I stood beside an Indigenous man, an artist born on an Ontario First Nation. He was, oddly enough, wearing an Amish straw hat. I asked him about the prints he had displayed on the table in front of us. I could see the connection in his work to that of the widely-celebrated Ojibwa artist Norval Morriseau. He seemed pleased when I mentioned it. The story of the artist I was talking with, the little I know of it at least, is worth telling. But it’s not my story to tell. Our conversation drifted to the link he and I shared: his people had been sent to institutions known as Indian Residential Schools; my people had run them.
In Canada the term “residential school” usually applies to government-sponsored institutions set up to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian society. At its peak, in the early decades of the twentieth century, the residential school system included some 80 schools. At any particular time as many as one-third of school-age Indigenous children attended these schools, and more than 3,000 children died at them. Many of these deaths resulted from disease to which overcrowding and malnutrition made the children particularly susceptible. The system has come to be symbolized by the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs, who, in 1920, said, “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.” Residential schools were a means toward that end. Early in the venture, the Canadian government realized that getting churches to run these schools represented a financial and pedagogical shortcut to meeting their treaty obligations. Churches, most notably Roman Catholic, Anglican, and those that would later form the United Church of Canada, saw the project as a missionary opportunity that came with financial support from the federal government.
Mennonite involvement—I am a Mennonite pastor—was relatively minor and, until recently, little known. Apparently some Mennonites who were conscientious objectors to military service taught in schools run by other churches, especially during times of war. Mennonites also ran three schools in western Ontario from the early 1960s through 1990. None of the schools were administered or directly sponsored by a denominational network. Instead, they were run by independent mission organizations, mainly connected with conservative or, better put, culturally distinct Mennonite communities. These particular Mennonites tried to dress and act in ways that differentiated themselves from their non-Mennonite neighbors. Many of the men wore what they called “plain suites” with jackets that lacked lapels, and many of the women wore long dresses and a “covering,” a piece of lace fabric pinned over their hair. Financial support along with volunteer staff and construction workers came from these types of churches in the US and southern Ontario. Many early volunteers were young American men who had been drafted for military duty but chose to do alternative service in line with their pacifist beliefs. Their opportunity to do alternative service in the north was facilitated by a Mennonite relief and development agency that had a broad agreement with the U.S. government allowing such international assignments. (the full article can be found here)