Can India Learn From Canada's Dark History of Residential Schools for Indigenous Children?

Residential schools in India are an important marker of how tribal communities are being systematically consumed under the globalised project of ‘mainstreaming tribal children’.

Orange Shirt Day is celebrated in Canada on September 30 every year since 2013. This year too, thousands of people gathered across Canada to remember the victims and survivors of residential schools. The annual event is held so that the younger generation gets a chance to have meaningful discussion about the effects of residential schools and the dark legacy that these schools have left behind.

It all started at a commemoration ceremony when Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor, shared her story of being sent to a residential school at the age of six. Phyllis and her grandmother bought a new orange shirt for Phyllis to wear to her first day of school. On Phyllis’s first day at St. Joseph Mission, that new orange shirt was taken away from her. She would never see the shirt again, and it would come to symbolise the feelings of worthlessness and insignificance – tactics the schools used to erase students’ personal identities. With the tagline “Every child matters”, the day of remembrance has now spread across the country.

Also read: Children of a Lesser God

The policy of assimilation, mainstreaming or de-tribalising indigenous communities by placing their children in residential schools has been increasingly disproved and abandoned, most publicly throughout North America, Australia and Canada since the 1980s. In India, this history and its dangers are little known, with relatively little awareness of how they are being replicated among many of India’s tribal communities. Education-induced displacement and assimilationism has evolved more slowly in India, but has now reached a larger scale than in any other country, with many similar manifestations to the ‘stolen generations’ model that has created outrage elsewhere.

Canada’s dark history

Canada’s dark history of residential schooling, where more than 150,000 indigenous children were forcefully separated from their families in order to assimilate them into the dominant mainstream Canadian culture, is an example of historical theft that most indigenous communities (First Nations, Inuit and the Métis) in Canada have not yet recovered from. The trauma of the schooling experiences that they have undergone in these boarding schools is spine-chilling and genocidal. One of the community elders, while talking about her experiences, said, “These are wounds which are intergenerational and take time to heal, even if our governments have apologised to us.”

The European settlers in Canada believed that they were a superior civilisation as compared to the indigenous people. They felt that the indigenous people were savages and they lacked what the Europeans possessed – civilisation. This deeper sense of cultural racism was one of the primary reasons for the European settlers to think of a solution to the Indian problem, which was the forceful exchange of their lands for civilisation. This became one of the primary reasons for establishing residential schools in the 1850s and after.

In many ways, the residential schools became one of the greatest sites of acculturation in order to grab hold of the land that the indigenous people possessed. It was not just a matter of greed; it was, in fact, much more than a Lockean problem. It was a conscious effort to efface the histories, identities, lifestyles, livelihoods and the knowledge that the indigenous communities of Canada possessed through a single policy idea.

Orange Shirt Day celebrations in Australia. Credit: orangeshirtday.org

In the year 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was setup by the Canadian government, enabling residential school survivors and victims of sexual abuse to place their testimonies in the public. The committee estimated that more than 6,000 children died in these residential schools over the years, and these deaths were consciously left unreported. Bud Whiteye, a survivor of the Mohawk Institute Residential School, says in his testimony, “They didn’t put us in a room and indoctrinate us all day long or anything like that. It was in the routine of the place. You didn’t speak anything but English. You went to the white man’s school. You went to the white man’s church. You wore white mens’ clothes. All those were built in. It wasn’t a classroom-type lecture. It was ingrained in the system.” There are thousands of such stories in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s reports.

The situation in India

My teacher, who is a historian of science, once said with deep resentment that we see the world through the lens of the West. He said, “We were trapped in a history that moved in concentric circles, and right at the epicentre, was the West, with its own projection of itself, and how it sees the others, the non-West.” To a great extent, he felt, this way of imposing history, trapping many societies and cultures within the official projection of the West, was the beginning of a true globalised project which not only enslaved and colonised people, but also effaced them out of their own histories and identities. In fact, he believed, we have to move beyond Orientalism to look at ourselves and how we have internalised these categories of concentric circles as a society. One of the greatest examples of this in contemporary times, he said, was the story of ‘development’.

Residential schools in India for tribal children perhaps symbolise this gruesome colonial legacy and are an important marker of how tribal communities are being systematically consumed under the globalised project of ‘mainstreaming tribal children’.

Also read: In Jharkhand’s Ban of Book on Adivasis, an Attempt to Deter Tribals From Dictating Their Future

Will India’s tribal societies cease to exist in another 20 years? What will happen if there are no tribal societies in India? Do we create an imbalance in the way knowledge is understood? Who is going to lead us towards a sustainable planet? The answer to these questions is silence, if we look at the way tribal education in India, particularly the residential schooling systems or the Ashram Shalas, operate.

The state of tribal children in these traumatic residential schools is worse. The truth is that students in these schools are being stripped off their identities, and even after multiple exposés on deaths and sexual abuse cases in government-run residential tribal schools in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Assam, no concrete measures are being taken. Instead, the government plans to set up more residential schools by 2022 under the garb of tribal education and development. Every block with more than 50% ST population and at least 20,000 tribal persons will have an Ekalavya Model Residential School, said the finance minister in his budget speech this February.

India has never evaluated the dangers, purpose and politics of setting up these residential model schools for tribal children. Since the mid 1990s, post liberalisation, many corporations have started operating residential tribal schools as a part of their CSR policies. These companies have a strategic interest in the lands that tribal communities inhabit. Most private-run residential schools in India receive large amounts of funds from companies which wrest control over tribal lands. In fact, residential schools have become a new-age displacement mechanism, under the pretence of an assimilationist education system.

There is also a conscious effort to divide tribal communities by creating a new aspiring class in the younger generation, and feeding on their aspirations. The case in point is the reopening of the issue of mining in 2016, in the Niyamgiri mountains of Odisha, even after the Dongrias unanimously rejected mining of their lands in 2013.  The state government of Odisha had filed a petition for the right to hold a fresh referendum. The petition not only undermined the earlier decision, but also went on to show that the state was trying to create a new young aspirational class within the community. They are telling the younger generation (primarily educated in state-run and private residential schools) that now that they have voting rights in the gram sabha, decisions should be up for review.

The need for alternatives

India’s tribal communities have suffered due to ‘development’ projects as India races forward with its high growth rate. Tribal communities make up about 8% of the country’s 1.2 billion people. Amongst the 60 million people displaced due to development projects in the past decades, 40% were from the tribal population. In that case, shouldn’t the pedagogies of education on the whole and tribal education in particular look at the painful experiences that tribal communities have gone through in the past 50-odd years after independence to construct a different future? But on the contrary, education is being used as a tool to further the developmental agenda. Education then becomes a methodological act which performs the ritual of mainstreaming tribal children. Residential schools for tribal children are a classic example in this case.

Also read: From Close Quarters: Protecting an Adivasi Culture the State Wants to Destroy

There is a dire need for a dialogue to construct epistemically sensitive curriculums. This can only happen if the tribal population is an equal participant in the constitutive rules of pedagogies and not merely the regulatory ones. In other words, our pedagogies of knowledge and disciplines, rather than being restrictive, must become inclusive and open in order to interact with other knowledge cultures without categorising them as non-scientific and primitive. For example, the indigenous knowledge system has its own ethics, morals and metaphysics which have guided tribal communities in India for years. It is in this context that the South African scholar and UNESCO educator Catherine Odora Hoppers says that “developing a knowledge paradigm of the future has to begin with reaching out to those excluded. It is a compassionate but strategic evolution through contemplation during which the outer voice of possibility meets the inner voice of disenfranchisement.”

Confronting truth

In India, the question of Adivasi education is not debated or discussed much in mainstream forums, except when it comes to reservation policies. This sad silence stems primarily from the belief that Adivasi societies are lagging behind when compared to mainstream society, which is advancing at a rapid pace. Education is only seen as a rite of passage to becoming a part of society, and not as a means for achieving social justice.

The Indian government and civil society should set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the sufferings and loses that tribal communities have gone through since independence. Not only could this commission become one of the greatest acts of truth-telling and subsequent healing, it will also ensure that future generations know the darker side of India’s history.

Rajaraman Sundaresan is an independent researcher in the field of knowledge studies. Currently, he works with KISS University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha.