In a State of Metamorphosis: Artistic Responses in the Legacy of the Residential School Experience

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Debassige, Suzanne

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University of Guelph


This thesis explores artworks created by established Canadian Aboriginal artists in response to the Residential School experience. The prototype Residential School was the Carlisle Indian Residential School in Pennsylvania founded by Captain Richard Henry Pratt who, although he liked Indians, had little use for Indian culture (Adams 51). Pratt’s vision was to reform “the Indian,” which stated his goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man” (Adams 52) through a comprehensive education and training program designed to make the Indian a citizen. In Canada, the Canadian government adopted an “aggressive civilization” policy similar to that of the Carlisle Indian Residential School, upon graduation “the Indian” would have learned the English language, individualism, Christianity, and trades to function as a citizen. However, in Canada the driving force behind Residential Schools was not intended to reform “the Indian”, but rather to outright exterminate Aboriginal culture through acts of genocide. The intentions behind assimilation were clearly stated by the Deputy Superintended of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem…. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian Question and no Indian Department” (AFH, Healing 3). The goal for Residential Schools was to keep Aboriginal children separated from their culture for as long as possible and immersed in a “so-called” civilized environment of Residential Schools. This environment was foreign, unfamiliar and frightening for Aboriginal children. The curriculum and vocational training were often accompanied by corporal punishment that left many Aboriginal children devastated by the Residential School experience. This thesis focuses upon established Contemporary Canadian Aboriginal artists who have exhibited works in response to the residential themes. Artists such as Robert Houle, Adrian Stimson, Joane Cardinal-Schubert, Jane Ash Poitras, Lita Fontaine and Carl Beam seek to represent the emotional, physical and spiritual effects of the Residential Schools on Aboriginal lives and histories. There has been little research on the Aboriginal artistic response to the Residential School experience, and with this thesis I hope to fill this void.



Artwork, Canadian Aboriginal artists, Residential School experience, Agressive civilization, Assimilation