Canadian Indian residential school system

Exterior view of Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School in Lebret, District of Assiniboia, ca. 1885. Surrounding land and tents are visible in the foreground.
The Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School in Lebret, District of Assiniboia, ca. 1885

In Canada, the Indian residential school system[nb 1] was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples.[nb 2] The network was funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches. The school system was created for the purpose of removing children from the influence of their own culture and assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture. Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, about 30% of, or around 150,000, Indigenous children were placed in residential schools nationally.[3][4]:2–3 At least 6,000 of these students are estimated to have died as residents.[5][6]

The system had its origins in laws enacted before Confederation, but was primarily active from the passage of the Indian Act in 1876. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1884 made attendance at day schools, industrial schools, or residential schools compulsory for First Nations children. Due to the remote nature of many communities, school locations meant that for some families residential schools were the only way to comply. The schools were intentionally located at substantial distances from Indigenous communities to minimize contact between families and their children. Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued for schools at greater distances to reduce family visits, which he thought counteracted efforts to civilize Indigenous children. Parental visits were further restricted by the use of a pass system designed to confine Indigenous peoples to reserves. The last federally operated residential school closed in 1996.

The residential school system harmed Indigenous children significantly by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse, and forcibly enfranchising them. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system often graduated unable to fit into either their communities or Canadian society. It ultimately proved successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs across generations. The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which persist within Indigenous communities today.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology on behalf of the Government of Canada and the leaders of the other federal parties in the House of Commons of Canada. Nine days prior, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to uncover the truth about the schools. The commission gathered statements from residential school survivors[nb 3] through public and private meetings at various local, regional and national events across Canada. Seven national events held between 2008 and 2013 commemorated the experience of former students of residential schools. In 2015, the TRC concluded with the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the publication of a multi-volume report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. The TRC report found that the school system amounted to cultural genocide.


Illustration of fur traders trading with an Indigenous person
Fur traders, in what is now Canada, trading with an Indigenous person in 1777

Attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples were rooted in imperial colonialism, which centred around a European worldview of cultural practice and an understanding of land ownership based on the Doctrine of Discovery.[4]:47–50 As explained in the executive summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's (TRC) final report: "Underlying these arguments was the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves. The 'civilizing mission' rested on a belief of racial and cultural superiority."[4]:50

Assimilation efforts began as early as the 17th century with the arrival of French colonists in New France.[8] They were resisted by Indigenous communities who were unwilling to leave their children for extended periods and who came to associate missionaries with the diseases devastating Indigenous populations.[9] The establishment of day and boarding schools by groups including the Récollets, Jesuits and Ursulines was largely abandoned by the 1690s. The political instability and realities of colonial life also played a role in the decision to halt the education programs.[10] An increase in orphaned and foundling colonial children limited church resources, and colonists benefited from favourable relations with Indigenous peoples in both the fur trade and military pursuits.[11]:3[12]:58–60

After a failure to assimilate Indigenous children by early missionaries in the 17th century, educational programs were not widely attempted again by religious officials until the 1820s, prior to the introduction of state-sanctioned operations.[13] Included among them was a school established by John West, an Anglican missionary, at the Red River Colony in what is today Manitoba.[4]:50 Protestant missionaries also opened residential schools in the current Ontario region, spreading Christianity and working to encourage Indigenous peoples to adopt subsistence agriculture as a way to ensure they would not return to their original, nomadic ways of life upon graduation.[14]

Although many of these early schools were open for only a short time, efforts persisted. The Mohawk Institute Residential School, the oldest, continuously operated residential school in Canada, opened in 1834 on Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ontario. Administered by the Anglican Church, the facility opened as the Mechanics' Institute, a day school for boys, in 1828 and became a boarding school four years later when it accepted its first boarders and began admitting female students. It remained in operation until June 30, 1970.[15]

The renewed interest in residential schools in the early 1800s has been linked to the decline in military hostility faced by British settlers, particularly after the War of 1812. With the threat of invasion by American forces minimized, Indigenous communities were no longer viewed as allies but as barriers to permanent settlement.[11]:3[16] This perspective was further underscored by the transfer of affairs with Indigenous communities from military officials, familiar with and sympathetic to their customs and way of life, to civilian representatives concerned only with permanent colonial settlement.[12]:73–75

Beginning in the late 1800s, the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) officially encouraged the growth of the residential school system as a valuable component in a wider policy of integrating Indigenous people into European-Canadian society.[11] Responsible for separating children from their families and communities, this process was found by the TRC to be cultural genocide, a conclusion that echoed the words of historian John S. Milloy, who argued that the system's aim was to "kill the Indian in the child".[14]:42[17][18] As the system was designed as an immersion program, children were in many schools prohibited from, and sometimes punished for, speaking their own languages or practising their own faiths.[19] The primary stated goal was to convert Indigenous children to Christianity and to civilize them.[12]

Many of the government-operated residential schools were run by churches of various denominations, with the majority administered by Roman Catholics. Between 1867 and 1939, the number of schools operating at one time peaked at 80 in 1931. Of those schools, 44 were operated by Roman Catholics; 21 were operated by the Church of England / Anglican Church of Canada; 13 were operated by the United Church of Canada, and 2 were operated by Presbyterians.[20]:682 The approach of using established school facilities set up by missionaries was employed by the federal government for economic expedience: the government provided facilities and maintenance, while the churches provided teachers and their own lesson-planning.[21] As a result, the number of schools per denomination was less a reflection of their presence in the general population, but rather their legacy of missionary work.[20]:683

Government involvement

Although education in Canada was made the jurisdiction of the provincial governments by the British North America Act, Indigenous peoples and their treaties were under the jurisdiction of the federal government.[21] Residential schools were funded under the Indian Act by what was then the federal Department of the Interior. Adopted in 1876 as An Act to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians, it consolidated all previous laws placing Indigenous communities, land and finances under federal control. As explained by the TRC, the Act "made Indians wards of the state, unable to vote in provincial or federal elections or enter the professions if they did not surrender their status, and severely limited their freedom to participate in spiritual and cultural practices".[20]:110

Photocopied, front cover view of Statistics Respecting Indian Schools, 1898
Front cover of Statistics Respecting Indian Schools, 1898, including Egerton Ryerson's letter "Report by Dr Ryerson on Industrial Schools"

The design of a federally-supported residential school system relied on the expert advice of several prominent Canadian and British statesmen. Sir Peregrine Maitland, a British soldier and colonial administrator, first proposed boarding schools in 1820, believing that civilizing Indigenous children, rather than adults, was the best way to influence cultural change. Residential schools focused on imparting industry and knowledge were proposed again in 1845 in a report that had been commissioned by Governor General Charles Bagot, entitled Report on the affairs of the Indians in Canada.[14]:12–17[22] Referred to as the Bagot Report, it is seen as the foundational document for the federal residential school system.[23] It was supported by James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, who had been impressed by industrial schools in the West Indies, and Egerton Ryerson, who was then the Chief Superintendent of Education in Upper Canada.[14]:15

On May 26, 1847, Ryerson wrote a letter for George Vardon, Assistant Superintendent of Indian Affairs, asserting that "the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings".[24]:3 He expressly recommended that Indigenous students be educated in a separate, denominational, English-only system with a focus on industrial training.[10][13][23] This letter was published as an appendix to a larger report entitled Statistics Respecting Indian Schools.[24]

The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 formed the foundations for this system prior to Confederation. These acts assumed the inherent superiority of French and British ways, and the need for Indigenous peoples to become French or English speakers, Christians, and farmers. At the time, many Indigenous leaders argued to have these acts overturned.[25] The Gradual Civilization 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.[14]:18[26] With this legislation, and through the creation of residential schools, the government believed Indigenous peoples could eventually become assimilated into the general population. For graduates to receive individual allotments of farmland would require changes in the communal reserve system, something fiercely opposed by First Nations governments.[14]:18–19

In January 1879, Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of what was now Post-Confederation Canada, commissioned politician Nicholas Flood Davin to write a report regarding the industrial boarding-school system in the United States.[20]:154[27] Now known as the Davin Report, the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds was submitted to Ottawa in March 14, 1879, and made the case for a cooperative approach between the Canadian government and the church to implement the "aggressive assimilation" pursued by President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.[28][27]:1 Davin's report relied heavily on findings he acquired through consultations with government officials and representatives of the Five Civilized Tribes in Washington, D.C. and church officials in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He visited only one industrial day school, in Minnesota, before submitting his findings.[20]:154–158 In his report Davin concluded that the best way to civilize Indigenous peoples was to start with children in a residential setting, away from their families, so that they could be "kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions".[20]:157[27]:12

Davin's findings were supported by Vital-Justin Grandin, who felt that while the likelihood of civilizing adults was low, there was hope when it came to Indigenous children. He explained in a letter to Public Works Minister Hector-Louis Langevin that the best course of action would be make children "lead a life different from their parents and cause them to forget the customs, habits & language of their ancestors".[20]:159 In 1883 Parliament approved $43,000 for three industrial schools and the first, Battleford Industrial School, opened on December 1 of that year. By 1900 there were 61 schools in operation.[20]:161

The government began purchasing church run boarding schools in the 1920s. During this period capital costs associated with the schools were assumed by the government, leaving administrative and instructional duties to church officials. The hope was that minimizing facility expenditures would allow church administrators to provide higher quality instruction and support to the students in their care. Although the government was willing to, and did, purchase schools from the churches, many were acquired for free given that the rampant disrepair present in the buildings resulted in their having no economic value. Schools continued to be maintained by churches in instances where they failed to reach an agreement with government officials with the understanding that the government would provide support for capital costs. The understanding ultimately proved complicated due to the lack of written agreements outlining the extent and nature of that support or the approvals required to undertake expensive renovations and repairs.[20]:240

By the 1930s it was recognized by government officials that the residential school system was financially unsustainable and failing to meet the intended goal of training and assimilating Indigenous children into European-Canadian society. Robert Hoey, superintendent of welfare and training at Indian Affairs, opposed the expansion of new schools, noting in 1936 that "to build educational institutions, particularly residential schools, while the money at our disposal is insufficient to keep the schools already erected in a proper state of repair, is, to me, very unsound and a practice difficult to justify".[29]:3 He proposed the expansion of day schools, an approach to educating Indigenous children that he would continue to pursue after being promoted to director of the welfare and training branch in 1945. The proposal was resisted by the United Church, the Anglican Church, and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who believed that the solution to the system's failure was not restructuring but intensification.[29]:3–5

Between 1945 and 1955, the number of day schools run by Indian Affairs expanded from 9,532 to 17,947. The growth in day schools was accompanied by an amendment to the Indian Act in 1951 that allowed federal officials to establish agreements with provincial and territorial governments and school boards regarding the education of Indigenous students in the public school system. These changes were indicative of the government's shift in policy from assimilation-driven education at residential schools to the integration of Indigenous students into public schools.[4]:71 It was believed that Indigenous children would receive a better education as a result of their transition into the public school system.[30]

Despite the shift in policy from educational assimilation to integration, the removal of Indigenous children from their families by state officials continued through much of the 1960s and 70s.[29]:147 The removals were the result of the 1951 addition of Section 88 to the Indian Act, which allowed for the application of provincial laws to Indigenous peoples living on reserves in instances where federal laws were not in place. The change included the monitoring of child welfare.[31][32] With no requirement for specialized training regarding the traditions or lifestyles of the communities they entered, provincial officials assessed the welfare of Indigenous children based on Euro-Canadian values that, for example, deemed traditional diets of game, fish and berries insufficient and grounds for taking children into custody.[30] This period resulted in the widespread removal of Indigenous children from their traditional communities, first termed the Sixties Scoop by Patrick Johnston, the author of the 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System. Often taken without the consent of their parents or community elders, some children were placed in state-run child welfare facilities, increasingly operated in former residential schools, while others were fostered or placed up for adoption by predominantly non-Indigenous families throughout Canada and the United States. While the Indian and Northern Affairs estimates that 11,132 children were adopted between 1960 and 1990, the actual number may be as high as 20,000.[31][33]:182

In 1969, after years of sharing power with churches, the DIA took sole control of the residential school system.[14][29]:79–84 The last residential school operated by the Canadian government, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996.[34] It is estimated that the number of residential schools reached its peak in the early 1930s with 80 schools and more than 17,000 enrolled students. About 150,000 children are believed to have attended a residential school over the course of the system's existence.[4]:2–3[35]

Parental resistance and compulsory attendance

The parents and families of Indigenous children resisted the residential school system throughout its existence. Children were kept from schools and, in some cases, hidden from government officials tasked with rounding up children on reserves.[36] Parents regularly advocated for increased funding for schools, including the increase of centrally located day schools to improve access to their children, and made repeated requests for improvements to the quality of education, food, and clothing being provided at the schools. Demands for answers in regards to claims of abuse were often dismissed as a ploy by parents seeking to keep their children at home, with government and school officials positioned as those who knew best.[20]:669–674

In 1884, amendments to the Indian Act made school attendance compulsory for Indigenous children between 7 and 16 years of age. The changes included a series of exemptions regarding school location, the health of the children and their prior completion of school examinations.[20]:254–255 It was changed to children between 6 and 15 years of age in 1908.[20]:261[37] The introduction of mandatory attendance was the result of pressure from missionary representatives. Reliant on student enrollment quotas to secure funding, they were struggling to attract new students due to increasingly poor school conditions.[12]:128

Compulsory attendance ended in 1948, following the 1947 report of a Special Joint Committee and subsequent amendment of the Indian Act.[38] Government officials were still able to influence student attendance. The introduction of the Family Allowance Act in 1945 stipulated that school-aged children had to be enrolled in school for families to qualify for the "baby bonus", further coercing Indigenous parents into having their children attend residential schools.[12]:170[39]