Behind Closed Doors: Tales from Canada’s Hidden Holocaust

There was nothing of First Nations [sic] language, culture or history taught to the children at the residential school. The purpose of the residential schools was to do away with First Nations’ language and culture and to assimilate the children into white society.

Behind Closed Doors

On 13 September 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP). It was carried by the UN General Assembly despite the shameful nay-vote cast by Canada (along with nay-votes from other colonized and occupied states such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States).

The Declaration sets standards for the treatment of Indigenous Peoples that should provide a framework for the protection of their human rights. The DRIP is non-binding, as is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so adherence to the Declaration is compelled only by a state’s sense of morality and concern for its reputation in the eyes of the world.

Canada’s minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, Chuck Strahl, complained about the DRIP: “It’s not balanced, in our view, and inconsistent with the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms].”

The opposition of Canadian authorities to the DRIP is understandable in light of how Canada came about. Canada is a state founded on the dispossession of its Original Peoples. The dispossession is ongoing.[efn_note]See Robert Davis and Mark Zannis, The Genocide Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North (Toronto: Black Rose, 1973).[/efn_note]

A major plank in the Canadian government’s program has been the assimilation of the Original Peoples. This was clearly demonstrated by the state’s removal of indigenous children from their homes and families and placing them in a residential school system which sought to replace indigenous languages, religion, and culture with English language, Christianity, and western culture.

Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Kamloops Indian Residential School, edited by Agnes Jack, is a collection of 32 stories as told by Original Peoples of their own experiences in the residential school system.

The Kamloops Indian Residential School (KIRS) was situated in Kamloops — a small city in the south-central part of the province dubbed “British Columbia.” The KIRS, which operated from 1893 until it was closed in 1977, was part of the government’s assimilationist policy.

The story tellers relate accounts of a learned dysfuntionality from the KIRS which perpetuated itself through generations of Original Peoples.

The dysfunctionality originated in the treatment at the school. Individuality was stripped from the children by shearing their long hair, wearing of uniforms, and strict separation of girls and boys, even of family members.

There are tales of loneliness, long hours of labor, and harsh discipline that included beatings.

Said former KIRS student William Brewer, “[T]hey’d beat you up if you spoke your language. Most of them kids that were coming to that school, they could hardly speak English in them days.”

Ex-KIRS student Mary Anderson lamented, “No one got a comfort of any kind [at the school].” There were no hot baths; the building was cold; and the food was inferior, gristly, and sour.

Dorothy Jones recalled, “The teachers called us savages.”[efn_note]For another perspective on who the savages were, see Daniel N. Paul’s We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision Between European and Native American Civilizations (Nova Scotia: Fernwood Books, 2000).[/efn_note]

Former KIRS student Robert Simon described the school as a prison: “I don’t know what else it could be described as other than a jail. Any place that holds you against your will, punishes you and sets up rules to totally retrain your thinking.”

There were sports, dances, and movie nights. Movie nights at the school often featured John Wayne defeating the Indian savages. Indigenous dances were eschewed in favor of dances chosen by the school clergy. Horribly, there are also tales of sexual molestation and rapes suffered by the children.

Simon rued that the churches have not taken responsibility for their role in the assimilation of indigenous children.

Ron Ignace told of millennial-old indigenous languages, repositories of “vast amounts of intellectual knowledge representing a great reservoir of cultural heritage” that were “driven to the brink of extinction by Canada.” Ignace noted that Canada has done little to right this wrong, and, as a consequence, indigenous languages are still threatened.

Wanye Christinson said, “The residential schools are our holocaust. The government forcibly confined and rendered our people powerless by their laws and policies of cultural genocide. We are speaking of 150 years of trauma and horror where our children were systematically brainwashed to not resist the government’s legislation of assimilation and genocide.”

Despite this, the hardiness of many children that attended the residential schools shows them to be survivors. Telling of the tribulations in the residential school was part of the catharsis of survival.

Behind Closed Doors is a first hand history that all Canadians should be familiar with. If diasporic Canadians become aware of how Canada was established and is being further developed by trampling on Indigenous rights, would morality guide a national conscience and reach out to the Original Peoples? Becoming aware is the first step.


Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. sheldon g said on September 24th, 2007 at 7:56am #

    this is the case in the U.S too, in the guise of boarding schools in the 1800’s well in to the mid 60’s where native americans were forced to lose thier identity and taught that our langauge, spirit and culture were inferior to western values….This is cultural genocide…our way of life is dwindling away….thank you america….thank you columbus…your right and im wrong, your civilized and im a savage

  2. Brent said on September 24th, 2007 at 10:43am #

    I have witnessed such lies from all government officials who possess to be in a world of they own.
    Genocide is here to stay, facts prove government are constant demons, ready for their demise(political).
    I am against racial remarks, but one can only take so much from hearing all the negative attitude towards First Nations people.
    The outside world needs to visit a First Nations community to gain real insight to what hmpers growth for First Nations people.
    Then all Canadians and the world will see how government has escalated the miseryon First Nations community.

  3. Thomas Victor said on September 24th, 2007 at 6:54pm #

    I’m kinda surprised Kim, haven’t you heard of the Kevin Arnett revelations re. Residential Indian Schools in Canada?

    Your articles deals with the native american kids being denied their own culture and being forced to assimilate into the majority culture.

    But that is ‘minimizing’ what actually happened. Arnett has documented murder, mass sterilization and so on. This is all very well known. You are saying ‘cultural genocide’ where there was actual physical genocide it seems.

    So do you believe Arnett is lying regarding the schools and regarding the United Church? Is that why this is such a bland article regarding the horrible crimes committed against children in those residential schools?

    If so you should state your reservations re. Kevin.Otherwise this looks like a cover-up!

  4. joe said on September 25th, 2007 at 9:29am #

    Wow, Thomas, what an extraordinary comment.
    I see it like this:
    I don’t know all that much about treatment of Indians in Canada, but I feel I’d like to, I feel I should. I learn about a book that seems informative and disturbing. I read it, and want to pass on what I’ve learned, for I think everyone should know…
    I assume this is what Mr. Peterson did. He produced a powerful, interesting and informative essay – one which I’ll not forget for quite a while. I don’t see how that warrants a barbed criticism about not having read other books, and not reporting other information.
    You seem to imply that one should know all there is to know about a subject before writing anything at all – even an excellent review of what seems to be a superb book. Give us all a break, pal.
    As you seem to be in possession of broader, deeper knowledge on this subject, and as this subject is obviously important to you, and as you feel this subject should be important to everyone – stop whining, stop growling, do some hard work, publish your own essay, and inform us further. Or –
    You could have just offered the hyperlink without all the self-aggrandizing blab…

  5. Tim said on September 25th, 2007 at 11:02am #

    The treatment of First Nations peoples in both countriesputs us right there with Apartheid South Africa and the U.S. during the Jim Crow days.It’s time these atrocities were EXPOSED.

  6. Louise Thundercloud said on September 25th, 2007 at 12:29pm #

    I know that this has grieved me terribly. I was unable to walk upright without breaking down & crying when the news in my area covered this issue in canada.
    A Eastern Cherokee friend of mine held me up when he saw me & told me to be strong. My grandmother’s mother who is Salish & Blackfoot, told me of the children that the Catholics took away, & never returned.

  7. Ring Huggins (Many Stones) said on September 26th, 2007 at 8:31am #


    It is unfortunate the way Native peoples have been treated by governments, churches and Europeans world wide and the exposure of such treatment is important, however, it should be noted that since the early 1960’s there has been much done by both the U.S. and Canadian governments to in some ways rectify that treatment. More needs doing.

    Having worked many years with Native people in both countries from the Texas Mexican border to the North West Territories and lived in Kamloops by the way, would suggest that we focus on forgiveness and healing in the Native tradition as tought by such people as Chuck Storm.

    May the Great Spirit keep the wind at your back and the sun on your face.

    Many Stones

  8. Iris Nicholas said on September 26th, 2007 at 4:25pm #

    Imagine! Living in a prison for “Indian Children” ruled by a racist government and a supreme catholic church, also the tramatic effects it had on the “Indian Children” who served up to 12 years in those prisons. THINK , FEEL, UNDERSTAND the ripple effect it had on all our people and our communities!

  9. hp said on September 27th, 2007 at 9:55am #

    Give me a break. No one cares about this beyond some yawning lip service. Don’t you people know there was only ONE Hollowco$t which matters? ONE. The ONE you are not allowed to discuss..

  10. hp said on September 27th, 2007 at 10:17am #

    If my above statement hurt anyone please accept my apology. I was simply trying to make a point. The point that there is only one group of people in this world who are afforded every civility, every courtesy, every loan, every billions and billions and billions of aid, every censure of their despicable behaviour, every lie for as truth, every truth against as lie, every belief their God is the only God.
    Sounds like a curse to me..

  11. Lloyd Rowsey said on October 7th, 2007 at 9:31am #

    Kim, I’d ask you to update me on numerous fronts, but it’s clear you’re striking fire right now wherever you turn. I just finished the 2nd part of your Kalaallit-colonialism-Thule Airbase Trilogy, and you’re doing absolutely astounding reporting. Keep up the good work.

  12. KGS said on November 26th, 2007 at 6:59pm #

    The problem is that the attempt to assimilate Indians into white society was an attempt to improve their lot, to increase their human rights. If anyone actually cares to read up on Indian cultures, you’d realize that they actually lived quite a brutal extistence. Each group had numerous cultural practices that by our standard would be abhorent, yet here we are now acting as though depriving Indians of such things is a violation of their human rights. The way I see it, at one point or another, all of out ancestors lived at the same level that Indians once did. But because for many of us the period of assimilation happened so long ago, the “suffering” that was involved is forgotten to us. It’s unfortunate that such “suffering” has to take place when people are yanked out of a more primative lifestyle, but in the end, isn’t not doing so more of a human rights violation?

  13. Dissident Voice : The Emptiness of a Limited Apology said on June 12th, 2008 at 5:16am #

    […] to ‘kill the Indian in the child,’” Cape Breton Post, 12 June 2008. #Kim Petersen, “Behind Closed Doors: Tales from Canada’s Hidden Holocaust,” Dissident Voice, 24 September 2007. #The Law Society of Upper Canada admitted to attorney Bruce […]