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Part Two

The Legacy of New Brunswick Day Schools and Prairie Agricultural Policies

By: Gemma Porter

Gemma Porter

Historical & Educational Contributor

I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Before making the transition to teacher education in 2021, I worked as a middle years and high school social studies and Indigenous studies public educator. My dissertation research focused on the history of Social Studies curriculum in the province of Saskatchewan.  My current research and practice interests are focused on developing teacher education programming that supports decolonization and education for the common good. This research, and related historical and contemporary policy analysis research, is guided by an interest in examining the ways that socio-political culture as well as educational climate impact educational policy and design.

While more and more Canadians are becoming familiar with the Indian Residential School System,[i] far fewer understand the connection of this system to the systemic, institutional, deeply rooted racist policies of the Canadian government. The Indian Residential School System became pivotal to the network of policies and laws that aimed to subjugate, disadvantage, and outright annihilate Indigenous cultures, communities, and individuals. To better understand the nature and impacts of the Indian Residential School System, it is important to situate the system within the legal and political context of the time. Examination of contextual factors that gave rise to such a sinister program of genocide creates an opportunity to understand the layers of institutional racism that contribute to the current reality facing Indigenous communities and all those hoping to support meaningful reconciliation. Such knowledge becomes an essential precursor to any reconciliatory efforts – a reminder that establishing a depth of truth about the history of Indigenous education in what is now Canada remains an ongoing process.

It would be impossible to unpack processes of colonialism in Canada in this brief series of articles. Despite this limitation, it is important to provide some commentary that explains the structural elements of the history of Indigenous education in what is now Canada. This article explores two historic examples of the failures of Indigenous education that predate the establishment of the Indian Residential School system: the development of day schools in New Brunswick, and of agricultural policies on the Prairies.

The Long History of Day Schools in New Brunswick

Maliseet (Wulustukwiak) First Nation students on the steps of Woodstock Indian Day School, New Brunswick, in the early 1900s. The boy sitting on the far right has been identified as Dr. Peter Lewis Paul. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Unlike communities on the Prairies, consistent contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in what are now the Maritime provinces dates to the 1500s. Over the course of three centuries, commercial traders and settlers gradually shifted the economic and social environment in the region. The aftermath of the American Revolutionary War in the late 18th century had significant implications for New Brunswick, as Loyalists flooded north to settle in British-controlled territories. As a result of this migration, the New England Company, an English Protestant missionary society, established a Board of Governors in New Brunswick. Established in 1649 in London, England, the New England Company’s primary aim was to convert Indigenous peoples to Protestantism in America. The strategy of conversion included the establishment of schools where students would be taught the tenets of Protestantism, to read and write, and to adopt English ways of life. While the Company would eventually establish three schools in New Brunswick, historical records are most detailed with respect to the first school established: the Sussex Vale Indian Day School.

Several factors, including low attendance and the prevalence of Catholicism in the region, led the Board to suggest the development of an apprenticeship component of the Sussex Vale Indian Day School. In 1807, the Board developed a plan whereby Indigenous children would be fostered by non-Indigenous families while learning a trade and sometimes attending the school. While Indigenous parents who signed their children over to non-Indigenous families were led to believe that these apprenticeships would result in the development of skills and knowledge important to participation in the shifting economies of the region, historical records indicate a much darker history.

After continued reports that the scheme was not being implemented as intended, the Company carried out two investigations – one in 1822 and another soon after in 1825. Results from these investigations indicated that Indigenous children were being exploited as sources of labour. Children placed with non-Indigenous families were not learning to read or write, or learning the skills associated with a trade. Instead, children were routinely used as cheap labour and female students were frequently the victims of sexual exploitation. In fact, in his 1822 report, investigator Walter Bromley noted that many of the children serving as indentured servants in the homes of non-Indigenous foster families were the products of the rape of Indigenous girls. Amidst these reports of the failures of the program and the school, and the ways that non-Indigenous settlers were taking advantage of Company funds, the Sussex Vale Indian Day School closed its doors in 1826. The New England Company would continue its pursuit of assimilation by education through the establishment of a day school near Brantford, Ontario. The day school would begin operating as a residential school in 1831 and expand its operations by admitting girls to the school beginning in 1834. The Mohawk Institute, as it would become known, continued its operations as a residential school until its closure in 1970. 

Adult Education: Agriculture on the Prairies

As I noted in the introductory article, Indigenous communities valued education. Some Indigenous communities, and the leaders who signed treaties on their behalf, understood that Canadian settlers and governments were not going anywhere anytime soon. With traditional ways of life eroded by Western exploitation, and in many cases deliberately attacked and undermined, many viewed the provision of education as a means to ensure survival. Especially in the Prairie context, where the buffalo populations were almost completely decimated by the late 1800s, Indigenous communities understood the need to shift from economies of sustenance towards new pursuits. Education, along with provisions for land and farm implements, would support communities in navigating these new relationships with the land.

Group of young Cree mothers of Little Pine First Nation, Saskatchewan posing together with their children in front of a farm. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

Early government educational efforts in the Prairies focused on providing Indigenous communities with the knowledge and skills to begin taking part in the agricultural economies being slowly established in the region. In 1879, the government sent farm instructors from the east out to the Prairies. These instructors were tasked with providing instruction in agriculture to increase the quantity of food produced by “home farms.” Although Indigenous communities in territories in what is now Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick had a long history of agricultural expertise, Indigenous communities across the Prairies typically relied on the buffalo as a major source of sustenance. This does not mean that the history of agriculture in the region begins with European arrival, as there is much archeological, anthropological, and familial historical evidence that supports the presence of agriculture in the Prairie region from at least the 1400s. Instead, it is an acknowledgement of the preponderance of buffalo and the extent to which Indigenous communities were largely migratory buffalo hunters at the time of early contact in the region.

The farm instructors program was a relatively short-lived and failed endeavour. It proved too difficult for the farm instructors to simultaneously raise enough food for their own families and instruct. After only a few short years, the program fizzled out by the early 1880s. Despite this government instructional failure, several Indigenous communities and families began to experience growing success in agricultural production. For instance, in the Qu’Appelle region of southern Saskatchewan, bands pooled resources to purchase implements and, on many reserves, tilled fields in common. In southern Alberta, reserves reportedly experienced great success with potato farming. Despite challenging climate, dry lands, and limited experience with agriculture, it was clear that some communities were moving in the direction of commercial agriculture.

As these Indigenous communities transitioned to agriculture as their main source of sustenance and income, Canadian government officials developed and implemented several policies that intentionally limited the extent to which Indigenous communities on the Prairies could successfully maintain their livelihood. In 1889, the government implemented the Peasant Farm Policy. As the name suggests, the intent of the policy was to replicate European peasant farming. Namely, the act limited Indigenous farmers to the exclusive use of hand tools. This meant that industrial machinery was not permitted, and instead Indigenous farmers were restricted to the use of hand tools and animal-powered machinery. In addition to these impediments, through the development of the permit system the policy also limited the ability of Indigenous farmers to participate in the market. Under the permit system, Indigenous farmers required a permit from the Indian Agent to sell crops and produce. This requirement allowed the Indian Agent to manage competition in favour of white settlers.

In addition to the constraints imposed by the Peasant Farm Policy, Section 70 of the Indian Act (1876) absolutely prohibited First Nations people from homesteading on the Prairies. It was a prohibition explicitly intended to limit First Nations to holding less land than white settlers. Homesteads, as opposed to on-reserve lands, offered access to more land. While Western treaty reserve land formulas allowed for a maximum of 160 acres or 1 square mile per family of five, the federal homestead laws for settlers allowed free land grants ranging from 160 to 320 acres for each head of family.

Ultimately, First Nations farmers were self-educated and tenacious in their efforts to transition to an agricultural way of life. Even though government agricultural training efforts failed, many First Nations farmers experienced considerable success; so much so that this success raised concerns with neighbouring settler farmers, whose anger and frustration would be appeased by active government suppression of the gains that had resulted from the ingenuity and perseverance of First Nations farmers. 

 To Assimilate and Control: The Indian Act  

The history of day schools in New Brunswick and the Peasant Farm Policy illustrates the way that settlers and government officials manipulated notions of support, guidance, and teaching to subjugate and target Indigenous peoples and communities for their own benefit. The subsequent Indian Act pursued similar goals with respect to education, but with the difference that it was all-encompassing rather than focused on a particular location. The next article will explore the increasing aggression with which the government targeted Indigenous peoples and their ways of life, and how such efforts were connected to formal education.

Additional Resources

Sussex Vale Indian College,” Paths to Reconciliation (Canadian Geographic).

The Canadian Reconciliation Barometer: 2022 Report,” Canadian Reconciliation Barometer (2023).

Fingard, J., “The New England Company and the New Brunswick Indians, 1786-1826: A Comment on the Colonial Perversion of British Benevolence,” Acadiensis1(2) (1972), pg. 29–42.

Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1, Origins to 1939,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015).


[i] A recent study (2022) carried out by researchers at the University of Manitoba, University of Victoria, Toronto Metropolitan University in collaboration with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation found that 90% of non-Indigenous respondents and 94% of Indigenous respondents had heard or read about residentials schools. This is up from 65% and 87% in 2021.