What is the Indian residential school system ?

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The origins of Indian residential schools go back to the nineteenth century, an era of massive colonial expansion in Canada. During that time, the “Indian Question” was on the minds of every political leader in the fledgling country.

In Canada, as in the United States, the population originating from Europe was rapidly increasing, and the doctrine according to which Indigenous peoples belonged to a bygone era was simply taken for granted. The colonizers inability to integrate Indigenous peoples was a real problem for those seeking to recreate European civilization in the New World.

In 1883, sixteen years after Confederation, the Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, offered a « solution » in the House of Commons:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men. (1)

First Nation people—then unscrupulously called “savages”—were already confined to reserves. By allowing Indigenous children to be raised by their parents, the reserves helped maintain their culture, and this posed a problem for the “civilizing progress” that Macdonald and his colleagues envisioned for their young country. In their minds, the philosophy that one must “kill the Indian in the child” was an obvious moral truth. If Indigenous people were going to integrate with the European majority and participate in the colonizing project, it was necessary to separate the children from their parents. It was necessary to destroy the family system that ensured the transmission of Indigenous cultures.

For over a century, the central objectives of Canadian Indian policy were to eliminate Indigenous governments, ignore Indigenous rights, end treaties and, through a process of assimilation, ensure that Indigenous peoples ceased to exist as legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which could be described as “cultural genocide”. (2)

(1) Quoted in Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 2-3

(2) Quoted in Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 1

Overview of the System

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More than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forced to attend one of the 139 church-run, government-funded schools between 1870 and 1997.

The “industrial schools” that came into being in the 1870s were the first manifestation of the modern residential school system. In 1930, at the height of the system, there were 80 establishments in Canada. Although the government administered residential schools, the task of managing them and educating the children was entrusted to religious institutions: the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the United Church, and the Presbyterian Church. Like schooling and cultural assimilation, evangelization was seen as a key component of transforming residents into citizens worthy of being part of the majority.

Since the explicit purpose of the schools was to transform “savages” into “modern citizens”, violence and humiliation quickly and inevitably became the preferred means of getting the messages across to the children. Even in cases where the governing principles of the system were tolerantly applied (and even if one could argue that the intentions of some were good), the goal and project remained inherently violent. It was about uprooting the child before he could put down roots in his community and master their culture. It was about making them believe that their mother tongue was shameful and useless. In short, it was about convincing them that everything they had learned from their parents was worth forgetting.

For the children, life in these schools was lonely and foreign. When they arrived at the residential school, brothers and sisters were separated. The buildings were poorly located, poorly constructed and poorly maintained. Many schools were poorly heated and ventilated. Food was meager and of poor quality. Discipline was severe and daily life was extremely regimented. Native languages and cultures were denigrated and repressed. The educational objectives of the schools were limited and confusing and usually reflected a lack of respect for the intellectual capacities of Indigenous peoples. For students, education and technical training too often gave way to the labor required to make schools self-sufficient. Neglect of children was institutionalized, and lack of supervision created situations where the safety and even the lives of students were at risk. The residential school system was part of an overall policy that sought the extinction of all Indigenous culture in Canada, and it was within this policy and the prejudices it embodied that the physical, psychological and sexual abuse that thousands of Indigenous people reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 2008 and 2015 occurred.

According to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2015, at least 6,000 children died in these facilities. Today, we know that the number is likely higher. A child had a 1 in 25 chance of dying at residential school.

“The residential school system was based on an assumption that European civilization and Christian religions were superior to Aboriginal culture, which was seen as being savage and brutal.” (3)

(3) Quoted in Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 5

Shorts videos on Canadian Indian Residential School System

What are Canadian residential schools?

The effects of Canadian residential schools on children who attended them.

Canada's residential schools: the abuse experienced by young residents.