Spanish Residential School: the good one


The Times is publishing a series of articles on Indigenous History as part of Indigenous History Month.

Many of us have heard the terrible stories that have come out of the Indian Residential School system, but few have any idea of the daily life experienced by children in these schools, even the best of them. The Residential School which was located just outside the town of Spanish, on the north shore of Lake Huron was run by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, and was the first such school to offer High School classes to indigenous boys. Some of the graduates of the school became teachers, doctors, writers and artists. It had a very high reputation academically, and there has been very little evidence of the kind of abuse found in too many other such institutions.

But the challenge faced by the boys at Spanish were significant. Funding for the school was provided by the Canadian Government through the Department of Indian Affairs, and it was never, at any time, sufficient for the needs of the school. Every cent was accounted for, every blanket had to be begged from the Department, and this required the students to spend at least half of every school day either growing their own food, making their own clothes, or tending to the hens and gardens.

Financial support from the Department in 1934-35, to pick an example, amounted to 42¢ per boy, per day, while costs ran to 52¢. The Jesuits set up a bakery, using their own funds, to try and reduce the cost of buying bread from a local bakery. After trial and error, the bread produced was better than the bought bread, but no savings were made, in spite of the expenditure on the bakery. The extent to which the boys worked outside of their regular schoolwork is shown in the data on how much food was raised by them simply to feed themselves.

In fiscal 1937-38, more than $3,900 worth of food was produced, a large dollar figure for the time. In 1943-44, the school produced 6,086 quarts of milk, 2,044 pounds of pork, 4,456 pounds of beef, and 260 bags of potatoes, all of which was consumed within the school. That same year, the Red Cross visited the school on an inspection trip and found nutritional deficiencies in the food, owing to lack of funds and lack of facilities.

Remember, that all this work was being done by boys of 6-16 years of age during the hours when other children in non-indigenous schools were learning their lessons.

The meanness of the Department officials could be, and usually was, unbelievably callous. Just one example will do. On August 20, 1938, the Department was notified that Isaac Thompson was dying of tubercular meningitis and was only expected to live a few days. His mother had asked for his body to be sent home to Cornwall for burial, as she was not allowed to go to him before he died. The Department replied that her request had received “sympathetic consideration”, but went on to note that:

“I have to point out, however, that it is not the practice of the Department to send bodies of Indians by rail excepting under very exceptional circumstances. Bodies so shipped have to be properly prepared by the undertakers for transhipment under the laws of the province, and the expense of a long journey, such as this would be, would entail an expenditure which the Department does not feel warranted in authorizing”.

One wonders whether anyone other than Indians would have been considered worth the expenditure, and what the Department would consider the “very exceptional circumstances” that would allow them to send a dead boy’s body home to his mother, having taken him away from her free of charge to begin with. Isaac was taken to hospital at Espinola on August 10, and returned to Spanish on August 15. He died a few days later and was buried at Spanish. His grave, if marked at all, has a plain white uninscribed cross. The Department paid out $21 for the hospital visit and funeral.

A visit to that graveyard is depressing and sad, with so many little white crosses. How many others like Isaac never returned home? And this was possibly the best residential school in Canada. The experiences of children in so many others was traumatic, terrifying, and all to often fatal. Those who did get home again, often after years away, found they were no longer part of their community, or even of their family. Speaking English, they had forgotten their own language. They were strangers in their own homes.


  1. what a farce of a reporter who intentionally writes lies to skew the actual truth of the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental abuse that occured on a daily basis throughout the Spaish Residential institution’s entire existence. Amazing how white people will deliberately lie to each other in order for them to feel right in their own skins for the wrongs that they themselves or their forefathers caused. I know what went on there and heard the inhumane stories from many who passed through that horrific place. What an insult North Grenville Times, and the Canadian Government of Canada who funds you, shows to all First Nation Peoples by writing false information. Well I guess that’s what you need to do to sleep well at night.

    • Still waiting to hear your reply detailing all the “lies” told- especially since the author didn’t detail any of the extreme physical and sexual abuse that also characterized these so-called schools. By the way- I’m a United Church member. My church was part of this system too.

      I’m guessing you don’t have the courage to reply.

  2. As someone who has worked for indigenous communities for almost 30 years, I would very much like to know what “lies” I told in the article. No residential school had a good record, though Spanish was far from being the worst. There will be no hope for reconciliation until we have truth: and truth is not comforting at times. There were good people and very bad people connected with those schools, as elsewhere around the world. As an Irish person, I am very well acquainted with the effects of colonialism and oppression. Please drop the angry, righteous liberal persona and get the facts straight before you leap to the defense of people with uninformed and ignorant rants.

  3. Thank you, Mr Shanahan. Your history of this school has been sorely needed, this last month in particular. I can only imagine what may have been going through my mind right now had I not read it (like an inoculation) several years ago. Like everyone else fed on shabby reporting and agenda-driven journalism, I would have be under the impression that Church officials somehow executed their own students (for whatever shady reason) and then dumped their bodies into “mass graves” to cover up the crime. It seems to me that our Federal Government, which refused adequate funding for well-ventilated schools, adequate heating, proper nutrition, and even basic medical attention, to the point where thousands of indigenous kids died of (what could have been) manageable diseases, is now trying to scapegoat the Catholic Church in particular to draw attention away from their own responsibility over 1) the existence gravesite, and 2) their recent failure to provide for their identification and upkeep. We need you, Mr Shanahan. Thank you again.

    • Was there something preventing the Jesuits from marking the graves? (And dealing with physical and sexual abuse doled out by the priests.) The Catholic Church is not a victim here.

  4. The graves at Spanish were marked, and the crosses were in place as recently as 2000. Time and weather have had their impact. I hold no brief for the Jesuits, but they did open their archives to the TRC, completely and transparently, which is more than some others did. You could try reading my book on the history of the school before making any more allegations. It was not nearly as bad as some of the Oblate-run institutions.

    • I read books by survivors, such as Basil Johnston. John Milloy’s work is one of the few exceptions I will make. White guys have been expounding on apologetics for this heinous system for far too long. Thankfully all the Jesuits I’ve worked with don’t accept your point of view on this, but I still prioritize survivors over them. Always.

      Not nearly as bad as the “schools” run by the Oblates? Isn’t that like saying concentration camps run by the Japanese Imperial Army were better than those run by the SS? They’re all bloody concentration camps.

      On what possible basis do you say that Spanish was “one of the best”? Fewer rapes? Fewer deaths by preventable disease? Fewer incidents of beatings and torture when a child spoke their language? Your article itself details that at this so-called school the students laboured to produce their own inadequate food most of the day, so by your own admission it’s not as if this place offered a quality education, even if we remove all the physical, sexual, and cultural violence that went on as part and parcel of the system.

      No one held a gun to the Jesuits’ head and said they had to participate in this system. Yes, government underfunding was criminal and deliberate. But so was church collusion in these institutions. Holding the government accountable does not mean we should ever excuse any of the churches or religious involved.

      Just stop with the attempts to explain away or otherwise excuse the inexcusable under the guise of academia.


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