A recent commission on Canada’s residential schools for aboriginal people revealed that this school system originated in the 19th century. During that period, the prevailing sentiment held that government “was ordained by God” and that its institutions were infallible and omniscient. It was believed that truth would result from adversity through academic debate in the nation’s elected parliament and in its courts. The notion that government institutions that sought expert guidance from leading academics and church leaders could commit grievous errors was dismissed as ridiculous.
In his treatise entitled Education – Free and Compulsory, author Murray Rothbard wrote that during the latter part of the 19th century, the Kaiser of Prussia regarded children as rightfully being the property of the state and believed that it was the duty of the state to educate them into becoming loyal and productive citizens. Compulsory schooling began in Prussia, and many governments around the world subsequently embraced the ideal of compulsory attendance in state schools, where the nation’s children would acquire the basic knowledge they needed to become productive citizens.
The idea of compulsory schooling took hold in Canada as well, and government officials and church leaders regarded it as their sacred duty to convert aboriginal children into loyal subjects of the Crown and have them embrace Christianity. Government officials forcibly removed thousands of young children from their families and made them wards of the Crown who were to be housed and educated in residential schools.
The elite of British society paid tuition to private boarding schools that provided an education to boys beginning at the age of six. During the school term, students attending these institutions had minimal or no contact with their families. Discipline included corporal punishment. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill, who had attended a private boarding school, recalled the school nurse having to attend to students’ bleeding buttocks after they had been caned. Colonial era government officials, bureaucrats, and church officials likely regarded private British boarding schools as the ideal model for Canadian residential schools aimed at educating First Nations children.
In Canada, government and church officials regarded First Nations people as savages, hence the brutal treatment of native children at residential schools. Both German and British colonial administrations shared a common sense of contempt toward aboriginal populations, which were often subject to inhumane treatment. During the years of colonial rule, the native East Indian population had suffered through successive episodes of famine that were the direct result of the colonial administration’s actions. During India’s colonial era, several million Indians starved during repeated famines caused by policies administered and enforced by the colonial office.
The majority of colonial era bureaucrats were educated in the arts and the social sciences at universities where the leading academics were sympathetic to the theory of eugenics that held that people with dark skin were inferior to people of British and European origins. That sentiment guided the development of social and economic policies that related to native peoples who lived under colonial rule. It would also have guided the government policy that forcibly removed young children from native Canadian families and placed them in residential schools.
While the short-term objective may have had noble intentions, from a certain perspective, the long-term results included the emotional and spiritual destruction of hundreds of lives spread over successive generations of Canada’s First Nations people. Prior to WWII, the Government of Germany introduced its own version of residential schools for “pure Aryan” children, beginning during infancy. The state employed nurses and other professional staff to raise and educate these favoured children in a so-called ideal environment. But the long-term result was very different from the short-term objective, as older children from the program required extensive psychoanalytic therapy.
The abuse of children that occurred at Canadian residential schools are the result of once well-intended government policies that were based on very flawed ideas. One key idea involves the appropriateness of government initiating forcible coercion against peaceful citizens, allegedly for the benefit of society. The abuse is obvious, blatant and obscene.
Another, less dramatic example is compulsory school attendance for all Canadian children at schools where they are at high risk of being bullied by peers and where they are required to learn at the pace set by the institution, totally disregarding each child’s own unique learning style. In education, home-schooled children almost consistently out-achieve their cohorts who attend state schools, in academic contests. In modern government schools, the destruction of people’s lives is more subtle and more discrete than the obscenity that occurred at residential schools, but it is no less real.
* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.