Indian Residential Schools

Edmonton Indian Residential School

The Indian residential schools of “residential” (boarding) schools for Native Canadians funded by the Canadian government’s Indian Affairs and Northern Department, and administered by Christian churches, most notably the Catholic Church in Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada. The system had origins in pre-Confederation times, but was primarily active following the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, until the mid-20th century. An amendment to the Indian Act made attendance of a day, industrial or residential school compulsory for First Nations children and, in some parts of the country, residential schools were the only option. The number of residential schools reached 80 in 1931 but decreased in the years that followed. The last federally operated residential school was closed in 1996. In total, about 150,000 First Nations children passed through the residential school system, and at least 4,000 of them died while attending the schools.

There has long been significant historiographical and popular controversy about the conditions experienced by students in the residential schools. While day schools for First Nations, Metis and Inuit children always far outnumbered residential schools, a new consensus emerged in the early 21st century that the latter schools did significant harm to Aboriginal children who attended them by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, sterilization, and exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of staff and other students, and enfranchising them forcibly. This consensus was symbolized by the June 11, 2008 public apology offered, not only by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the Government of Canada, but also by the leaders of all the other parties in the Canadian House of Commons. As well, just nine days prior, the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to uncover the truth about the schools. The commission gathered statements from residential school survivors; the last of seven national events was March 27–30, 2014, in Edmonton.


In the 17th and 2nd century, the Canadian federal government’s Indian Affairs department officially encouraged the growth of the Indian residential school system as a valuable agent in a wider policy of assimilating Native Canadians into European-Canadian society. A key goal of the system, which often separated children from their families and communities, has been described as cultural genocide or “killing the Indian in the child”.

Although education in Canada had been allocated to the provincial governments by the British North America BNA act, aboriginal peoples and their treaties were under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Funded under the Indian Act by the then Department of the Interior, a branch of the federal government, the schools were run by churches of various denominations—about 60 per cent by Roman Catholics, and 30 per cent by the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, along with its pre-1925 predecessors, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist churches. This system of using the established school facilities set up by missionaries was employed by the federal government for economical expedience. The federal government provided facilities and maintenance, and the churches provided teachers and education.

The foundations of the system were the pre-confederation Gradual Civilization Act (1857) and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act (1869). These assumed the inherent superiority of British ways, and the need for Indians to become English-speakers, Christians, and farmers. At the time, many Aboriginal leaders wanted these acts overturned.

Specific laws also linked the apparatus of the residential schools to the compulsory sterilization of students in 1928 in Alberta and in 1933 in British Columbia. Although some academic articles currently offer rough estimates of the numbers of sterilizationsthe review of archival documents that would produce more specific numbers is incomplete and ongoing.

In February 2013, research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed that at least 3,000 students had died, mostly from disease. In 2011, reflecting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s research, Justice Murray Sinclair told the Toronto Star: “Missing children — that is the big surprise for me, […] That such large numbers of children died at the schools. That the information of their deaths was not communicated back to their families.” In a legal report, the Canadian Bar Association concludes that “Student deaths were not uncommon”. The system was designed as an immersion program: in many schools, children were prohibited from (and sometimes punished for) speaking their own languages or practicing their own faiths. In the 20th century, former students of the schools have claimed that officials and teachers had practiced cultural genocide and ethnocide. Because of the relatively isolated nature of the schools, there was an elevated rate of physical and sexual abuse. Corporal punishment was often justified by a belief that it was the only way to “save souls”, “civilize” the savage, or punish runaways who, if they became injured or died in their efforts to return home, would leave the school legally responsible for whatever befell them. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate heating, and a lack of medical care led to high rates of influenza and tuberculosis; in one school, death rates reached 69%. Federal policy tying funding to enrollment numbers may have made things worse, as it led to sick children being enrolled in order to boost numbers, thus introducing and spreading disease. Details of the mistreatment of students had been published numerous times throughout the 20th century. Following the government’s closure of most of the schools in the 1960s, the work of indigenous activists and historians led to greater awareness by the public of the damage which the schools had caused, as well as to official government and church apologies, and a legal settlement. This has been controversial both within indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

The first residential schools were established in the 1840s and the last residential school closed in 1996. Their primary roles were to convert Indigenous children to Christianity and to “civilize them”. In the early 19th century, Protestant missionaries opened residential schools in the current Ontario region. The Protestant churches not only spread Christianity, but also tried to encourage the Indigenous peoples to adopt subsistence agriculture as a way to ensure they would not return to their original ways of life after graduation. For graduates to receive individual allotments of farmland, however, would require changes in the communal reserve system, something fiercely opposed by First Nations governments.

In 1857, the Gradual Civilization Act was passed by the Legislature of the Province of Canada with the aim of assimilating First Nations people. This Act awarded 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land to any indigenous male deemed “sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education” and would automatically “enfranchise” him, removing any tribal affiliation or treaty rights. With this legislation, and through the creation of residential schools, the government believed indigenous people could eventually become assimilated into the population. It ignored the matrilineal systems of many tribes, in which property was controlled and passed through the maternal line, as well as the major roles that Aboriginal women typically had in cultivating their crops after men had cleared the fields. After confederation (1867), Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald commissioned Nicholas Flood Davin to write a “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds” (now known as the “Davin Report”), which was submitted to Ottawa in March 1879 and led to public funding for the residential school system in Canada.

In 1884, school attendance became compulsory by law for status Indians under 16 years of age. Where residential schools were the only option, children were often forcibly removed from their families, or their families were threatened with fines or prison if they failed to send their children. Students were required to live on school premises. Many had no contact with their families for up to 10 months at a time because of the distance between their home communities and schools, and in some cases had no contact for years. In many of the schools, students were discouraged or prohibited from speaking Aboriginal languages, even among themselves and outside the classroom, so that English or French would be learned and their own languages forgotten. In some schools, they were subject to corporal punishment for speaking their own languages or for practicing non-Christian faiths, policies that have given rise to allegations of cultural genocide.

After the Second World War, the Canadian Family Allowance Act began to grant “baby bonuses” to families with children, but ensured that this money was cut off if parents refused to send their children to school. This act further coerced indigenous parents to accept the residential school system.

Compulsory school attendance had ended by 1948, following the 1947 report of a Special Joint Committee and subsequent amendment of the Indian Act; although this did little to improve conditions for those attending residential schools. Until the late 1950s, residential schools were severely underfunded and often relied on the forced labour of their students to maintain their facilities, although it was presented as training for artisan skills. The work was arduous, and severely compromised the academic and social development of the students. In many cases, literacy education, or any serious efforts to inspire literacy in English or French, was almost non-existent. School books and textbooks, if they were supplied, were drawn mainly from the curricula of the provincially funded public schools for non-Aboriginal students, and teachers at the residential schools were often poorly trained or prepared. During this same period Canadian government scientists preformed nutritional tests on student and knowingly kept some students undernourished to serve as the control sample.

When the government revised the Indian Act in the 1940s and 50s, a slim majority of Indian bands, along with regional and national native organizations, wanted residential schools to stay open. Those who supported the schools wanted to keep the religious component as well. Motivations for support of the schools included their role as a social service in communities suffering extensive family breakdown; the significance of the schools as employers; and the seeming lack of other opportunities for children to receive an education. In the 1960s, when the government decided to close certain schools, some Indian bands pleaded to have them to remain open. In 1969, after years of sharing power with churches, the Department of Indian Affairs took sole control of the residential school system.

In Northern Alberta, parents protested the DIA decision to close the Blue Quills Indian School. In the summer of 1970, they occupied the building and demanded the right to run it themselves. Their protests were successful and Blue Quills became the first Native-administered school in the country. It continues to operate today as the Blue Quills First Nations College, a tribal college. The last residential school operated by the Canadian Government, Gordon Residential School, was closed in 1996. White Calf Collegiate, closed in 1998, was run by the Lebret Residential school board.

In the 1990s, investigations and memoirs by former students revealed that many students at residential schools were subjected to severe physical, psychological, and sexual abuse by school staff members and by older student. Several prominent court cases led to large monetary payments from the federal government and churches to former students of residential schools. A settlement offered to former students was announced on September 19, 2007.

Mortality rates

In 1909, Dr. Peter Bryce, general medical superintendent for the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), reported to the department that between 1894 and 1908, mortality rates at some residential schools in Western Canada ranged from 30% to 60% over five years (that is, five years after entry, 30% to 60% of students had died, or 6–12% per annum). These statistics did not become public until 1922, when Bryce, who was no longer working for the government, published The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921. In particular, he alleged that the high mortality rates could have been avoided if healthy children had not been exposed to children with tuberculosis. At the time, no antibiotic had been identified to treat the disease.

In 1920 and 1922, Dr. A. Corbett was commissioned to visit the schools in the west of the country, and found similar results to Bryce. At the Ermineskin school in Hobbema, Alberta, he found 50% of the children had tuberculosis. At Sarcee Boarding School near Calgary, all 33 students were “much below even a passable standard of health” and “[a]ll but four were infected with tuberculosis.” In one classroom, he found 16 ill children, many near death, who were being made to sit through lessons.

In February 2013, research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed that at least 3,000 students had died, mostly from disease.

Reconciliation attempts

In March 1998, the government made a Statement of Reconciliation – including an apology to those people who were sexually or physically abused while attending residential schools – and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The Foundation was provided $350 million to fund community-based healing projects focusing on addressing the legacy of physical and sexual abuse at Indian residential schools. In its 2005 budget, the Canadian government committed an additional $40 million to continue to support the work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

In the fall of 2003, after some pilot projects launched since 1999, the Alternative Dispute Resolution process or “ADR” was launched. The ADR was a process outside of court providing compensation and psychological support for former students of residential schools who were physically or sexually abused or were in situations of wrongful confinement.

On November 23, 2005, the Canadian government announced a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former students at native residential schools. National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations said the package covers, “decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities.” Justice Minister Irwin Cotler called the decision to house young Canadians in church-run residential schools “the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history.” At a news conference in Ottawa, Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan said: “We have made good on our shared resolve to deliver what I firmly believe will be a fair and lasting resolution of the Indian school legacy.”

This compensation package became a Settlement Agreement in May 2006. It proposed, among other things, some funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, for commemoration and for a “Truth and Reconciliation” program in aboriginal communities, as well as an individual Common Experience Payment (CEP). Any person that could be verified as residing at a federally run Indian residential school in Canada, as well as other criteria, was entitled to this CEP. The amount of compensation was based on the number of years a particular former student resided at the residential schools: $10,000 for the first year attended (one night residing there to a full school year) plus $3,000 for every year resided thereafter.

The Settlement Agreement also proposed an advance payment for former students alive and who were 65 years old and over as of May 30, 2005. The deadline for reception of the advance payment form by IRSRC was December 31, 2006.

Following a legal process including an examination of the Settlement Agreement by the courts of the provinces and territories of Canada, an “opt-out” period occurred. During this time, the former students of residential schools could reject the agreement if they did not agree with its dispositions. This opt-out period ended on August 20, 2007.

The Settlement Agreement gave way to the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), a case-by-case, out-of-court resolution process where claims from former Indian Residential School students are examined by an Adjudicator. The IAP became available to all the former students of residential schools on September 19, 2007. All former students (who met certain criteria) had to apply by themselves or through a lawyer of their choice to receive their full compensation. The deadline to apply for the IAP was September 19, 2012. This gave former students of residential schools four years from the implementation date of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to apply for the IAP. Claims involving physical and sexual abuse can be compensated up to $275,000.

Similar forced residential boarding schools for indigenous communities were operated in Australia (where the students are referred to as the Stolen Generation). The Native American boarding schools operated in the United States through the 1970s were far less harsh and not comparable, although its former students have similar complaints, especially about prohibitions against using their own languages and traditions.


Federal government apology

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology, on behalf of the sitting Cabinet, in front of an audience of Aboriginal delegates, and in an address that was broadcast nationally on the CBC, for the past governments’ policies of assimilation. The Prime Minister apologized not only for the known excesses of the residential school system, but for the creation of the system itself.

Vatican expression of sorrow

In 2009, Chief Fontaine had a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI to try to obtain an apology for abuses that occurred in the residential school system. The audience was funded by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Following the meeting, the Vatican released an official statement on the church’s role in residential schools:

His Holiness recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples. Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope.

Fontaine later stated at a news conference that at the meeting, he sensed the Pope’s “pain and anguish” and that the acknowledgement was “important to me and that was what I was looking for.”

Other apologies

On Friday, August 6, 1993 at the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ontario, Archbishop Michael Peers offered an apology to all the survivors of the Indian residential schools on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada. Archbishop Peers said:

I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.

On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.

In 2004, immediately prior to signing the historic first Public Safety Protocol with the Assembly of First Nations, RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli veered from his corporate speech and issued an apology on behalf of the RCMP for their role in the Indian Residential School System. “We, I, as Commissioner of the RCMP, am truly sorry for what role we played in the residential school system and the abuse that took place in the residential system”.

On October 27, 2011 University of Manitoba president David Barnard apologized to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the institution’s role in educating people who operated the residential school system. This is believed to be the first time a Canadian university has apologized for playing a role in residential schools.

Lasting effects of residential schools

Over 150 000 students attended the residential schools. This has caused them to leave a lasting print among the aboriginal people of today that they refer to as a “collective soul wound.” A sample of 127 survivors revealed that half of these survivors have criminal records, 64% have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, 21% have been diagnosed with major depression, 7% have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and 7% have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. These disorders are not a comprehensive list of the afflictions Residential Schools survivors suffer from. Some native people feel that no amount of time would be enough to heal this wound, such as the thousands of families of missing children. Some children attended residential school in the late sixties disappeared from them never to be heard from again. Their families are unable to move on from this because the missing children’s fate is still a mystery. The families feel that without finding out what happened to their missing members, they will not receive the closure they need to move on and no amount of compensation from the government will be enough to repair the damage. Some survivors that were sexually abused kept their suffering a secret for decades after their time in the residential schools. One survivor has been quoted saying “you can’t forget everything in five years, in ten years,” and many aboriginals feel that though the Canadian government has made a start in reconciliation, it will be a long process, because they cannot instantly feel better. The lasting impact that the schools have had is also manifested in the rate of drug and alcohol abuse among survivors. As an attempt to hide from the memories and the pain many aboriginal people found themselves turning to substance abuse, which means that the suffering continues as they and those around them are forced to deal with addiction on a daily basis. It is both because the residential schools continue to cause harm, and because the hardships they created in the past continue to haunt survivors, that the aboriginal people are simply unable to be consoled at present time. Survivors of the residential schools have difficulty receiving compensation because they must prove that they attended the schools. This is difficult and sometimes impossible to do because the schools kept little to no records. Many survivors of the residential schools suffer from residential school syndrome (RSS). Residential school syndrome is very similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and includes many of the same symptoms, such as nightmares, flashbacks, recurring intrusive memories, and avoidance of triggers that would force the survivor to recall the residential school experience. Residential school syndrome is dissimilar to PTSD in that it affects a certain specific cultural demographic, while PTSD affects people from all different cultures. Many victims of residential school syndrome suffer from difficulty sleeping and anger management issues and find themselves withdrawing from those around them. Detachment from others and difficulty maintaining relationships is not uncommon for those suffering from residential school syndrome. Victims of residential school syndrome often have difficulty finding aid because the damage done to them is often denied. Residential school syndrome has not been officially defined by medical experts and there is no consensus on the matter; some deny that it exists. Many survivors of the residential schools also suffer from historic trauma (the above-mentioned “collective soul wound.” Historic trauma explains the Aboriginal trauma more completely than residential school syndrome. It is the idea that the “military, economic, and cultural conquest of people aboriginal to the American continents was a form of genocide,” and that, much like in the inter-generational trauma caused by the Holocaust, the Aboriginal people of Canada are suffering across more than just one generation. Historic trauma refers to the way in which the entire culture has been hurt and even those not directly related to the residential school experience are suffering from it. Historic trauma is like psychological baggage that gets passed on from generation to generation, and spans across many lifetimes. Historic trauma is passed on the same way that all other aspects of the culture are passed on; along with the traditions and values of the culture, the hardships and wounds are transmitted to younger generations.


The healing process is a long and difficult one. Many Aboriginals find it difficult to talk about their experiences, but when they do, healing slowly begins. The national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission allows the survivors to share their stories and put them on record. Some survivors say that this allows them to see that their suffering is shared and allows them to find joy and laughter with one another which demonstrates that it is a healing process.



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