Native Awakening
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Alberta Indians occupy a rural residential school and signal a new era in native activism
In July 1970, Alberta natives occupied a rural school demanding the right to control their own education. The two-week sit-in signalled the dawn of a new era in native activism after more than a century of slow misery.
In 1969, native leaders protested a proposal to terminate Indian treaties and integrate native children into white schools. Pictured here, Minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chretien meeting with native leaders in Ottawa, May 1969. (National Archives of Cana
In 1969, native leaders protested a proposal to terminate Indian treaties and integrate native children into white schools. Pictured here, Minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chretien meeting with native leaders in Ottawa, May 1969. (National Archives of Canada, PA-170161)

Charles Wood was among the two hundred protesters at the Blue Quills school near St. Paul in Central Alberta.

"We have been told that native culture was not good, and that our customs were no-good pagan rites for so long that it was hard for us to believe we were good enough [to run our own schools]," said Wood, the manager of the nearby Saddle Lake band.

"But, one evening, one of the elders stood up and asked: How many of you have studied up to grade 12? No hand showed. Then, How many of you have studied up to ninth grade? A few hands. See? the old man said, almost none of us can claim to have received an education. But the white man, the clergy, have been in charge of our education for over a century. We cant do worse than them."

The events at Blue Quills school were triggered a year earlier when Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien delivered a White Paper (government policy outline) that proposed to end the long-standing practice of treating Indians differently from other Canadian citizens. Among other things, it would provide a fund of $50 million to compensate for the termination of the treaties, abolish reserves and integrate many native children into white schools.

For a century, the federal government had assumed the responsibility for the education of aboriginal people, a job which it then delegated to the churches. They had set up a series of residential schools for native children, which in the 1960s were coming under attack by natives for their educational limitations and reports of decades of physical and sexual abuse.

"My first memory of education is being trucked into the school," said Leona Makokis, from the Saddle Lake Reserve. "We were all lifted into a big truck box, where we lay looking up at the sky. There were kids screaming and hollering around us, and we were driven away from our families."

The residential school curriculum dismissed native history and forbade teaching in native languages. In 1966, the high-school drop-out rate among natives was 94 per cent.

The Blue Quills school was run by Catholic priests and nuns and served 11 native reserves. By July 1970, the federal government had backed off from its White Paper recommendations in the face of stiff opposition from native chiefs. But the Blue Quills school was still slated to close.

Stanley Redcrow, had two children at the school and was also the only native who worked there. He was furious at government plan.

"This is our school. We can take it, we can run it ourselves. We wont need the sisters and we dont need the priest for education. "

The parents asked the government to give them the school instead. Indian Affairs wouldnt budge.

The parents in Saddle Lake decided they would take over the school anyway. On July 14, they began their sit-in. They set up camp in the school yard and held prayer meetings in the gymnasium.

Margaret Quinney was involved in the occupation. "This was our school," she said. "We did not want them to close it. Some of the older kids had tried integrated schools. They were saying it was even tougher than residential school. We thought we could manage the school, and educate our own children."

Natives across Canada rallied to their cause and the protest received international media attention. César Chávez, leader of the California farm workers union, sent a crate of grapes in a gesture of solidarity.

At the end of July, Harold Cardinal, president of the Indian Association of Alberta and 15 other protesters were flown to Ottawa for three days of meetings with Jean Chrétien and his officials.

In the end, the federal authorities relented, and in September 1970, Blue Quills School became the first school in Canada managed and operated by aboriginal people.

The first school board included representatives from all 11 reserves in the area. Mike Steinhauer became its executive director.

"The first thing I did was take down all the crucifixes from the walls, all the traces of white religious domination in our education."

For Margaret Quinney, from Frog Lake band, their victory opened the way to a brighter future.

"We wanted to re-introduce our children to their native culture, and, above all, to make them proud of their heritage," Quinney said.

In 1972, the National Indian Brotherhood (which later became the Assembly of First Nations) formally proposed local community control of schools and teaching in native languages, a policy subsequently adopted by the Department of Indian Affairs.


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