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In the 1880s, through an amendment to the Indian Act of 1876, the government of Canada began to require all Aboriginal children to attend schools administered by churches. Separating these children from their families, removing them from their communities and destroying Aboriginal culture by denying them the right to speak Indigenous languages and perform native spiritual ceremonies, these residential schools were explicitly developed to assimilate Aboriginal peoples into Canadian culture and erase their existence as a people.
Daring to break the code of silence imposed on Aboriginal students, residential school survivor Isabelle Knockwood offers the firsthand experiences of forty-two survivors of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School. In their own words, these former students remember their first day of residential schooling, when they were outwardly transformed through hair cuts and striped uniforms marked with numbers. Then followed years of inner transformation from a strict and regimented life of education and manual training, as well as harsh punishments for speaking their own language or engaging in Indigenous customs. The survivors also speak of being released from their school — and having to decide between living in a racist and unwelcoming dominant society or returning to reserves where the Aboriginal culture had evolved.
In this newly updated fourth edition, Knockwood speaks to twenty-one survivors of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School about their reaction to the apology by the Canadian government in 2008. Is it now possible to move forward?
First published in 1992, Knockwood based her history on interviews with forty-two of the students and her own dozen years in the School. She updated her book three times; the fourth edition (2015), from Fernwood Publishing, adds a chapter on the reactions of 21 survivors to the government apology in 2008. Isabelle Knockwood died last July at the age of 89.
Knockwood provides balance. She recounts the horrors told to her by the survivors, but also the better moments of kindness and play; she includes statements by some survivors who compliment the School. But the litany of cruelty is overwhelming and bizarre, as if a critical mass of School leaders and staff had been chosen for their sadism and the ability to hide it. And this cannot be blamed on 19th-century thinking: the school opened in 1930.
— Robert Czerny, igNation.ca (full review)