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Canada’s Residential Schools: Abuse, Disease, Colonialism, and… ESP Tests

December 15th, 2016 marks the first anniversary of the release of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. The Canadian TRC was about Canada’s residential school system for indigenous children. The schools were mandated by the federal government but were run by churches and were sites of awful abuses. The secular and religious authorities hoped that by separating the children from their parents for ten months a year, they would forget their languages and customs and become Good Little British Subjectstm. As the Commission reported—based in no small part on survivor testimony, since the last residential school closed in 1996—many children were beaten for speaking a language other than English or French, beaten for practicing a non-Christian religion, suffered sexual abuse from teachers and peers, and occasionally died due to the poor, tuberculosis-rife conditions in the schools. You can read the TRC report on their website.

There were many human rights abuses committed at the residential schools, and they deserve the full attention of the public. However, there is one odd occurrence that I would like to bring to the attention of the skeptic community. It is not a significant part of the history of residential schools, so it has not been particularly widely reported. But it is worth talking about nonetheless: a scholar named A.A. Foster conducted psychic tests on residential school students in Brandon, Manitoba.

Foster published the details of his experiment in The Journal of Parapsychology’s June 1943 issue. His goal was to test the use of a new technique of ESP detection against a standard one. The new technique is actually pretty complicated and involves dealing cards based on yes or no questions, but the standard technique just involves the kids trying to guess symbols on ESP cards (presumably the traditional Zener cards) from behind a screen. Foster is disappointed to report that the new technique did not provide any impressive results, though the standard technique did, of course, provide further evidence for magical psychic mind-reading power. Foster is also consoled that his study is the first published “with Indians as subjects.”

Now, the students were not harmed in any way, and in so far as they were able, they consented to be subjects. (They got candy for their participation). Also, on other occasions, other researchers performed non-paranormal studies on residential school children. That said, as pointed out by Maeengan Linklater, the activist who brought the study back to the public eye, the students’ consent would not pass muster today. Remember, these students were completely cut off from their parents.

As far as ethical breaches at the residential schools go, the study is pretty minor. But what is interesting to me is the comparison it offers. Here are these kids at this hell-school because the government and the churches think that their culture is backwards and barbaric. Yet this same government and group of churches think it is worth their time and trouble to allow some crank magic enthusiast to test the kids in the hopes of proving the existence of psychic power. Foster and company would not have had access to the students without the school’s approval; indeed, the matron of the school, one Miss D. Doyle, conducted the experiment on Foster’s behalf. Doyle does not hesitate to paint the students and their parents in inferior terms. Foster quotes her in his article: “The western Canadian Plains Indian leads a much more primitive life than the Indians of the United States. The primary occupations on the reserves are fishing, hunting, and trapping, although a few in the southern sections farm in a modern manner. Many of the children had never known any other than the most primitive life, had never seen trains or motorcars.” Not to beat you over the head with it, but this matron shaking her finger at these allegedly unsophisticated and unscientific First Nations people is the same lady hiding cards behind a screen trying to get children to read her mind.

Foster does not explain what made him want to use First Nations subjects for his test. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he believed that the more “primitive” First Nations people would have pure minds that would more easily channel the natural magic of the world (not terms that he would use, of course) into Extrasensory Perception. Whatever his motivations, it is clear that he bought into the prevailing racist narrative about First Nations people—a narrative that was eagerly fed to him by the Canadian authorities.

Believing in ESP does not make you racist, of course, and being skeptical towards the paranormal does not make you open-minded in other regards. Still, Foster’s experiment is a reminder that a deficit of critical thinking can lead to a multitude of problems. Teaching critical thinking, free inquiry, and peer-reviewed science is a strategy that can help protect us from both pseudo-scientific charlatans and major injustices such as Canada’s residential school system.

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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

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