Winning the War vs. Losing Indigeneity
Updated: Nov 13, 2021
It’s perplexing. The British Girl Guide program is often celebrated for how they helped Britain win World War II, yet at the same time Canadian Girl Guide programming was used in residential schools to shape young girls into “good Canadian citizens”. How are Canadians supposed to reconcile this in their minds?
When I was a little girl, I was enrolled in Girl Guides. I attended their weekly meetings, sang their songs, went to their camps, and created all kinds of memories. As an adult, I learned that during World War II in Britain, the Girl Guides provided young girls the opportunity to employ their leadership and survival skills. Girl Guides knew first aid, how to build emergency ovens, grow food, knit, and they provided a much-needed morale boost in bomb shelters. However, as an adult I also learned that Girl Guides of Canada programming was used in residential schools across the country to assimilate young Indigenous girls into Canadian society.
What I struggle to reconcile is how the Girl Guide program was used in what may be characterized as a “positive manner” in Britain (at the time, helping in the war effort was an honourable thing to do), while at the same time, across the Atlantic Ocean, it was used as another tool to tear Indigenous girls away from their Indigenous roots and adopt a European standard of what it meant to be a good girl and young woman in Canadian society. Girl Guides of Canada was one of several recreational programs offered to residential school students and administered by residential school staff. According to Girl Guides of Canada, between 1910-1970, their program was used in at least 34 residential schools across the country.
While Girl Guides of Canada states they did not offer unique programming for the use in residential schools, nor did they have any policy specific to residential schools, their programming was used by residential school staff as a tool of assimilation all the same. In fact, it is because the programming that was used was non-Indigenous in nature, that Girl Guides of Canada wanted to recognize the potential harm their programming may have caused.
In their apology in June 2021, Girl Guides of Canada stated they “did not find evidence of any physical or sexual abuse disclosed at residential schools as related to participation in Girl Guide programming”. That is an awfully bold statement! Given the vast awareness of abuses suffered while at residential schools, it is important to remember that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
In other words, we don't know what kind of investigation the Girl Guides conducted to support that statement. How thorough was it? Did they simply not receive any complaints from Indigenous participants? Did they interview survivors? What about the Indigenous girls who participated in Girl Guide programming at residential schools between 1970 and 1996 (when the last residential school closed)? Or the Indigenous children who took part in their programming outside of the residential school system?
Perhaps all this statement means is that nobody has come forward yet. We should not take this statement to mean that the Indigenous children in their care did not suffer any physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Truth is essential for reconciliation and therefore, this statement should not deter survivors or witnesses from coming forward with evidence of abuse. The Girl Guides was, after all, an assimilationist program where deviance from the norm would have been discouraged and punished. For these reasons, we should take the Girl Guide’s apology at face value and create a culture that encourages people to come forward if they experienced any harm.
So I ask you again dear reader, how do Canadians reconcile the fact that while Girl Guides were “winning the war” in Britain, Indigenous girls were being stripped of their indigeneity, sense of self, and cultural practices while in residential schools?
Until next time,
Team ReconciliACTION YEG
To watch the Girl Guides of Canada’s apology, please see https://www.girlguides.ca/WEB/GGC/Media/Notices/Articles/Apology_to_Indigenous_Peoples_for_the_use_of_Girl_Guide_programming_by_Indian_Residential_Schools.aspx?IRS_tabs=2#IRS_tabs
Artwork created by Amanda Wagar by combining the new Girl Guides of Canada badge layout, and Portia Chapman's artwork "Truth". The images used are not intended to be an original artwork by Amanda Wagar. They are meant to symbolize a way that Girl Guides of Canada may incorporate truth before reconciliation into their badges.
 Janie Hampton, How the Girl Guides Won the War (London: Harper Press, 2011).
 Girl Guides, “Apology to Indigenous Peoples for the use of Girl Guide programming by Indian Residential Schools” (1 June 2021), online: Girl Guides <https://www.girlguides.ca/WEB/GGC/Media/Notices/Articles/Apology_to_Indigenous_Peoples_for_the_use_of_Girl_Guide_programming_by_Indian_Residential_Schools.aspx>.
 LGen Sir R. Baden-Powell, KOB, "Pamphlet A: Suggests the Organization of the Girl Guides - Girl Guides. A Suggestion for Character Training For Girls" (circa 1910)