Caught Between Integration and Preservation a Reader Response by Stephanie McCann

Caught Between Integration and Preservation a Reader Response by Stephanie McCann

The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (v 2) (2015) puts forth the following eminent question regarding Indian Residential Schools in Canada: ‘‘for what are children being educated?’’ (p. 45). In other words, what was the ultimate goal of the Indian Residential School system? Was it a grand plan installed or developed over time by what would later become the Canadian government? Was the sole purpose to assimilate and get rid of the ‘Indian problem’? Although the Eastern Arctic had formal schools instead of Indian Residential Schools, they were simultaneously based on the colonial government’s curriculum (Ng-A-Fook & Milne, 2014). Digging deeper into this debate and with the help of McGregor’s (2010) research, a second prominent question arises, namely, why is it that the government of Canada perceived the North as ‘equal’ and the South as inferior? Could natural resources, lack of resources and financial aid be the root cause? As these questions cannot be universally answered, McGregor (2010) gives insight to the purpose of education of the formal schools in the Eastern Arctic. More specifically, we learn how the formal education system based on southern standards eventually adopted Inuit teachings. Will the educational system assimilate Inuit children into the Qallunaat society, help preserve their traditional lifestyles or somewhat in between?

To fully comprehend the purpose of the Residential Schools in Canada’s Eastern Arctic, it is important to assess the context and perspective of the government at the time. Foremost, it is important to understand that previous to the government’s involvement, the Inuit culture flourished and was completely independent. It was only in the 1940’s that the Canadian government showed interest in the North due to various environmental, economic and sovereignty factors. The government had already installed Indian Residential Schools in southern provinces as a means to integrate and assimilate First Nations and Métis communities to that of the settler society while rendering them dependant. However, unlike the South, they introduced the Northern Vision which essentially was assimilation without dependency (Kativik School Board, n.d.). To my surprise, unlike the South which was fully integrated, the Northern Vision was ‘‘creating an equal footing with Euro-Canadians by educating them, and equality was also stated to be the intention behind education by the federal government of the day’’ (McGregor, 2010, p.65). McGregor (2010) tells us that the Inuit were considered ‘‘equal Canadians by assimilation’’ (Kativik School Board, n.d.). The experiments of the Southern Indian Residential Schools made it quite clear that mandatory education was the best strategy for assimilation. The assimilation strategy would use education as a mean to attack; culture, language, land, lifestyle, spirituality and self-determination through its youth. How catastrophic is it that instead of using education to propel a nation, it was used to destroy it! Many Inuit people were ultimately deceived as they believed that the Qallunaat society were powerful, prominent and trusted, so much so, that the introduction to formal schools was felt to be a step in the right direction towards a brighter future (McGregor, 2010). To their bewilderment, it would do the exact opposite. The strategy of assimilationist education would unfortunately leave the Inuit population neither fit for settler society nor fit for living their traditional lifestyle, but rather stuck somewhere in between.

The question remains; what was the purpose of the Inuit education in Eastern Arctic? McGregor (2010) informs us that vision for the Eastern Arctic went from ignorance to assimilationist to experimental (p.63). The government created a state of dependency without complete assimilation. They stated that the purpose was to ‘‘help Inuit function in a very different world, that of the English-speaking, employable Qallunaat man or woman participating in a Western democratic capitalist society’’ (McGregor, 2010, p.75). The system contradictory as the goal was to create equal opportunities however it proved to be inappropriate, impractical and irrelevant. The colonial formal educational system used foreign strategies such as oppression, fear and dominance to teach the ways of the Western culture. We can correlate these tactics to those of Dewey’s (1938) traditional teachings. ‘‘An RCMP official also voiced the opinion that the former students of residential schools were no better off than those young people who had not gone to school’’ (TRC Report, 2015, p.49). It came to a point where McGregor (2010) points out that the teachers understood the irrelevance of the curriculum and opted for more traditional teachings (McGregor, 2010).

Some of the earliest teachers in the Arctic communities recognized their students’ preference for experiential learning and for culturally appropriate reading material as well as the importance of the school meeting local needs. Long before it was politically astute to do so, a few educators realized that what they were attempting to do simply was not workable. (McGregor, 2010, p.79)

It is due to this flexibility and willingness to incorporate parts of the Inuit culture into the classrooms that some aspects of the culture survived. Although the Inuit ‘‘were dislocated from the social, economic and cultural experience that formed the basis of their identities (…) because of the educational adaptation, many aspects of the Inuit culture have endured, and still to this day’’(McGregor, 2010, p.83). If the premise was to educate the Inuit youth by southern standards, then why did the formal education system adopt Inuit teachings?

Even if most formal schools bent the rules and opted for incorporating culture into the classroom, the children were nonetheless incapable of fitting into their traditional lifestyles. As children were forced to attend school, they were essentially prevented from learning their traditional teachings and community responsibilities (McGregor, 2010). Once school ended, children would return to an expropriated home and found themselves disoriented as to their role in their community (McGregor, 2010). Notions such as paternalism, capitalism and cultural inferiority were introduced. ‘‘There, they were robbed of their language, their beliefs, their self‐respect, their cultural, and, in some cases, their very existence in a vain attempt to make them more Canadian’’ (Taylor, 2012, p. 142). As the TRC Report (2015) clearly states: ‘‘in short, the system was not preparing students for a return to their traditional ways of life, nor was it preparing them for anything else’’ (p.48). Not only were children in a crossfire of cultures, their future seemed uncertain, employment was scarce, families were disorientated and the intergenerational impacts were infinite. In the end, what was the government’s educational goal? Did they initially want to assimilate by education or did they want traditional teachings to take place in the school setting and create ample economical opportunities? All that is certain is that the formal education system created absolute chaos.

From my previous experiences and encounters, I truly believe that the formal education system uses fear and dominance as a mean to assimilate students to the dominant Western culture. What I found interesting in Chapter 3 of McGregor’s (2010) book was although the strategies have changed drastically, the formal education system vision’s remains the same. We can relate this debate to Dewey (1938) and Robinson’s (2010) notions of progressive vs. traditional models. Although it is extremely important to note that we are far from being subjected to the approaches of the IRS (abuse, intergenerational impacts, assimilation, integration etc.), we can compare how the vision and purpose of the educational system still rests on the interests of the government and its political vision (Apple & King, 1977). Has the formal schooling system’s vision changed since the time of Residential Schools? Have we only started to take off the blindfold and realize that assimilation purposes still exist and that the Western culture is still embedded in our curriculums? Looking back at my own experiences, I can make connections in the tactics and approaches of the formal education system and am alarmed that not much has changed since.


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