If we had only known… whistle blowers, Florence Nightingale, and residential schools

This post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca

It appeared of great importance to ascertain, if possible, the precise influence which school training exercised on the health of native children…

The Indian schools in Canada afford a total annual death rate of 12 ½ per 1,000 for both sexes; but the mortality of girls is nearly double that of boys…

Making allowance for native children dying at home, we shall be within the truth in assuming the mortality of native children at school as double that of English children of the same ages [emphasis added] …

Florence Nightingale, Sanitary Statistics, 1863.

In 1863, Florence Nightingale – best known as the founder of modern nursing – published a statistical report on the health of Indigenous students in day and boarding schools across the British Empire. As these selections from her text suggest, the situation looked bleak.

I came across Nightingale’s work over the weekend, after listening to Lynn McDonald on CBC’s Fresh Air discuss the famous nurse’s turn to statistics and her concern with the plummeting populations of peoples whose land was increasingly occupied and commodified by Britain, its emigrants, merchants, and industrialists.

Florence Nightingale (middle) in 1886 with her graduating class of nurses from St Thomas’ outside Claydon House, Buckinghamshire (Wikimedia Commons)

What struck me most in this CBC interview was a sense of missed opportunity in the nineteenth century for a change in policy and approach. At its core, Nightingale’s argument in the report is this: colonial statistics are poor – almost useless – but what statistics she could compile suggest real health problems for Indigenous children attending colonial schools. While she does not directly blame settler colonialism for these health issues, her short report called for reform in how these schools were run.

As the TRC’s final report reminds us in vivid detail, in Canada, reform did not come until the late 1960s – over a century later.

What may surprise some readers, though, is that despite its 1863 publication date – indeed, it was penned several years before residential schools became a systematic, government-led form of oppression and re-education – Nightingale was neither the first, nor last, to call attention to the risks colonial schooling posed for Indigenous students.

In 1822, Anglican social reformer, Walter Bromley, blew the whistle on Canada’s first residential school: the New England Company’s academy at Sussex Vale, in New Brunswick.

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