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Canadian Indian Residential Schools

Writer: Harry Zhao

Editor: Tonwaan Apiratikiat

Graphic Designer: Benedict Shafira

TW: Physical and sexual abuse

What is the Canadian Indian residential school system?

The Canadian Indian residential school system was a government-directed and church-run programme that placed indigenous First-Nation, Métis and Inuit children into boarding schools. The system was established in an attempt to assimilate indigenous children into colonial society by taking them away from their families and community, and was based upon the idea that the lifestyles of European settlers in Canada were superior to the "uncivilised, savage" ways of life of the aboriginals. In the words of historian John S. Milloy, the goal was "to kill the Indian in the child," promoting Christianity over indigenous spiritual beliefs and separating the children from their cultural heritage, language and customs.

The residential school system lasted from 1831-1996, and left deeply traumatic scars on aboriginal communities. Today, Canada still struggles to recover from and reconcile the terrors and cultural genocide that the system had propagated. The recent news of the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children also brings into light the suffering inflicted by imperial colonialism on indigenous people, which has been covered up for too long.

Anglican Church Archives, Old Sun

What were the policies regarding the indigenous Canadians?

After the War of 1812, as colonists claimed territory and native land from the indigenous people, they were faced with the problem of clashing cultures and indigenous people not having a place in their society. To combat this, they devised policies that promoted the assimilation of indigenous Canadians into colonial culture and the elimination of the "Indian" status. Many were removed of their privileges and right of preserving native land and culture, and forced to adopt European clothing, religion and way of life. Colonists believed that indigenous culture would disappear through eurocentric education, intermarriage and other incentives. Officials believed that although assimilation was difficult for adults, children could be more easily raised to fit in with colonialist customs through forced education, away from indigenous influence. Therefore, the government purchased and repurposed Christian boarding schools for educating aboriginal children in colonial environments, and began the residential school system.

The Department of Indian Affairs proposed the Indian Act, which was first passed in 1876 and had been revised and amended throughout the decades. It aimed to address the "Indian question" - it coerced indigenous people to give up their indigenous identity and status, pushing them towards social assimilation. Indigenous people have only been consulted in the revision process of the Act in recent times, meaning that the Act did not historically have their interests in mind. The 1920 version of the Indian Act made attendance of residential schools mandatory for all indigenous children, where any other form of education was made illegal for them. Additions to the Indian Act in 1951 made it possible for the government to take indigenous children into custody if they deemed that their environments were "unsafe" according to European standards, seeing indigenous lifestyles as warrant for the removal of indigenous children and placement into residential schools or foster care in non-indigenous families. Children were placed into the child welfare system en masse in what is known as the Sixties Scoop. Even after most residential schools were closed, an estimated number of 11,000 to 20,000 children were adopted.

From the 1950s onward, the government realised the inefficiency and unsustainability of residential schools and changed their policies, focusing on integrating indigenous people into average public schools instead. This was also partly due to rising protests from indigenous communities to urge the government to address the terrible conditions of residential schools. The final residential school was closed down in 1996, bringing an end to the residential school system for good.

How were the children treated?

Although the government wanted to provide aboriginal children with education, living conditions in residential schools were unregulated and, for the most part, incredibly harsh. All forms of indigenous culture were prohibited, from language and faith to clothing and hairstyle. Students were given very little chance to interact among themselves, with boys and girls being kept separate, weakening the sense of community.

Students were often subjected to intense physical abuse as forms of punishment and admonishment, which would have been considered intolerable anywhere else at the time. It was used as a way to deter runaways and punish disobedience. Some were shackled to their beds, and others had needles poked into their tongues or soap stuffed into their mouths for speaking their native language. Students were also victims of sexual abuse from educators. As schools were underfunded, problems like overcrowding, poor sanitation and facilities, and lack of medical care allowed diseases to spread quickly among the student body and contributed to high mortality rates, in some cases as high as 69%. Deceased students were usually left unregistered and buried in unmarked graves near school grounds, which have been intentionally hidden or destroyed, meaning that the exact number of dead children may be impossible to determine. Investigations show that the students were sometimes also experimented upon without their consent or awareness, with experiments ranging from intentional malnutrition to drugs and vaccine trials.

The quality of education in residential schools was subpar, and education had a stronger emphasis on religious conversion and physical labour rather than academics or personal development. Teachers and staff who worked there were often inadequately trained, and inflicted significant abuse upon students. While girls learnt domestic skills and boys learnt agricultural and craftsman skills, they often spent more time doing involuntary and unpaid work for the school, such as housekeeping and maintenance. By the time students graduated, many had learnt no skills that would help them to continue further education, secure jobs in colonial society or adjust to life in their native lands, leaving them disconnected from their communities.

Indigenous children at a residential school in 1950/Getty Images

How did families and the indigenous communities react?

As children were forced away from their families and into residential schools, there was substantial resistance from parents, families and communities. Parents were often restricted from visiting their children: for example, some schools monitored parent visitations and required parents to speak to their children in English, while most simply denied parents to visit altogether. The pass system, launched in 1885, required indigenous people to obtain a pass or permit to be able to leave their reserves, which made visitations even more inaccessible. Families and communities continued to protest and advocate for improving living conditions and quality of education. Some would hide and keep their children at home to avoid them being taken away.

How does cultural assimilation still affect aboriginal communities?

Survivors of the residential school system are still haunted by the traumatic experiences they endured. Results from a study conducted on 127 survivors showed that around 65% are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and 21% with major depression. Many have lost the ability to communicate with their community and families, and have been made to believe that their culture is uncivilised and inferior, creating a sense of shame in their cultural identity.

As a result of forced assimilation, indigenous languages and cultures have slowly been lost as younger generations are disconnected from indigeous communities, while traditions and aboriginal languages are only remembered and spoken by the older population. Additionally, historical and intergenerational trauma created by the oppressive system "is translated into a collective experience of cultural disruption and a collective memory of powerlessness and loss," as researcher Gwen Reimer points out in a 2010 study. The damage of the residential school system could explain the higher rates of alcoholism, sexual abuse, mental illnesses, suicide, child apprehension and systemic poverty in indigenous communities.

How are residential schools and survivors of the system portrayed in the media?

There are several documentaries related to the residential school system, including films, books and plays, that retell the accounts of indigenous survivors of the system. Documentary films include Sleeping Children Awake by Rhonda Kara Hanah and A Day at Indian Residential Schools in Canada by the Indigenous Education Coalition, which combine interviews, film footage and archival photographs to illustrate the conditions faced by students in the residential school system and to help survivors gain a voice to speak out against the oppression they have faced.

Frequently in mainstream media, the historical cultural genocide of indigenous Canadians is omitted and ignored, whereas Canada is glorified as an unproblematic and morally superior country in a phenomenon known as maple-washing. With the recent news of the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 dead children behind a former residential school in the city of Kamloops, the cultural genocide of indigenous Canadians has been brought to popular attention and has shocked many Canadians and non-Canadians alike.

How is Canada reconciling and recovering from its effects?

In the 1980s, survivors started appealing to the Canadian legal system to convict figures in the residential school system that had perpetrated abuse, while also holding the Canadian federal government and churches responsible. Around fifty convictions have gone to court backed with more than 38 thousand claims of sexual and physical abuse. On the other hand, the Royal Commissions on Indigenous People had been interviewing and documenting experiences of survivors, bringing the issue into focus at a time when few non-indigenous Canadians were aware of it. This led to a public apology from the Canadian government and the establishment of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which offered reparation to affected communities. Afterwards, in 2005, the Canadian government and around 80 thousand survivors agreed over the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, which gave survivors individual compensation and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Truth and Reconciliation worked to gather accounts from survivors of the residential system and examine the impacts of the residential school system on indigenous people. They put forth 94 Calls to Action in a report published in June 2005 towards the Canadian government which were aimed to provide reconciliation and address the lasting legacy of the system. Among the Calls to Actions were demands for improved healthcare and education for indigenous people, teaching of indigenous languages, and investigations on claims of abuse and legal action. They also sought to educate the wider public about the history of indigenous Canadians.

Recently, a bill was passed by the parliament following news of the unearthing of the unmarked graves at Kamloops to make Orange Shirt Day, September 30th, a statutory holiday that commemorates and honours survivors and their families and communities, and was designated as the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. The holiday was inspired by an account from Phyllis Jack Webstad about how upon her day of arrival at a residential school, a new orange shirt her grandmother made for her was confiscated and never returned. On the day, people are encouraged to wear orange shirts in memory of the victims.

There has been praise for the government for initiating recovery and moving past the era of colonial oppression, but some indigenous communities and organisations still believe that current amounts of reconciliation are still insufficient and that there is still not enough supportive action towards helping indigenous communities. They argue that financial compensations only address the physical and sexual abuse of survivors but fails to address other impacts of the residential schools, such as culture and language loss or mass genocide.


The Canadian Indian residential school system was an unjust and harrowing chapter in Canadian history, where indigenous children were forcibly placed into horrible environments and were faced with abuse and trauma. Founded on colonial ideas of superiority over aboriginals, the residential school system would leave deep scars in indigenous communities. Although the system has been abolished and recovery is underway, there is still much left to be done. It is crucial to honour and support the survivors of the residential school system and not let the cultural genocide of indigenous Canadians be erased or forgotten.




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