What newcomers need to know about residential schools

Skip to:

When we talk about the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada, the term “residential schools” always comes up. What are residential schools and why is it important for newcomers to know about them?

The establishment and operation of residential schools is said to be one of the darkest periods in Canada’s history as a nation. Everyone needs to know about residential schools. It is crucial to understanding the plight of Indigenous peoples in our society today.

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 based upon the assumption that Indigenous Peoples were not civilized. They thought that the best way to “educate” Indigenous children and assimilate them fully into the society was to separate them from their families to be taught at these schools. In 1920, it became mandatory for Indigenous children to go to one. Parents faced fines or imprisonment if they did not follow. There were about 150 residential schools all over Canada.

What’s wrong with these schools?

The general experience of students was more negative than positive. Not only were the children forcibly separated from their families, many experienced:

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

What were the schools like?

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 such “transgressions.”
  • 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

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, even if the children had a different language. After class, they worked as farm hands or cleaning staff. This was all in the guise of vocational training. Actually, 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. Over and above such treatment, 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. 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 such dismal conditions, many children felt scared, lonely and hungry. Some tried to run away, or rebel. In extreme cases, some tried to burn down their school or committed suicide. It is estimated that at least 6,000 children died in residential schools according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As early as the 1940s it was evident to the government as well as the missionary bodies that residential schools were ineffective. But it was the growing pressure from protests of parents and political leaders that finally pushed the government to start phasing out the schools. By 1986, most have been closed or turned over to local bands. Ten years, later, the last residential school, Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan was 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 were unable to 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, Globe and Mail, June 1, 2015). 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, the government and churches that operated the schools signed the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. It provides financial compensation to former students of residential schools.

Instrumental to the process of reconciliation was the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It undertook a six-year study to uncover the effects of residential schools. The commission studied the testimony of survivors, former staff, and church and government officials, as well as the contents of archival documents. But even up to now, we are still discovering the extent of the harm caused by these schools (see What we know about how many children died at Canada’s residential schools, CTV News). This is a sign that work must continue so that we can fully understand the full picture and begin to right history’s wrongs.

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 committed during this dark period in Canadian history.
Article updated June 1, 2021.
Sources: 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.

Back to top

Community Resources

Learn more about the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how you can help in the reconciliation efforts.

Back to top

We'd love to hear from you!

Please login to tell us what you think.

Related Learning Activities

What to do if you have a car accident in Manitoba

graphic of car collision at a stop

Having a car accident can be very distressing. Knowing exactly what to if this happens is of utmost importance. Attend… Read more »

WorkCom_Before you begin

A woman giving a presentation at work

Thinking about your knowledge and skills is an independent learning strategy. When you think about what you can do and what… Read more »

WorkCom_Week 4

A woman giving a presentation at work

This is our last week of Workplace Communications. This time you are in the driver’s seat. We look forward to your presentation… Read more »

WorkCom_Week 3

A woman giving a presentation at work

We have now reached week 3 of Workplace Communications! This week, we are engaging in a number of activities that allow… Read more »

Back to top

CC BY-NC-SAText of this page is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA, unless otherwise marked. Please attribute to English Online Inc. and link back to this page where possible. For images and videos, check the source for licensing information.