The Fight Against Indian Residential Schools
- Sheldon Krasowski, Office of the Treaty Commissioner | July 22, 2021
The Office of the Treaty Commissioner Library and Archives houses documents that relate to all aspects of Treaty and that includes Treaty Education. Although Indian Residential Schools operated in Canada for more than a hundred years, First Nations opposed them from the beginning and continually fought to have them closed. The first National Indigenous political organization to fight for the education rights of Indigenous Peoples was the League of Indian Nations.
The League of Indian Nations was started by Frederick O. Loft (Onondeyoh) in December 1918. Loft was from Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario, and he had been advocating for better education for Indigenous peoples since the early 1900s. In 1909 he wrote an essay for Saturday Night magazine criticizing Canada’s Indian Residential School program.
Loft wrote that Indigenous “children are housed in a congested state that is often unsanitary and comfortless. These schools prove veritable death traps where children are susceptible to disease.” During Loft’s time at residential schools, he was always hungry despite plenty of food in the farms and gardens – even to the point where “he was too hungry to be able to walk, let alone work.” Loft even suggested that “the failure of residential schools was anticipated by the designers.”
A colleague of Loft’s with the League of Indian Nations, Reverend Edward Ahenakew, agreed. Ahenakew was the President of the Western Branch of the League, and in 1918 he wrote in the Saskatoon Daily Star that Indian Residential Schools “neither met the requirements for education, nor were they supposed to.”
Ahenakew reminded readers of the newspaper, that “According to the terms of our Treaty with the government, any Indians that wanted a school were to have it.” He noted that the ten First Nations west of Battleford had only two schools between them. The text of the Western Numbered Treaties states: “Her majesty agrees to maintain schools for instruction in such reserves hereby made as to Her Government of the Dominion of Canada may seem advisable, whenever the Indians of the reserve shall desire it.” As Ahenakew reminded everyone in 1918, schools were to be provided in First Nations communities for those who desired it. The Indian Residential School system which forced children from their home communities to attend church run boarding schools, is a breach of Treaty.
During the 1921 convention of the League of Indian Nations at Thunderchild First Nation, Ahenakew proposed the first motion that the Western Chiefs, “support the league’s efforts to secure better education facilities for the Indians of Canada.” Unfortunately, pressure from the Department of Indian Affairs eventually silenced the League and it was disbanded a few years after the Thunderchild convention.
The Department of Indian Affairs’ draconian policies were in full force during this period. The ban on Indigenous ceremonies was in place. The pass and permit system developed by Indian Commissioners Hayter Reed and Edgar Dewdney confined Indigenous peoples to reserves. And attendance by children at Indian Residential Schools was strictly enforced by Indian Agents and the police.
Despite these restrictions, the First Nations leadership continued to fight against Indian Residential Schools. After many years of resistance, Edward Ahenakew’s motion at the League of Indians Nations 1921 convention was realized when the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) was formed in 1968. They adopted the “Indian control of Indian education policy” which eventually led to closing down residential schools and returning control of the education system back to First Nations. The NIB eventually became the Assembly of First Nations, but the struggle to end the Indian Residential School program continued until 1996 when the last school run by the Christian churches finally closed its doors.