mother-in-law was also down because, having worked for part of her career at a Toronto hospital, she regularly witnessed the type of verbal abuse from unkind nurses that 37-year-old Joyce Echaquan filmed just prior to her death in Joliette, Quebec last September. “It’s typical.” There was an automatic stigma attached to Indigenous people. They were assumed to be high on drugs, whether alcohol or something else.

In my mom’s opinion the prejudice against Canada’s original people at her job was “far worse” than that suffered by Black people at the hospital. The comparison was for my benefit because half of my family is Black. She knew before I did that I would wonder. No offence intended and none taken. My mom has Indigenous Facebook friends and couldn’t understand why Canadians were so mean. I didn’t know what to say. We could be kinder and more understanding. I hope we are in the future.


  1. McConkey, W.G. “Where the Good Guys Weren’t So Good, and the Baddies Hardly Ever Bad….” Durban Daily News, April 11, 1973. Dr. McConkey was a retired education official from South Africa visiting his daughter who was studying at Carleton University in Ottawa. McConkey had previously served as Director of Education for the Province of Natal.
  2. Robertson, Heather. (1970). Reservations Are For Indians. Toronto: James Lewis & Samuel, 58.
  3. Ibid, 59.
  4. Sidney B. Linden, Report of the Ipperwash Commission, Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General (Toronto: Government of Ontario, 2007), 156.