The Métis are sometimes described as the “forgotten people,” particularly when it comes to the residential school experience.
In this episode, Dr. Tricia Logan, a Métis historian and researcher at the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC, describes the complex and nuanced experiences of Métis students within the system. Survivors Linda Blomme, Larry Langille
and Louis Bellrose recount their experiences in the residential school system. Hosted by Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, this is “Residential Schools: Métis Experiences.”
Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais: A warning to listeners: this episode contains potentially triggering subject matter and includes testimony directly from residential school Survivors.
Larry Langille:“I don’t know what I’d have been like if I would not have gone through that system. I know I would’ve had some kind of an education…”
SRD: That's Larry Langille. In 1948, he was taken to Morley Residential School in Alberta. Nearly sixty years later, he told his story to the Legacy of Hope Foundation.
LL: “I got no education at all. I can’t read or write. In the places I was, they didn’t care…”
SRD: In all, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended residential schools. Of those, thousands died either at school or directly because of their experiences in the system.
Tansi, I’m your host Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, and this is Residential Schools, a three-part series from Historica Canada on the history and legacy of residential schools. In this episode, we’re talking about the Métis experiences.
In the 1800s, the federal government started working with Christian churches to establish a system of residential schools across the country. These government-sponsored religious schools were part of a larger goal: the forced assimilation of Indigenous people into Euro-Canadian society.
Tricia E. Logan:“The Métis were considered by, especially the federal government, to be something that was to be quote unquote “dealt with” by the provinces.”
SRD: That’s Métis historian Dr. Tricia Logan. She works at the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia. She’s spent the past two decades writing about Métis experiences at residential schools.
In 1876, the government introduced the Indian Act, which gave them sweeping powers over the lives and fates of First Nations peoples in Canada.
However, Métis weren’t included.
TEL: “So, often Métis people did not receive the same kinds of support or funding or services in terms of schools and health because they fell into this kind of jurisdictional gray area, or the provinces or the federal government just said that they would not support them at all.”
SRD: Just a note before we go any further: in historical documents, the terms Métis and “Halfbreed” typically refer to Indigenous people whose historic homeland stretches from northwestern Ontario westward. “Halfbreed” is a derogatory term used particularly by government entities to describe members of what is now considered the Métis Nation.
But even the use of the word Métis is complicated. Not all people who are categorized as Métis identify themselves that way.
From 1955 to 1966, Linda Blomme attended Pine Creek Residential School in Camperville, Manitoba. Her mother was Métis and her father was First Nations from the nearby reserve. Linda identifies as a Treaty person.
LB: “We had a sort of carefree life I guess when we were growing up at home. My mom was Métis. And she came from Camperville, that’s where she grew up. And they spoke Michif over there, so we learned Michif. And then my other grandmother, my dad’s mother, she spoke Cree only. So we spoke Cree to her. We learned Cree.”
SRD: In the 1900s, the government classified Métis children into three broad categories to decide who would go to school and where. Here’s Tricia reading an excerpt from a letter signed by a team of school officials from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta:
TEL: “‘Halfbreeds may be grouped into three fairly well-defined classes. Number one, those who live in varying degrees of conditions, the ordinary settled life of the country. Number two, those who live in varying degrees, the Indian mode of life. And number three, those who, and they form the most unfortunate class in the community, are the illegitimate offspring of Indian women of whom white men are not the begetters...’”
SRD: In simpler language, the government and the church put Métis into categories based on…”
TEL: “...who they felt were living an ordinary settled life of the country, essentially like white people, those who lived an Indian mode or on kind of a Métis community or something that they considered to live like “Indians” and then those who were, they considered as, illegitimate children.”
SRD: The so-called “class” of Métis was often dependent on where and how they lived. But those same conditions were the result of government policies. Laws that stripped Métis of their land rights and forced many to live literally on the margins of society...
TEL: “Physically, the road allowances were the portion of land that's kind of between the edge of the road and where a farmer’s fence or Crown land would have started … Métis communities that were forced from their communities created their own communities, often along these road allowances. And so Métis people became often known as “road allowance people,” often considered outsiders or kind of, for a period of time, were labeled as forgotten people, even though often were quite visible in these large road allowance communities.”
SRD: Much of Métis attendance at residential schools went unrecorded, primarily because many students would be moved between federally-funded First Nations and some Inuit schools to fill quotas, only to be sent home at the end of the day.
TEL: “Sometimes it would be Métis kids that would be the ones that would be kind of shuttled around from school to school to kind of bump up the numbers of a certain school because the schools will get more funding if they had more kids. Based on this, you know, how many kids were in your school meant you got more money…”
SRD: Tricia says that the class system that governed Métis lives outside of residential school crept into the schools...
TEL: “Some days when an Indian agent would come, they remember, there are Survivors that remember being kind of dressed up in their uniform on that one day to be counted in line with the rest of the kids. But then on other days they weren't allowed to be in the same spaces as all the other kids.”
SRD: Linda distinctly remembers the day that she entered residential school.
LB: “...I don’t know how many steps you had to go up to the office. My dad was taking me. And I was on his right side and my brother was on his left side. But I remember being proud, being happy, being proud of who I was and I remember walking sort of tall and I was only 5. Well, that didn’t last too long because once we got inside, that was it.”
SRD: The Residential Schools podcast is part of a larger awareness campaign created by Historica Canada and funded by the Government of Canada in the spirit of reconciliation outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Along with the podcast series, Historica also offers a video series, an education guide, and several new entries on The Canadian Encyclopedia about the history and legacy of residential schools. Visit thecanadianencyclopedia.ca for more information.
SRD: While Métis kids were used to fill other schools’ quotas, Métis-specific schools were inconsistently funded by the government.
Poor facilities and staffing, malnutrition and widespread illness were common at residential schools, but Métis Survivors remembered being treated differently by staff – even classmates.
By the time Louis Bellrose was at St. Bernard Indian Residential School in the mid-1940s, Métis students made up half of the school’s student body.
He remembered being given a particular name by staff.
LB: “When I went to school, we were called “externs.” I don’t think that’s a word in the dictionary or anything.”
SRD: Being an “extern” meant that Louis wasn’t allowed to stay at the residential school overnight. It didn’t matter that he lived so far from school. He walked over six kilometres, there and back, every day.
But school-aged Métis children like Louis didn’t have much of a choice: they were often considered “too Indian” to attend provincial public schools and “too white” for residential schools. Tricia says parents were left with few options when it came to their children’s education.
TEL: Because the government wasn't willing to pay for them to be there, or didn't want them to be there, they kind of asked Métis families to kind of chip in.
SRD: Sometimes that meant students had to spend time milking cows or shovelling manure while other students were in class.
Some Métis Survivors even remember having to go to the bathroom outside in the dead of winter while the other students used indoor facilities.
LB: “They called us savages, whichever language it was – “sauvage” is French of course and “savage” is in English. They had all kinds of names for us.”
SRD: The separate class system many considered the Métis to be part of can be traced back to the Resistances of 1869 and 1885.
In the fall of 1869, a group of Métis riders, led by Louis Riel. confronted a survey crew that was assessing land for the arrival of settlers west of the Red River. One of the riders — some speculate it was Riel himself — stepped on a surveyor’s chain, making clear that they opposed Canada’s westward expansion.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Resistances led to the enforcement of Canadian law in the West and solidified the government’s view of Métis as a dangerous, rebellious group.
Here’s Tricia again:
TEL: “There was a lot of correspondence and concern and government questions about how effective are the residential schools in creating, you know, good Canadian citizens, good loyal Canadian citizens. And so, a lot of questions lingered about Metis communities and if attempts at assimilation were having any bearing on these what were considered very rebellious, quote unquote “rebellious,” Metis people."
SRD: Tricia says some Métis students were taught about the 1885 Resistance and the hanging of Louis Riel in school, not necessarily as a part of history class, but to learn a lesson about the consequences of being rebellious.
To protect themselves, some Métis families went as far as to deny their true identities.
TEL: “This is something that happened quite often in Métis communities where people would identify as French, some people would talk about their grandparents telling that they were Italian...”
Larry Langille remembers his grandmother telling him something similar...
Larry Langille: “People look at me real funny because they don’t realize that this is my culture, because I don’t look like a Native. I was very lucky, my grandmother said I was very lucky... because people would look at me and they wouldn’t know. They wouldn’t know.”
SRD: A note here that the following section details specific instances of abuse that may be triggering to some listeners. Complex feelings may emerge. Take breaks and reach out to someone you trust. If possible, seek support from someone knowledgeable about residential schools and their legacies. These may include counsellors, Indigenous knowledge keepers, or other community health practitioners.
At residential school, any sort of rebellious act was often met with harsh punishment. Larry remembered one instance in particular from when he was just six years old.
LL: “I was known as a runner. That’s when you run away. Well, they knew how to stop me from running. There used to be these long wooden benches and every time you did something wrong, you stood on them and stood on a pointer with bibles in each hand. And that was very painful. The Sisters had these big-heeled shoes. They smashed that bone in my toe, the big bone. They said, “Now run”.”
SRD: But there are also accounts of students targeting their Métis peers at school.
Raphael Ironstand went to Pine Creek Residential School. He described an incident to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wherein Cree peers brutally beat him.
“They called me ‘Monias,’ while telling me the school was for Indians only. I tried to tell them I was not a Monias, which I now know meant white man, but a real Indian. That triggered their attack, in unison. I was kicked, punched, bitten and my hair
pulled out by the roots. My clothes were also shredded, but the Crees suddenly disappeared, leaving me lying on the ground, bleeding and bruised.”
Sexual abuse also occurred between students.
An unidentified former student from Île-à-la-Crosse told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that physical and sexual abuse was common between older boys and younger students in the dormitories at night.
This type of behaviour was learned. Another Survivor described the way that school staff preyed on students’ loneliness. Priests and supervisors reportedly molested their so-called “favourite boys.”
At one point, Linda Blomme’s family lived across the street from the residential school. She remembers looking out and seeing her mother in the window of her home.
LB: “I remember looking out one time and banging on the window and she didn’t hear me. I was banging and banging you know? Because I was locked up in the dormitory for being bad. I don’t know what I really did, you know? Other than just being a typical child, you know? And I couldn’t be it because I would get into trouble.”
SRD: Many Métis students could return home at the end of the day, either because they were attending day school or because they weren’t allowed to stay at the residential school. Returning home could be a good thing: surrounded by their families, some were able to maintain their language and culture.
But at school, Louis Bellrose says, speaking your own language meant severe punishment.
LB: “It was a forbidden thing to talk our language. The teachers called it the devil’s language. We were punished very severely when we tried talking our own language, our mother tongue.”
SRD: Despite these very real and complex experiences, the Métis are often considered the forgotten piece within the residential school system. When Tricia Logan started writing about residential schools in university, a professor told her she couldn’t include the Métis because only First Nations children had attended. But Tricia knew firsthand that wasn’t the case.
TEL: “I knew that my own family attended residential schools and I met a lot of Métis community members that attended residential schools and some of the day schools as well. And so I knew just by my own anecdotal, my own life and my own anecdotal evidence and conversations I had that Métis people, without a doubt, did attend the schools. And that it was hard to find the records and it was hard to see what kind of, you know, attendance records there were but that was some of the work I did with the communities was to find those stories.”
SRD: Tricia began this work in the early 2000s. In many ways, it gave voice to Survivors.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools. The treatment of children in Indian Residential Schools is a sad chapter in our history.”
SRD: In 2008, in the presence of Survivors and the House of Commons, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a formal statement of apology to Survivors of residential schools.
SH: “The Government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities. Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities. First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools.”
SRD: The apology came after the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. However, many schools — particularly residential schools which had mostly Métis students and day schools — weren’t included in that settlement.
TEL: “As the federal government and church representatives became involved in this movement, a line had to be drawn of which schools would be included and which schools would not be included. And a lot of those lines were drawn on which schools were funded by the federal government.”
SRD: Yet again, the Métis were the outsiders.
But that slowly changed. More than a decade later, in 2019, the federal government approved the settlement of a class-action lawsuit, one that would compensate thousands of former students who attended Day Schools. Many of those Survivors are Métis.
LB: “Well, I think that when this can of worms was opened for us, and that’s what I call it because that’s what it was, a lot of us had put all these feelings, all these hurts, all these memories in our own little Pandora’s box. We threw away the key.”
SRD: Linda wasn’t the only one who tried to forget. As Tricia reminds us, it seems like the country as a whole tried to put residential schools in the past.
TEL: “For a long time, the rest of Canada didn't really engage or know a lot about residential school history.”
SRD: But, she says, all of that changed with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As Survivors began opening up about their experiences, the country was confronted by its past and what that means in the present.
TEL: “When I think of Survivors giving their stories to the Truth Reconciliation Commission, I think if we listen to them, we can see that Survivors did not take their stories out of context. Meaning, repeatedly Survivors said you can't listen to our stories about what happened to us at residential school without also considering what's happening today.”
SRD: This is something Linda echoed in her interview with Legacy of Hope over a decade ago...
LB: “When they asked me to come here and if I was willing to do this, you know. I thought yeah, it’s going to be part of my healing. You know, be part of a place where I will be forever. And maybe help somebody along the way to understand what their parent has gone through, what their grandparent has gone through. You know, I have grandchildren and I spoil them. But I would like to let them hear my story one day. You know, so that’s what I’d like to leave.”
SRD: On our next episode we focus on Inuit experiences at residential school.
Piita Irniq: “They took all of our traditional clothing and for the first time I saw and wore shoes. For the first time I saw a pair of jeans. We had overnight become white men and white women, little children.”
SRD: If you or someone you know are in need of immediate support, here are some resources:
National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, 1-866-925-4419
The Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 (phone services available in Cree, Ojibwe, Inuktitut, French and English)
The Hope for Wellness Help Line also offers online support services at hopeforwellness.ca
Kids Help Phone, 1-800-668-6868
I’m Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais.
The Residential Schools podcast was written and produced by Historica Canada. The series was made possible in part by funding from the Government of Canada.
Ekosani to Louis Bellrose, Linda Blomme, Larry Langille and all of the Survivors who shared their stories.
Special thanks to our consultants: Tricia Logan, Larry Chartrand and Guy Freedman.
Thanks to the Legacy of Hope Foundation for providing Survivor testimony. To the University of Regina’s Shattering the Silence and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Findings.
Fact-checking by Nicole Schmidt.
Subscribe to Residential Schools on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
Ekosani for listening.
Special thanks to Survivors Linda Blomme, Larry Langille, and Louis Bellrose. Survivor testimony for this episode was provided by the Legacy of Hope Foundation. Additional resources include University of Regina’s Shattering Silence and
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report,Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.
Thanks to our consultants: Guy Freedman, Métis from Flin Flon and president and senior partner of the First Peoples Group, and Larry Chartrand, professor in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa and co-author of Métis History and Experience and Residential Schools in Canada (2006).