Underfunding was the fly in the works

While students in this photo taken at St. Mary's Residential School in Cardston appear well feed, poor government funding was a constant barrier to meeting the dietary and other needs of residential school students.


While students in this photo taken at St. Mary's Residential School in Cardston appear well feed, poor government funding was a constant barrier to meeting the dietary and other needs of residential school students.

February 17, 2014

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canadians for the residential school system in 2008, one item was notably absent from the list of matters for which he was sorry – chronic underfunding of the schools.

A major reason that the experience of children in the schools was, as Harper said, "profoundly negative" was that the federal government never came close to providing enough money to operate and maintain the schools adequately.

That underfunding led to poor and insufficient diets, inadequate clothing, an impoverished education, poor fire safety, lack of repairs, the spread of disease and students being used as free labour to make up for understaffing.

John Milloy, in his 1999 history of the residential schools, A National Crime, maintained that chronic underfunding was "the most persistent flaw in the system," one "which ensured that the quality of care and education remained constantly far below acceptable standards."

For 65 years, from 1892 to 1957, the schools were funded through a program of per capita grants, which from the day they were instituted were below the financial needs of the Church-run schools.

The funding system assumed, according to Milloy, that the schools would be able to enroll sufficient students to operate economically. While that assumption often proved to be far off the mark, it also led to overcrowding in some schools as administrators sought to get enough money to keep the ship afloat.

Raymond Huel, in his 1996 book Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Metis, said the most successful of the original industrial schools – "success" being a highly relative term – was the Qu'Appelle Industrial School at Lebret, Sask.

The founder of the school, Father Joseph Hugonard, frequently ran afoul of the federal government for not running the school economically enough and feeding hungry people who were not students at the school.

Milloy quotes an Indian agent who, in regard to the school in Kamloops, wrote in 1918, "If the children are to be kept, they ought to be reasonably clothed and fed, and this is utterly impossible to do from the present per capita grant."

A dietitian reported "unrealistic" menus at one school in 1969 that consisted of macaroni or spaghetti four times in one week and bologna five times. A study at the Elkhorn School in 1943-44 found that 28 per cent of the girls and 69 per cent of the boys were underweight.


Milloy wrote of "congenital inaction on the department's part in the face of hunger," inaction he attributed directly to government underfunding of the schools.

Inadequate funding also undermined building maintenance and repairs. By 1922, the majority were not up to modern standards and some were "dilapidated and inadequate." Poor maintenance of the structures adversely affected the health of students and staff, and was seen as leading to the spread of tuberculosis.

Although students were required to have a medical certificate, Dr. C. Pitts, who served the school in Lejac, B.C., called the regulation a farce. If he applied the same standards of health in provincial schools that were applied in the residential schools, 90 per cent of the children would have to be sent home.

Application of that requirement "is not done in any other school that I have knowledge of," Pitts wrote.


Milloy wrote that, given the incomplete records of the schools, it is impossible to make an accurate estimate of the number of deaths for any time period. But he quotes S.H. Blake, who studied Anglican-run residential schools in 1908 and said there was an "appalling number of deaths."

Churches and government shared in complicity for those deaths, Milloy said.

An Indian agent named Mr. MacArthur estimated in 1910 that nearly 50 per cent of the children sent to the school at Duck Lake, Sask., died because of being confined to a building "whose every seam and crevice is, doubtless, burdened with tuberculosis baccilli."

Underfunding also meant understaffing. To overcome the deficiency, students often became free labour, working in the barns, fields, woodlots, laundries and bakeries of the schools. The 15-hour days no doubt made the underfed, overworked children more susceptible to disease.


In 1957, the per capita funding system was replaced by a "controlled cost" system which was supposed to bring greater efficiency and assure proper standards of food, clothing and supervision. It didn't happen.

Eleven years later, the national association of principals of residential schools complained of an almost endless list of woes due to underfunding. Nor were the problems resolved when the government took over the running of the schools from the churches in 1969.

The federal government simply would not pay enough to operate and maintain the schools, an ongoing disposition for which the students who attended Indian residential schools paid a huge price. It is also inaction and neglect for which the government has still not sought forgiveness.