Nothing but the clothes on their backs

For more than 100 years, until 1996, Canada operated a system of Indian residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that children were separated from their families and placed in these schools “not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.” To that end, when a child arrived at a residential school one of the first things the staff did was take away their clothes.

Martin Nicholas remembers arriving at a residential school in Manitoba in the 1950s. “My mom had prepared me in Native clothing. She had made me a buckskin jacket, beaded with fringes.… And my mom did beautiful work, and I was really proud of my clothes. And when I got to residential school, that first day I remember, they stripped us of our clothes.”

Lorna Morgan remembers wearing “these nice little beaded moccasins that my grandma had made me to wear for school, and I was very proud of them.” She says the staff took them and threw them in the garbage before issuing her new clothes, ones more consistent with the Christian Canadian culture she was meant to assimilate.

Taking away children’s clothes was intended to distance them from their cultures and families, and was only one of the factors that inspired many children to attempt to run away, back to their families, despite the risks. “At least thirty-three students died, usually due to exposure, after running away from school.”

The authorities pursued them doggedly, in at least one case going door-to-door, searching every house in town, looking for two children. Police and other agents of the state were able to do this even though “running away was not in itself a crime.” How?

“Most students were wearing school-issued clothing when they ran away, and, in some cases, principals tried, and even succeeded, in having them prosecuted for stealing the clothing they were wearing.”

In other words, the school took away their clothes, then used that theft to accuse the children themselves of stealing. In this way at least some children stayed trapped in the system, and were taken away from their families yet again.

From pages 2, 40, and 119 of the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Photo: Thomas Moore, before and after being admitted to the Regina Indian Industrial School, Saskatchewan, in 1874. Library and Archives Canada, NL-022474

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