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LETTER: An immigrant's look at Canada's residential school system

Letter writer asks, 'How did they imagine that what they were doing could ever be accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ?'
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Two little boys go to school for the first time. Neither child nor their parents speak English. One child thrives in school, the other fails to thrive. What happened?

My Polish (refugee) parents entered Canada in 1944. According to my mother, our train arrived at the New York-Quebec border at Rouses Point on my second birthday, July 26.

My parents settled in the province of Quebec because they could speak French. However, they wanted me to learn English, so sent me to English schools in Montreal. At home they spoke Polish. The first time I heard English was at school.

Thus far, the trajectory of the Indigenous boy would have been similar to mine. The first difference would have been the school itself. Although I only remember it dimly, when a teacher saw that I did not understand something, she took the time to explain it. My feeling is that when the Indigenous boy failed to understand he would have been punished, perhaps beaten. It would not have taken long for the Indigenous child to pretend comprehension...

School wasn’t easy for me, because I was a visible minority. I was as Caucasian as the rest of the kids, but my Salvation Army clothing, would have been the height of fashion in 1920. I recall being bullied by the bigger boys for no other reason than my immigrant status.

However, at the end of the day, I returned home where my parents lavished love and attention on their only child. Within a few years they were able to buy new clothing for me, my English became impeccably Canadian, and the bullying stopped.

The Indigenous boy was separated from his family at a very young age. Many residential schools were run by the Catholic Church, so their staff would have been fluent in Latin. They cannot have been ignorant of the phrase “in loco parentis," which translates to “in place of the parent." When you take custody of a child, you effectively take on parental responsibility. When I coach a teenager in the art of rowing, that thought is top of mind; I am temporarily the child’s parent and I must care for the child as if he or she was my own!

Clearly, the residential schools didn’t do that. About a month ago, I read Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future; Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Included were stories of residential school survivors. This is a sobering document and painful to read! It appears that a goodly part of the school day included scrubbing floors, washing windows, washing clothing, and working the school vegetable garden, with punishment should the results of any of these labours fail to meet strict standards.

Coupled with a learned reluctance to admit they did not understand, sheer fatigue must have dimmed any appetite for learning the students might have had. Where my parents were sympathetic to any difficulties I might have had, the residential schools clearly never considered every young child’s very real need for affection.

What of the education on offer? My understanding is that no Barrie parent would have considered sending their child to one of these residential schools. In fact, school officials seem to admit that they were aiming for a bare minimum education; enough so the “graduate” might be capable of menial work.

Between 1968 and 1972, I worked at the University of East Africa, in Nairobi, Kenya. I visited many rural schools. Even the meanest of these, built without glass in the windows and with blackboards painted on the mud walls, aimed higher than that. For shame!

On my visits to remote villages — I often travelled with the curator of the Kenya National Museum  I sometimes couldn’t resist picking up a child and giving it a hug. Fortunately, most Kenyans are “touchy-feely” people and didn’t get upset. I simply cannot understand how anybody could be cruel to a child. They are small and helpless. They need adult protection and love – shame on you if you cannot understand this.

In summary, I can list the failures of the residential schools as follows. They failed to provide a decent curriculum. They clearly had little concept of pedagogy. They totally failed to abide by the “in loco parentis” principle.

The case of the Indigenous boy and the immigrant boy are similar in one respect. I have a very small family – no uncles and just one first cousin. Similarly, residential schools appear to have separated children from family so successfully that they, too, have a very thin family. However, my family fell victim to the brutality of the Second World War, much of which was fought on the soil of my parents’ homeland – Poland. Canada and the church appear to have fought a similarly brutal war over Indigenous lives.

As the church ran many residential schools, I must ask some questions. Why did these churches fail to understand that what they were doing was evil? You simply do not treat children this way! Why were the priests and nuns in charge not ashamed of what they were doing?

And finally, how did they imagine that what they were doing could ever be accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ?

Peter Bursztyn