Harold Cardinal’s vision was soon tested. Included in the White Paper of 1969 was a proposed phase-out of the Indian Residential Schools. That year, 1969, the government took exclusive control of the residential schools and officially ended its partnership with the churches (although many teachers remained unqualified, and the abuse continued).1 The government prepared to migrate all indigenous children into Canadian public schools. Attempts to close one school, however, were met with overwhelming protests from the indigenous community. But why did indigenous representatives object to the closing of a residential school? These schools, after all, were viewed as a colonial tool for assimilation and a centre of indoctrination and abuse.

Premier of Alberta Harry Strom, President of the Indian Association Harold Cardinal, and Minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chrétien (left to right) met to negotiate the fate of Blue Quills Residential School, now Blue Quills First Nations College, in Ottawa in 1970.

In the 1950s, the Blue Quills Indian Residential School in Alberta was one of nearly 20 residential schools in the province. Located since 1931 in St. Paul, Blue Quills served the seven nearbyreserves. But the school was unlike anything students encounter today. It was run by Catholic Oblate priests and Grey Nuns who imposed a severe regime of prayers, child labour, and learning from 6 a.m. to bedtime at 7:30 p.m. Students in the school felt completely isolated and imprisoned. One student reported, “We didn’t have any chance to interact with other people. It was an institution with a big wire fence around it, literally.”2 Louis Lapatack, who studied there for 13 years, provides a glimpse into the school’s harsh discipline. On his first day, after he kicked a ball that accidentally hit someone in the face, he reported, “I was marched in here . . . and I was given a strap on both hands no questions asked. . . . That is what I recall about my first day here at the residential school.” Looking back on his years in the school, he said: “It was too harsh. It was very strict . . . you had to be tough to survive.”3

Over the next two decades, the school’s teachers opened up and began to accommodate indigenous needs, language (Cree), and expectations. Several secular teachers joined the staff, and half-day labour ended.4 Then, in 1970, the government was moving to phase out theresidential schools systemaltogether and the school was scheduled to be closed. But the indigenous communities of the Saddle Lake/Athabasca district had a different idea in mind. Representatives of the local reserves requested a meeting with the Department of Indian Affairs. When a meeting was finally held, the plan was laid out: the superintendent planned to close Blue Quills, transfer all the students to a new high school in St. Paul, and dedicate the old school “as a residence for white high school students. Alarmed, committee members proposed that the school be turned over to Indian management.”5 But the authorities rejected the proposal, arguing that the indigenous community was not ready for the task of managing the school. Community organizers felt otherwise. They called for a grassroots protest in the form of a sit-in, which attracted more than 300 protestors over a month. Ceremonies were held, prayers were said, and volunteers from all over the country supplied food and other necessities.6 Years later, Charles Wood, manager of the nearby Saddle Lake band and one of the activists who protested the government’s decision, recalled:

We have been told that native culture was not good, and that our customs were no-good pagan rites for so long that it was hard for us to believe we were good enough [to run our own schools]. But, one evening, one of the elders stood up and asked: How many of you have studied up to grade 12? No hand showed. Then, How many of you have studied up to ninth grade? A few hands. See? the old man said, almost none of us can claim to have received an education. But the white man, the clergy, have been in charge of our education for over a century. We can’t do worse than them.7

By that time, Harold Cardinal, president of the Indian Association of Alberta, had stepped in to lead the campaign. The demonstrations continued for about a month, and the protesters decided they would continue the sit-in until they could actually meet with Minister Chrétien. Chrétien finally relented. Cardinal and a delegation of some 15 representatives then flew to Ottawa for intense negotiations. After three days of back and forth, Chrétien withdrew the proposal to close the school and signed an agreement to transfer control to the indigenous school committee. Blue Quills became the first school to be officially administered by indigenous representatives.

The very first constitution of the Blue Quills School after its takeover in 1970 detailed the desire that its founders and supporters had for their children in taking the education of their own people back into their own hands:

Our greatest desire is that our children progress in the white man’s education, while continuing to retain their dignity and self-respect as Indian people. The past experience in schools organized and run by the non-Indian segment of society has submerged the Indian personality and left the people with little initiative. We have come to realize that we must take part in planning and in carrying out those plans if we are ever to regain our proper place in the social life of our own country. We can no longer be content to let others do our thinking for us. We, ourselves, must take the action which will remove the discrepancies which have existed in education for Indians in the past.

We must have the power to choose the teachers who will do the best work with our children, and the power to dismiss those who prove unsuitable. We must have the power to create an environment which will encourage the students to expend their best effort, knowing that it is possible to achieve goals which hitherto have seemed unattainable.

This will mean establishing a proper balance of cooperation and communication between teachers, board of directors, parents, and students. It will mean staffing the school with Native people or others who will encourage the students to realize their capabilities and the opportunities awaiting them in the modern world.8

In the first five years of its operation, Blue Quills focused on education for elementary and middle-school students. Gradually, it began to accept students of high-school age. Since then, it has developed into a post-secondary institution providing adults with degrees that embrace indigenous culture at undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate levels, with some of the teaching taking place in the Cree language and with a curriculum that embraces both indigenous wisdom and Western thought. Blue Quills focuses on arts, technology, nursing, trades, and leadership programs, but a central emphasis is on language revitalization, especially of the Cree language, using programs that were “developed in response to the growing awareness of language loss . . . and the desire for effective strategies for language revitalization within our communities.” The role Blue Quills plays in these efforts “is one of supporting language teachers and providing language education to the communities we serve.” Blue Quills is one of many examples of successful, independent indigenous educational institutions.9

Citations

  • 1 : John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 1999), xvii; “The Residential School System,” Indigenous Foundations.
  • reserves : The key tool of a common colonial strategy, reserves were small, barely habitable areas where the colonizers sought to manage the people they dispossessed. In Canada, the 1850s saw a series of legislative enactments redefining the boundaries of First Nations communities, property, and land use, which increased pressure to relocate to reserves. Lack of investment and poor government services exacerbated First Nations isolation, leaving many reserves economically depressed and prone to violence and crime.
  • residential schools system : Beginning in 1883, the federal government sought a system to enroll indigenous children in schools. The residential schools system was part of a larger government agenda to assimilate indigenous people into settler society by way of education. Relying almost exclusively on churches to provide the teachers, administrators, and religious instructors, the system was severely underfunded and marked by inferior educational standards and achievement: neglect, malnutrition, abuse, and disease were widely reported. In recent years, researchers discovered that some schools even carried out dangerous medical experiments. It is also estimated that more than 6,000 students died of disease and abuse while enrolled. Over a 150-year span, the government and churches operated close to 150 schools where some 150,000 indigenous youth were enrolled.
  • 2 : Diane Persson, “The Changing Experiences of Indian Residential Schooling: Blue Quills, 1931–1970,” Indian Education in Canada, Volume 1: The Legacy, ed. Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McCaskill, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 15.
  • 3 : “First Nations transform residential school into Blue Quills College,” CBCNews, March 25, 2014.
  • 4 : Diane Persson, “The Changing Experiences of Indian Residential Schooling,” 158-162.
  • 5 : Lucy Bashford and Hans Heinzerling, “Blue Quills Native Education Centre: A case study,” Indian Education In Canada: Volume 2: The Challenge, ed. Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McCaskill (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 128.
  • 6 : Lucy Bashford and Hans Heinzerling, “Blue Quills Native Education Centre: A case study,” Indian Education In Canada: Volume 2: The Challenge, ed. Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McCaskill (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 128,
  • 7 : “Native Awakening: Alberta Indians occupy a rural residential school and signal a new era in native activism,” Le Canada: A People’s History, CBC Learning website.
  • 8 : “Goals of the Blue Quills Native Education Council (1970),” in Blue Quills First Nation College: 30th Anniversary (2001), 5.
  • 9 : “Indigenous Language,” Blue Quills First Nation College website.

Connection Questions

  1. The Blue Quills charter explains, “Our greatest desire is that our children progress in the white man’s education, while continuing to retain their dignity and self-respect as Indian people.” What do you think that means? What values are behind the statement?
  2. How did the protestors understand the difference between the residential schools for “Indians” and “Indian-controlled” schools? What kind of model did the Blue Quills School set for indigenous education? What were the most important ideas behind it? What was it designed to achieve?
  3. In what ways do you think Blue Quills and other indigenous schools promote indigenous pride and self-confidence?

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