What newcomers need to know about residential schools

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The period during which the Residential School System was established is one of the darkest periods in Canada’s history. For over 150 years, this system sought to “civilize” Indigenous children by force.

It had lasting effects on generations of Indigenous families. We continue to see the damage caused by the abuse children experienced even until today. This is why learning about residential schools is crucial to anyone who wants to understand the plight of Indigenous peoples in our society.

What are residential schools?

These are “government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture” (Residential schools, The Canadian Encyclopedia). The Residential School System was built on the assumption that Indigenous Peoples were not civilized. They decided that the best way to educate Indigenous children was to separate them from their families.

In 1920, it became mandatory for Indigenous children to go to one. Parents were fined or imprisoned if they did not follow. About 150 residential schools were established all over Canada.

What’s wrong with these schools?

The false idea that Indigenous Peoples were uncivilized (and seen as inferior) led to mistreatment and abuse. Not only were the children forcibly separated from their families, many experienced:

  • neglect
  • disconnection from their beliefs, language, culture
  • loss of freedom
  • discrimination
  • physical abuse (excessive punishment)
  • sexual abuse

What were the schools like?

The schools were patterned after schools in the United States and in British colonies, where instruction aimed to convert Indigenous and poor children into Catholics and Protestants. The goal was to turn them into “good industrious workers” (Canadian Geographic, Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada).

Children were taught to adopt European traditions, languages and lifestyle. As soon as the children came in, their clothes and cultural belongings were taken away. They were:

  • given haircuts and were required to wear uniforms
  • given new English names
  • not allowed to speak their own languages, practice their cultural beliefs or spend time with the opposite sex including their brothers and sisters. Students were physically punished for breaking such rules.
  • required to practice Christianity
  • not allowed to go home to their families during the school year. After the 1960s, they were allowed to go home for statutory holidays, and then later, on the weekends as well.

The children were made to think that their culture was inferior. They were told that they will never be as good as non-Indigenous people.

Until the late 1950s, a half-day system was enforced. School days started early, the half-day divided into classroom instruction and work. Classes were in English or French. After class, the children worked as farm hands or cleaning staff. This was called “vocational training.” In reality, the free labour benefitted the school and allowed them to run inexpensively.

The children did not have enough to eat. They were also not given proper clothes for the cold winters or hot summers. And because of overcrowding, diseases spread rapidly in the schools.

It is estimated that 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools from 1883 until 1996.

The video Stolen Children: Residential School survivors speak out from CBC’s The National features the experience of residential school survivors as well as the lasting effects of this experience on the children of the survivors:

Long-term consequences

Because of these conditions, many children felt scared, lonely and hungry. Some tried to run away. Others attempted to burn down their school or commit suicide. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 6,000 children died in these schools.

As early as the 1940s, the government and the missionary bodies knew that residential schools were ineffective. But it still took pressure from parents and political leaders for the government to start phasing them out.

It took more than 40 years for these schools to be closed. By 1986, most residential schools have been closed or turned over to local bands. Ten years later, the last residential school, Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan was finally closed.

After coming out of these schools, survivors experienced the following:

  • Survivors were left with very little education and had developed a belief that it is shameful to be an Indigenous person.
  • Many could not speak their mother languages when they went back home. This left them unable to connect with their parents, especially their grandparents. This created a greater gap between them and their own culture since Indigenous culture is usually passed on orally.
  • Many found it hard to fit into the European-Canadian society. They could not find work because of their low level of education. They also faced racism and discrimination.
  • They felt that they did not belong anywhere.

Individual and family dysfunction grew and extended to the succeeding generations (watch the video above). This is why residential schools continue to be blamed for the joblessness, poverty, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown, sexual abuse, prostitution, homelessness, high rates of imprisonment, and early death of Indigenous Peoples.

Starting to heal the damage

Church groups began to issue apologies in the 1980s for their role in running these schools (Residential schools and reconciliation: What you should be reading today). On June 11, 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology to all former students of residential schools in Canada and established a $1.9 billion compensation package for the survivors. A year before this, the government and churches that operated the schools signed the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The agreement provides financial compensation to former students of residential schools.

A big step towards the process of reconciliation was the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC undertook a six-year study to uncover the effects of residential schools. It studied the testimony of survivors, former staff, church and government officials. They evaluated the contents of archival documents.

On June 2, 2015, the commission published a report declaring that the residential school experience was equivalent to cultural genocide. The report also contained 94 recommendations towards healing and righting the wrongs caused by residential schools.
Article updated September 21, 2023.
Sources: History of Residential Schools, Canadian Geographic, Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada; Residential Schools, J.R. Miller, The Canadian Encyclopedia; Indigenous Peoples of Manitoba. A Guide for Newcomers, Anika Reynar and Zoe Matties for the Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba; Canada’s residential schools cultural genocide, Truth and Reconciliation Commission says, Joanna Smith, The Star, June 2, 2015. All accessed April 5, 2017 and May 30, 2023.

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