For over 100 years, about 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their homes and placed in boarding schools designed to assimilate them into Canadian settler society. The goal was — explicitly — to “kill the Indian in the child.”
The history of the Blue Quills Residential School
In 1931, the Blue Quills Residential School begins operations three miles west of St. Paul, AB. Classes are taught by the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns.
Students are taken from 12 reserves in the neighbouring Seven Bands area. Students are taught that their culture is deplorable and their language, Cree, means nothing; physical and sexual abuse are part of daily life
In 1969, only four staff members are Indigenous. None of them are teachers. Stanley Redcrow, a former Blue Quills student, works at the school as a maintenance man. His children attend the school, but he brings them home every evening — knowing that the worst abuse happens at night.
Redcrow has spent years advocating for Indigenous teachers at Blue Quills, but the administration keeps telling him that Indigenous teachers are not qualified.
A plan to put Indigenous education in the hands of Indigenous people
Redcrow and Alice Makokis, a school counsellor with the Department of Indian Affairs, catch wind of conversations on the future of Blue Quills. School officials plan to sell Blue Quills to the town of St. Paul for a bargain: one dollar.
The government plans to assimilate the students into public schools, which is not what Indigenous parents want. They want to start teaching First Nations children their own history.
Redcrow, Makokis and their fellow supporters form a group called the Blue Quills Native Education Council. They see an opportunity in the looming crisis: a potential way to put Indigenous education back in the hands of their own people.
The sit-in begins
Both Makokis and committees of parents ask the federal government several times to transfer control of Blue Quills over to the Native Education Council instead of selling it. The Department of Indian Affairs refuses to budge.
The sit-in at Blue Quills begins in July 1970. Stanley Redcrow and fellow parents occupy the school, demanding to be given control of the education of their children.
The protest starts with 60 people, but soon swells to over 300. With one car and one credit card among the protesters, it’s difficult to maintain momentum, but spirits are kept high with enthusiastic support from Indigenous communities, both local and distant, and growing media attention.
Pipe and smudging ceremonies — cultural rituals that had been banned since Blue Quills’ founding — ground the protestors and give them focus. Supporters donate funds and young Indigenous men hunt daily to feed the sit-in participants.
The sit-in continues for 17 days
Representatives from the Department of Indian Affairs try to negotiate, but Stanley Redcrow and the Native Education Council insist on going straight to the top: they want to speak to Minister of Indian Affairs (and future Prime Minister) Jean Chrétien.
When Department officials tell them Chrétien won’t visit, Redcrow offers a compromise: pay the airfare for 25 of the protestors to meet with Chrétien in Ottawa. The Department says they’re willing to fly five of them to Ottawa. Redcrow refuses: he will take no number lower than 25. The Department eventually flies 20 representatives to meet with Chrétien.
On July 31, 1970, Minister Chrétien signs an agreement transferring the operation of Blue Quills to the Native Education Council. The Council assumes effective control of school on July 1, 1971, with funding provided by the federal government.
The goals of the sit-in met, the Council sets about making changes to Indigenous education.
Education at Blue Quills: by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people
When Blue Quills reopens in September 1971, the school has a new mandate: to have “children progress in the white man’s education, while continuing to retain their dignity and self-respect as Indian people.”
The new curriculum involves teaching the Cree language — so long reviled by the residential school system — and teaching other courses like math and science in Cree. Courses in Indigenous arts like moccasin making and beadwork are offered. Primarily Indigenous faculty are hired and supplies are purchased from nearby reserves, rather than Edmonton. Crucifixes are removed from the school walls. To quote Native Education Council member Margaret Quinney, “we wanted to re-establish our ways and values.”
Blue Quills runs as an elementary school and junior high until 1976, when it expands to include high school. Blue Quills is now an Indigenous-run university, offering a Bachelor of Arts in Cree.
The success of Blue Quills turned the tide of Indigenous education in Canada toward Indigenous self-determination.
In 1976, a Cree School Board was established in Quebec, and more and more former residential schools were placed under First Nations authority. By 2010, more than 515 Indigenous elementary and high schools served over 100,000 Indigenous students on reserves. Indigenous education is now largely in the hands of Indigenous groups, but the fight is not over. Proper funding for Indigenous-run schools is required for all the educational goals of the Blue Quills sit-in participants to become a reality.