When I read a recent opinion piece by Doug Cuthand, the indigenous affairs columnist for the Regina Leader-Post, I couldn’t help but reflect on what I knew about his late father, Reverend Canon Stan Cuthand.

The younger, off-reserve born, Cuthand argued that the “The legacy of the residential schools is a recurring nightmare in Indian Country” because “Parents refused to let go of their children” so they could attend an Indian residential school (IRS) because “These so-called schools were dangerous places for our children. Neglect, overcrowding and a lousy diet all combined to weaken the children’s immunity…. The loneliness, memories of violence, sexual abuse and the lateral violence from bullying all exist within our communities and it had its genesis in the boarding schools…. Their poor education has left many illiterate and unable to compete in a modern world.”

I have never met Doug, but his father, Stan, was my friend when we were both teaching at the University of Manitoba during the 1970s. He also gave my wife communion in our home when her Anglican fellow parishioners said she couldn’t attend service unless she paid the church tithe we couldn’t afford due to a mountain of debts and a newborn child.

The senior Cuthand, born on the Little Pine Indian Reserve in 1918, began teaching the Cree language and other indigenous subjects in our new department of native studies in 1975, eventually becoming its head. Before that, he was a full-time priest, a vocation he pursued on- and off-reserve in Alberta and Saskatchewan for 25 years beginning in 1944. Before all that, his primary school education was received in the band’s day school followed by high school attendance in Prince Albert where he resided in boarding houses.

Though Father Cuthand was never a student at an IRS, he was resident chaplain of Saskatchewan’s La Ronge and Gordon Residential Schools, and of St. Paul’s School on the Blood Reserve, in the 1960s.

These are some of his first-hand recollections of life in these schools.

The schools weren’t terrible places at all,” he recalled. “They were certainly not prisons, although the principals were a little strict.”

Reverend Cuthand recalls one incident of sexual abuse of a student, at the Gordon Reserve IRS, where one of the staff members was later convicted and sent to prison for several years. “Most of the kids had no complaints about sexual abuse; if they did, they would have told me. However, they did get homesick and some tried to run away. There was also plenty of food; raisins, fish, potatoes, bread with lard, stew.

As for mandatory IRS attendance, Father Cuthand recalled that the only children who were “forced” to attend were orphans or children from destitute families. “The idea that all children were forced into the schools is an exaggeration,” he explained. “The idea of the separation of students [from parents] came from England. Practically all the [upper class] English were brought up in residential schools. In Canada, the main idea at the time was to civilize and educate the children; and that couldn’t be done if the kids were at home on the trapline.”

Reverend Cuthand said he enjoyed his time on the Blood Reserve in southwest Alberta. “It was an exciting place to live …. The Bloods were rich and very traditional. The school was a fine place with some very good teachers.” The parents were involved in the school, with some parents living there as staff members. “[Blood] Senator Gladstone sent his kids there, and many of the students from St. Paul’s went on to university.” 

Cuthand remembered that his school was particularly committed to recognizing indigenous culture. “One principal had tepees set up on the front lawn.”

That principal, Archdeacon Samuel H. Middleton, with the support of the tribal leadership, was a resourceful school promoter starting in the 1920s. Cuthand recalled the archdeacon, who spoke Blackfoot, changing the Sunday School curriculum to make it more relevant to native culture. “The school was well respected by the Bloods,” Mr. Cuthand said.

It’s instructive to compare these differing descriptions — those of the father who lived in residential schools with the son who only knows about them second or even third hand.

Hymie Rubenstein is editor of The REAL Indigenous Issues newsletter and a retired professor of anthropology, The University of Manitoba

Author

  • Hymie Rubenstein

    Hymie Rubenstein is a retired professor of anthropology at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada who is now engaged in debunking the myths about Canada’s Indian Residential Schools.