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A Brief History of the Education of First Nations Children: What Should They Learn and How Should They Learn it?

Iram Khan

l ooking back at history, many different social groups from religious to federal governments have taken a stand on the educational needs of First Nations children. Ironically, not until recently, has there been much discussion with the First Nations people themselves. We are now seeing a trend towards Native bands taking control of their own children's education. What everyone would like is the best for the children, but what is best is so different in many people's eyes. There is even disagreement within First Nations communities. Who has the right to decide anything about the education of Native children? What do Native children really need to learn about to become successful members of society?

Determining the needs of First Nations children has been an issue since the Europeans first arrived on this continent. The Europeans did not consider that, prior to their contact, the First Nations people had their own complex form of educating their children. Traditional Native

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"Alberni Indian Residential School Junior Girls", CA.1930, from B.C.Archives

culture places great importance on one's relationship with their physical environment.1 Considering the wide variety of geographical environments of the area now known as Canada, there would have been an equal variety of ways the Natives viewed the land around them. Thus, the content of the children's education would vary accordingly. A few characteristics of children's education that were similar among all the Native groups, though, were the belief of the unity of all aspects of life, including the secular and the sacred; and the high value placed on the responsibilities of family life, especially for educating children holistically.2 In a warm and supporting atmosphere, whch included ceremonies emphasizing the link to the spiritual and the sacred, children were taught respect for all living things, sharing, self-reliance, individual responsibility, and proper conduct.3 Moreover, stories, legends, and myths were used to transmit ethical, theological, historical, ecological, and political information to children from generation to generation. The oral tradition was the way children of all the Native communities learned how the world came to be and their place in it. Through this form of education, the threat of cultural extinction was not an issue; it was consistently an important part of a child's life.

Along with the arrival of the European settlers in the early sixteenth century, came the belief that the "white man" was superior to the Natives. Every aspect of Native life was looked down on. Thousands of years of a way of life suddenly became threatened. The settlers' main goal was at first to take over the Natives' land, and then drive them onto less desirable land (reservations). The settlers viewed the Natives as a nuisance and a threat.4

Soon after the settlers, the Christian missionaries also began to have interractions with the Natives. Their main goal, along with ensuring the spiritual well being of the Europeans, was to convert the Natives to a life of Catholicism or Protestantism. Along with this change of belief came the forceful change of the Natives' language, political structures, and the education of their children. Basically, the road to conversion was seen as a way to "civilize" the First Nations people.5

The migratory habits of many of the First Nations societies, made the missionary conversion attempts difficult. To solve this problem, the Récollets (an order of the Franciscans) began a boarding school arrangement for a few Native boys in 1620. By 1629, the experiment was abandoned. The Récollets found themselves unable to change what was viewed as the boys' uncivilized ways.6 As one of the Franciscans noted "[we] had made a beginning of teaching them their letters, but as they are all for freedom and only want to play and give themselves a good time, as I said, they forgot in three days, what we had taken four to teach, for lack of perserverance and for neglect of coming back to us at the hours appointed them."7 The Franciscans did not realize that play was a way that the Native children learned.

In 1630, the Jesuits took over the Franciscans' experiment. Even though they were more energetic and better trained, they also failed and abandoned their attempts by 1639. Both groups found that it was difficult for Native societies to let their boys go for an education that was not successful. Additionally, the missionaries lost support from the merchants, the military,and ultimately the Natives themselves. The fur merchants relied on the Natives for collecting, processing, and transporting pelts. If they converted to a sedentary lifestyle, the fur merchants would lose a great amount of money that was beginning to come in from Europe. The military saw the Natives as perfectly equipped allies.8 Without them, they would lose to the terrain and competing colonies. The Natives lost their respect for the Europeans quickly. Why would they want to be like the Europeans, who were ugly, feeble, rude, and ill-prepared for the North American environment?9 The government overseas demanded that the Jesuits'/Franciscans' attempts to "educate" the Natives to be dropped. They did not want to cause conflicts with the merchants, the military, or the Natives themselves.

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"Alberni Indian Residential School Junior Boys", CA.1930, from B.C.Archives

As the nineteenth century progressed, Natives were quickly becoming less valued for their cultural attributes.10 Furs were running out and terrain and military techniques were being mastered. The overseas governments became more concerned with the setting up of settlements, so the original complaints of the settlers began to be heard. The Indian Acts of 1876 and 1880 made it clear that self government for Natives was to be abolished, and finance and all social services, including education were to be placed under federal control. Lands that were given to the Natives were to be managed on their behalf until they were "civilized" enough to govern themselves.

The Natives' land around them changed drastically. Buffalo along with other major food sources disappeared in the late 1870's and non-Native settlements increased as the transcontinental railway was completed. The Natives were quickly losing their land and their livelihood. Many Natives began to see the White Man's education system as beneficial.11 They felt there were practical advantages to be acquired through their children's interactions with the now dominant society. A growing number of individuals and bands even asked for the establishment of formal schools. It was simply a question of survival.

The federal government was committed to assimilating, thus "civilizing" the First Nations people. The First Nations people wanted the best for their children, so many of them agreed to send their children to school. In 1879, the federal government looked to the American system of seperate residential schools. The Americans had concluded that Native children were better candidates for assimilation if they were taken away from the "bad" influences of family and community.12 The Department of Indian Affaris was impressed by the success of the American system, so funding was given to the missionaries (of whatever Christian denomination) to upgrade and maintain the existing schools and create new ones. In the eyes of the federal government, the further away the Native children were from their families, the better.

At these schools, the children were taught aspects of English life from dressing to speaking. Attendance was strictly monitored, so that the teachings would not be forgotten. Some schools even bribed their children to come back by giving them food. Curriculum was limited to basic education adn practical training in agriculture, crafts, or household duties. After succeeding somewhat at these skills, many young Natives were permitted to go home to learn about their own cultures. This logic may seem anti-productive, but it was hoped that the children would go back and convert their families' "pagan ways". As many settlers predicted, the exact opposite occurred; the most promising children ended up becoming leaders on their reserves.13 They took the best aspects of thier new knowledge and used them to better their own societies, while still keeping their culture. By the turn of the century, federal officials due to the lack of funding, poor results, and small attendance of these schools, decided to revise this education policy. In 1910, the goal altered from one of assimilation to one of preparing the chlidren for civilized life in their own environment. Thus, the curriculum was simplified even more. A majority of the funding for education was now used for the "White" children.

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"Kamloops. Indian Residential School", 192-, from B.C.Archives

During this time, the Natives became critical of this minimal education. They wanted their children to progress academically, but in schools on the reserves. Native societies were pained when their children went to far away schools for long periods of time.14 Native leaders began to demand day schools on their reserves. For example, in 1911, an elderly Cree Chief wrote to the Governor General requesting that residential schools be replaced by local day schools in order to keep children from being "torn from their mother's arms and homes."15 Six years later a Cree graduate demanded that the funding for Native education be increased to "give the Indian self-respect."16 He further explained that if there were good local day schools with qualified teachers, "regular school attendance would be generally accepted."17 Little, though, changed for decades. More and more Native children were forced to go to far away schools so they could have a fighting chance of survival in the dominant society.

After the Second World War, the federal government finally took the Native leaders' requests into consideration. From 1945 to the late 1950's, the government concentrated on building day schools on reserves. Unfortunately, the schools were primarily involved in elementary education. If Native children wanted to continue their education, they were still forced to leave the reserve. It was not surprising that many students did not continue school past their elementary years.18 Additionally, the quality of education did not improve. Qualified teachers were scarce, even for the "white" schools, so the Natives had to be taught by many teachers who were questionably suited for the job.

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"Mission. Indian Residential School", 188-, from B.C.Archives

The formation of the Native organizations for self determination such as the National Indian Brotherhood and The Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, caused the government to once again become fearful of Native discontent. Thus, the Hawthorn Survey of Indian Conditions was initiated in 1966. This survey recommended continued integration in education along with increased attention by the Department of Indian Affairs to Native interests. Unfortunately, the newly elected government of 1969 came up with the White Paper, which promoted Native equality at the expense of cultural survival.

In 1972, The National Indian Brotherhood presented a paper, titled "Indian Control of Indian Education," to the Minister of Indian Affaris and Northern Development. This paper was accepted by the federal govenment for its general principles. Some major principles were as follows:

This was a big step for the progression of Native education.

Throughout the 1970's, First Nations parents began to have a greater impact on their children's education. Some milestone events that occurred were:

In the 1980's, a new phase of First Nations education opened up. Band-run schools became fully available to Native children. These schools depended on federal funds, but the bands were in control of hiring, curriculum, and administration. Bands turned towards teaching children in thier schools the best of the traditional and non-traditional aspects of life. Unfortunately, as S. Paul states in his essay "The Case for Band controlled Schools," "It is beyond doubt that the present system of Indian education is not working satisfactorily."21 This essay was written in 1984! Even though the face of First Nations education was changing, there still were major problems. In a 1990 article by M. Pape, it was concluded that there was an 80% dropout rate and a 75%-90% unemployment rate among the First Nations people of Canada. Something had to be done.

According to The National Indian Brotherhood, the low self-esteem of Native children is one of the main reasons why they do not do well in school.22 They further conclude that it is impossible for the Department of Indian Affairs ands Northern Development or non-Native teachers to create this positive self image that is needed. However, it is important to note that the band-run schools are also failing to produce successful students. Some reasons are directly tied to the fact that many bands who take over the control of schools do not know how to manage them. Additionally, funding for construction, materials, lab equipment, training band school authorities, and improving school curriculum is inadequate.23 A lot of time and money is necessary for Natives to successfully take over the education of their own children. But, we have to continue to have faith, since the plight of the First Nations people is disgusting to see. This handover of control, if done properly with adequate funding and education, can work; especially since who best to teach First Nations children their own culture than First Nations schools?

Another conflict that has arisen is that many First Nations people do not want to be part of "ethnic Canada," since they are not immigrants and they feel that they are not visible minorities.24 Thus, putting First Nations children in a "multicultural" education system would not be right. Many people across Canada feel that First Nations children should be taught by First Nations Teachers in First Nations schools. Additionally, there is a trend towards viewing Native education as an exception, since they were here pre-European settlement and had their own education system already set up.25

Throughout history, there has been a multitude of different views towards the process, content, and control of the education of First Nations children, and there will continue to be more. As bands gain control over more schools, an increasing number of questions has surfaced again. Some examples of these problematic questions are, who should fund these schools, what should their curriculum contain, do the teachers have to be minimally of First Nations descent, and who has the right to answer these questions? Hopefully these questions will be answered soon, since improving the education of First Nations children can be the first step to improving the lives of Canada's First Nations people to at least the standards of the rest of Canada.


1 Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McCaskill, "The Legacy of the Past: An Overview," In Indian Education in Canada Volume 1: The Legacy eds., Jean Barman, Yvonne Hérbert, and Don McCaskill, (Vancouver: The University of British Columbia Press, 1986), 2.
2 Ibid., 3.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 4.
5 Ibid.
6 J.R. Miller, Shingwauk's Vision: A History of Residential Schools, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 40.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., 60.
9 Ibid., 58.
10 Barman, Hébert, and McCaskill, 4.
11 Ibid., 5.
12 Ibid., 6.
13 Ibid., 7.
14 Ratna Gosh, Redefining Multicultural Education, (Toronto: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996), 25.
15 Barman, Hébert, and McCaskill, 11.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Gerda Kaegi, A Comprehensive View of Indian Education, (Ottawa: National Indian Brotherhood, 1972), 3-9.
19 National Indian Brotherhood, Indian Control of Indian Education, (Ottawa: National Indian Brotherhood, 1972), 3-9
20 Celia Haig-Brown, Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School, (Vancouver: Tillacum Library, 1988), 132.
21 Paul, S. "The Case for Band Controlled Schools," In Canadian Journal of Native Education, 12(1), 1984, 33.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid., 35.
24 Ghosh, 24.
25 Ibid.


Barman, Jean, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McCaskill. "The Legacy of the Past: An Overview," In Indian Education in Canada Volume 1: The Legacy eds., Jean Barman, Yvonne Hérbert, and Don McCaskill. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia Press, 1986, pgs. 1-22.

Gosh, Ratna. Redefining Multicultural Education. Toronto: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996.

Haig-Brown, Celia. Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School. Vancouver: Tillacum Library, 1988.

Kaegi, Gerda. A Comprehensive View of Indian Education. Toronto: Canadian Association in Support of Native Peoples, 1974.

Miller, J.R. Shingwauk's Vision: A History of Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

National Indian Brotherhood, Indian Control of Indian Education. Ottawa: National Indian Brotherhood, 1972.

Paul, S. "The Case for Band Controlled Schools," In Canadian Journal of Native Education, 12(1), 1984, pgs. 31-37.

Iram Khan manages the acclaimed teacher resource website CanTeach

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