Aboriginal Women’s Experiences at Residential Schools by KP

Aboriginal peoples in Canada suffered unbearable exploitation during the operation of Residential Schools. In essence, children were taken from their families at a very young age and were forced to integrate into the European lifestyle.[1] The assimilation of the Aboriginals was because of two major reasons.[2] Firstly, the Europeans believed that they were superior because of their advanced technology, their morals and intelligence.[3] Additionally, they believed that the Aboriginal peoples were savages.[4]  Europeans separated Aboriginal children from their families and communities which resulted in the loss of language, culture and the Aboriginal way of life.[5] Although the purpose of the school system was to provide education and religion, children suffered from abuse.[6] Countless Aboriginal children suffered from physical, verbal and sexual abuse in the Residential Schools.[7] Not surprisingly, these events caused long term emotional damages.[8] In 2002- 2003, Statistics Canada stated that “20% of First Nations women 18 years and over had attended a residential school.”[9] After reviewing several cases of women who survived in the Residential Schools, it is evident that the negative experiences still haunt them today.   Many of these women endured physical abuse, family destruction, loss of identity and emotional scaring. Although Residential Schools were often full of horrific abuse, there were some positive experiences as well; for example, education.  Four case studies will articulate the experiences of Aboriginal women in Residential Schools and its consequences.


Case Study One:


In “The Circle Game,” Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Young examined several experiences from Residential School survivors. One of those survivors was Isabelle Knockwood who shared the process of becoming a student in a Residential School.  Upon her arrival, she was forced to bathe and dispose of her clothing.[10] Afterword, the mentors gave her clothes with “Wide black and white vertical stripes” that resembled prison attire.[11] Isabelle was given the number 58, which marked all of her belongings, except for her bedding.[12] Obviously, Isabelle completely lost her status and was viewed as inferior. In the novel, Isabelle recalled that during the night little girls used go to the bathroom to sneak a drink of water; however, if they were caught out of bed they were severely beaten.[13]


Case Study Two:

In “Finding My Talk,” Agnes Grant voices the stories of fourteen Aboriginal women and their experiences in Residential Schools. Among them was Ida Wasacase, a woman from the Ochapowace Reserve in Saskatchewan.[14] Ida expressed that her “Experiences at the various schools were generally positive.”[15] Ida confessed her love for learning and was extremely inspired to do well in school.[16]  Another positive aspect of the school system was that Ida’s mother and father embraced some European practices; for example, celebrating birthdays and writing letters.[17] However, Ida admits that there were certainly many horrible experiences in residential schools.[18] For example; as Aboriginal children were forbidden to use their first languages, she suffered a horrible consequence after she accidently spoke Cree.[19] Ida was struck over the head with a board.[20] Sadly, the mentor did not realize that there was nail sticking out of the board and it was lodged into her head.[21] The physical abuses in residential schools were evidently traumatic and drastic. Another negative aspect in residential schools, Grant states that Ida “Firmly believed that once a language is lost, culture loss will follow, and with culture loss comes loss of identity and sense of belonging.”[22] Thus, although Ida gained knowledge through schooling, she felt as if she lost her identity as an Aboriginal woman.


Case Study Three:

 In “The Legacy of School for Aboriginal People,” Bernard Schissel and Terry Wotherspoon express the negative repercussions Residential schools caused Aboriginal peoples by using specific experiences from survivors. Among the survivors was an Anisnabe elder named Helen Cote.[23] Helen conveyed several ways that Residential schools had a negative impact on her family.[24] For instance, “Her family became unrecognizable to her after she and her siblings were forcibly removed to residential school.”[25] Unfortunately, Helens father turned to alcohol after Helen and her siblings were taken.[26]  Eventually, her father’s alcohol addiction caused her mother and father to separate.[27] When Helen finally returned after several years away, she found that she had completely changed.[28]  Thus, Residential Schools caused havoc in Helens family and caused her to feel like she had lost who she was.


Case Study Four:

In “The Unfinished Stories of Two First Nations Mothers,” Maryam Moayeri and Jane Smith created an academic journal about First Nations mothers and their experiences in Residential schools. In the journal is a woman named Aileen.[29] Aileen was a tenant in a Residential school for three years before her mother withdrew her from the institution.[30] Not long after returning home, Aileen was taken and put into a detention Centre at twelve-years old.[31] At fifteen, Aileen escaped from the detention Centre.[32] Over the course of ten years after her escape, Aileen had a total of five children.[33] However, they were all taken away by the Canadian government due to her lack of parenting skills.[34] After the traumatic experiences of the Residential schools, Aileen turned to substance use and crime.[35]


In conclusion, residential schools in Canada resulted in several significant negative consequences for Aboriginals, especially for women. Women still struggle with substantial emotional damages, family issues and a loss of their identity. It is evident that the segregation and assimilation of Aboriginal peoples caused a never ending sequence of pain and suffering. A pattern recognized in these four cases is that the Aboriginal women in the Residential Schools lost their identity.  The experiences of these women emphasize that the emotional hardships are still an issue today.






[1] Cold Lake First Nations, “History of Indian Residential Schools,” (1)





[4] Ibid

[5] Cold Lake First Nations, “History of Indian Residential Schools,” (2)




[7] Catholic Insight, What kind of abuse at residential schools? (News in Brief: Canada), January-February, 2003.            http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA97730840&v=2.1&u=lond95336&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=febb82cca37512a5e1b1930ca0005781


[8]Cold Lake First Nations, “History of Indian Residential Schools,” (1)



9 Vivian, O’Donnell. Susan, Wallace, Residential school attendance: Statistics Canada, May 13, 2013.  

            2013. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-503-x/2010001/article/11442-eng.htm#a33


[10] Roland Chrisjohn, Sherri Young: The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada. (Canada: Theytus Books Ltd, 1997, 2006), 92.




[14] Agnes, Grant. Finding My Talk: How Fourteen Native Women Reclaimed Their Lives after Residential School. (Canada, Canada Council for the Arts,2004), 24.

[15] Ibid


[17] Agnes, Grant. Finding My Talk: How Fourteen Native Women Reclaimed Their Lives after Residential School. (Canada, Canada Council for the Arts,2004), 24.

[18]Ibid, 25.



[21] Agnes, Grant. Finding My Talk: How Fourteen Native Women Reclaimed Their Lives after Residential School. (Canada, Canada Council for the Arts,2004), 26.


[23] Bernard Schissel, Terry Wotherspoon: The Legacy of School for Aboriginal People (Ontario, DM: Oxford University Press, 2003), 42.

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid



[29]Maryam, Moayeri and Jane Smith, “The Unfinished Stories of Two First Nations Mothers,” in Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy: Wiley, February, 2010, (410).





[33]Maryam, Moayeri and Jane Smith, “The Unfinished Stories of Two First Nations Mothers,” in Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy: Wiley, February, 2010, (410).


[34] Ibid




  1. In this essay, I found all four case studies rather interesting. In these studies, aboriginal women were looked down upon and thought less of. I find it unfair and cruel that these women were treated unequal because of their race. All women should have had the same chances in life and these four studies represent the differences between cultures of women.

    In case study one, the first thing that came to my attention was the fact that she had to immediately change her clothes. The worse part about it was when she was given clothes that resembled prison attire. It was not surprising that she was looked down upon, as prisoners are seen as being not highly valued in life today. They are treated unequal and trapped from society. This is how the aboriginals were treated in residential schools. As discussed in lecture, they were given spoiled food, provided with less education, and separated from their families. The aboriginal women might as well have been thrown in jail, as they were treated liked prisoners anyway.

    In case study two, it was said that Ida loved learning but her experiences were horrible. The fact that her mentor struck her over the head is morally wrong. I expect that these aboriginal women would have gotten the worse of these punishments. If a teacher were to do that today, he or she would be fired and charged. It is morally wrong and nobody deserves to be mistreated like that. It is completely unfair that Ida enjoyed school but she was forced to lose her true identity as an aboriginal woman. She should have been able to earn an education and stay strong to her beliefs as well.

    In case study three, I was not surprised to learn that this abuse from residential schools caused major stress to their families and women lost their identities. Of course parents are going to be destroyed when their children are taken away. Their children are their pride and joy. The fact that they could not be there and protect their children would be horrible. I could not imagine having no connection with my family and I too would have a hard time finding my way.

    Case study four sums up the overall experience of residential schools. It makes me believe that it is a reoccurring cycle when women are sent to these schools. It lowers the quality of life to where they become troubled and lost. Then their own children are taken away just like they were. Overall, these residential schools were an experience aboriginal women should not of had to go through. They should have not been treated unfairly and should most definitely have been able to carry on their family’s legacy.

  2. shelbylee · · Reply

    The people in Residential schools undoubtedly had a horrific experience, and I think by providing examples of four women at this time provides us a more stable image of what they actually had to go through. Although the main purpose of these residential schools was to ultimately provide education, the abuse these children experienced is terrifying. However, I would argue that we as Canadians have learned from this and have developed this narrative into our social history of women effectively. I would expand upon the essay by providing details of what Canada has done to attempt to apologize for the actions that took place during this time, and where we stand today. The First Nations families are obviously still affected by such a horrendous event, and considering it occurred not that long ago, I would be more interested to see how the Residential schools came to a stop and who impacted that. The negative impacts that the Residential schools has had on Native women and children is a severe one, however I think we as a Canadian society have learned from this experience and are trying our best to learn from our mistakes, yet still recognize this event as a significant piece of Canadian history.

  3. epasquar · · Reply

    These case studies are incredibly depressing, and provide excellent insight for the horrific conditions that existed within Residential Schools in Canada. As a peer posted earlier, women in these so-called ‘schools’ were treated like prisoners, forced to abandon their identities, and taken from their families against their will. Banning someone to speak their native tongue seems like a simple request, but it is such a damaging concept. Speaking another language is never easy, but can you imagine speaking the language of the people who took you from your family and are inflicting physical, mental, and emotional pain to you and your peers? Enrolling students in Residential schools literally requires Aboriginal students to strip who they are and become someone new.

    While Residential schools have changed and Canadians are no longer actively trying to assimilate Natives into “our” culture (what IS Canadian culture, though, if it isn’t diverse?), I do not agree that Canadians as a society are past the racism and judgements that pertain to the Native peoples in Canada.

    I work at a movie theatre. Just outside of London, there is a Native reserve (I believe it is an Ojibwa reserve), and many residents come to the theatre with their families. There are plenty of students (I mean 15, 16, 17 year old students) who still make racist remarks about the amount of food “they” order, they messes “they” make, (as if Caucasian Canadians don’t order a lot of popcorn and make messes in theatres.. I promise you, that is not true) and there are even jokes about “them” offering their Native Status card rather than a Scene card. These students are currently in high school. How could they possibly have these ideals of stereotypically “lazy” and “overeating” Native families, if they weren’t taught these stereotypically racist thoughts from older generations?

    Another example of why I do not agree that Canadians are past this racism has to do with a volunteering opportunity I have been taking part in. I work with a group of grade 9 students in a guitar class twice per week, and there is a boy from the aforementioned reserve in our class. I am often tutoring him because he has an issue with attendance, so he falls behind. Rather than saying “Well, he’s hardly here, so let’s motivate him to come to class!” the teacher has ACTUALLY said, “Well, he’s Native… so…” . I was infuriated, and told her that his background, location, and essentially his race have nothing to do with the fact that he’s just terrible at guitar, and is unmotivated to come to school. If his teachers have already said that he is not going to succeed based on his race, I don’t blame him for not wanting to bother coming! Imagine a teacher saying “You’re Italian/German/French/White/Black/Asian/Tanned/Brunette so that’s why you’re not doing well”… You would have no reason to try, because you have been told by an educated member of society that you are inherently designed to do poorly.

    Another quick example would touch on the two cases we talked about in class; the newspaper article that completely disregards the Mohawk protest and focuses on the poor white women that were inconvenienced with having to take the bus, and the amount of Native Women who have been abused and have gone missing, with no signs of publicity.

    While it is very refreshing to know that women and children are not being abused in assimilating Residential schools, I still think there is a giant stigma behind the Native culture in Canada.

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