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Training children in residential schools for the labour market

BY Avanti Nambiar Feb 26, 2024

Between the 1920s and the 1960s, residential schools in Canada would train Indigenous girls to become domestic servants. Marlene Etapp Dixon, 73, was one such student. In May 1965, a woman named Mrs. Richardson visited Dixon’s school, seeking a girl to work as a caregiver.

Dixon says she was 15, when her father signed a consent form, letting her work as a nanny. She speculated that she was given the role, because she wasn’t “succeeding well” academically. She attended three residential schools, including the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario. Dixon believes the principal of her final school arranged for her to work for a wealthy doctor’s family in Montreal. She ultimately agreed to the role, and took a bus to Montreal. 

“Of course I struggled,” admitted Dixon, whose job was looking after five young children – four boys and one girl. In spite of the challenges, she appreciated leaving the residential school, where she had to obey strict rules, such as curfews. “I had more freedom, being in a home,” she said. 

Dixon had weekends off, was allowed to attend church, and could return home for the holidays. Even so, she said she “didn’t want to be a nanny for the rest of my life.” So, she began attending night classes, in an attempt to complete her education.

Many residential schools started as trade programs. While students in these schools learned to read and write, they also spent time cooking or performing manual labour. Girls learned skills such as sewing, while boys practiced farming. From the beginning, the schools served as a pipeline for Indigenous children to enter the service industry.

Dixon came to view Mrs. Richardson, her employer, as a motherly figure. She claims she emulated Mrs. Richardson’s style of dressing and makeup, attempting to “be like her.” She spoke fondly of receiving a “German cake” for her 16th birthday. 

Dixon’s own mother had been physically abusive towards her, causing her hearing damage in one ear. Her childhood experiences caused her mental health problems, which resulted in her hospitalization later in life. Fortunately, during her time as a nanny, Dixon says she was treated nicely. “They respected me, and I respected the children,” she explained. 

Dixon was aware of other girls, who were employed through the same program. In those days, agents at the Department of Indian Affairs could monitor female students by keeping files on them. They would divide the girls up, categorizing whether or not they would be capable as domestic employees. 

Once the girls were employed, as maids or nannies, the agents could maintain surveillance over them. They could control their bank accounts and track their private activities. This ensured that the girls remained isolated from potential support systems, so they were less likely to run away. 

With these methods, the Department of Indian Affairs encouraged the girls to resign themselves to living as domestic servants. Despite this, there are accounts of girls running away from their employers, or disappearing. Some got impregnated by their bosses, or mistreated by the families they looked after. 

Still, many girls opted to remain in the roles, because of the benefit of receiving a salary. With an income, they had the option of buying new clothes, a luxury to residential school residents. Dixon highlighted being handed down outfits (including a two-piece suit) from her employer. She also recalled purchasing clothes with her salary, which was $100 a month. She was unsure if this amount was typical for the time period.

Dixon graduated from her original post to another nanny role, before becoming overwhelmed by a depressive episode. Today, she is a grandmother, residing in Waswanipi. 

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