2021-09-14T08:46:43-04:00Sep 13, 2021|

Indigenous history: Residential schools and their legacy

This is the 3rd of our 4-part series on Indigenous cultures and issues in Canada. You can read about Indigenous cultures in Canada and the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Written by: Leslie Anne St Amour, a member of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation


The history of the Indigenous people in Canada cannot be adequately explained without talking about residential schools. From 1831 to 1996, the government of Canada, assisted by several Christian church bodies, operated a system of boarding schools for Indigenous children. These schools were mandatory from 1920 to 1947, and nearly 150,000 Indigenous children passed through the doors of these schools, many of them unwillingly and by force. 

Indian residential schools are often referred to as a “dark chapter” in Canada’s history. However, with residential schools having operated in Canada for nearly 165 years, it cannot be called just a chapter, and by no means a chapter that’s been closed. The forceful separation of Indigenous children from their families and culture, as well as the many abuses they endured in these schools have had a lasting impact on many survivors and Indigenous communities.

In 2021, history resurfaced when a mass grave containing the remains of buried children was uncovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, revealing the brutal truth about the plight of many Indigenous children at these schools.

History of residential schools in Canada

While the first church-run residential school was opened in 1831, it was in the 1880s that the federal government adopted an official policy which included funding residential schools. The government’s decision to support and fund residential schools was based on the belief that the colonizers were racially and culturally superior and were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves.

In 1920, the Indian Act made attendance at residential schools mandatory for children with Indian status between the ages of seven and fifteen years old. Various denominations ran residential schools, some with more involvement of the church and others run directly by the federal government. 

However, at all schools the goal was for Indigenous children to no longer have a connection to their culture and community. Historian John S. Milloy argued that the system’s aim was to “kill the Indian in the child.” Indigenous students were not allowed to dress in their traditional clothing, speak their languages, and in many cases, they weren’t even allowed to use their own names, and were given Christian names (or even numbers) instead. 

Duncan Campbell Scott, a government employee tasked with running the residential school system at its peak, and who pushed to make them mandatory under the Indian Act, described the goal of the schools as “to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.

Unheard pleas: A system rife with abuse

The quality of the education at the schools was substandard, as was the care provided to children. Survivors have shared their experiences of emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of those in-charge. Sick children were not given adequate medical care. At some schools, experiments were even conducted on children, including experiments on nutrition. One experiment required that children be fed an inadequate diet in order to test what their bodies could withstand. The children and their families never consented to these experiments being run. 

In 1907, it was reported by P.H. Bryce, a government medical inspector, that 24 per cent of previously healthy Indigenous children across Canada were dying in residential schools. While Bryce was one of the few government staff members to raise an alarm about what was occurring in residential schools, it was only decades later that these concerns were taken seriously.

After 1951, the Indian Act of 1867 was repealed and replaced with a modernized version which no longer made it mandatory for Indigenous children to attend schools. However, the last residential school did not close until 1996. This is one reason that residential schools cannot simply be considered a “dark chapter” in Canada’s history, as many survivors are still living with the direct impacts of these schools. 

The long periods of forced separation led to the loss of family ties for many Indigenous children and disconnected them from their traditional way of life. The physical and psychological scars remained long after they returned from these schools and, in many cases, led to the use of alcohol to cope with past trauma and triggered a vicious cycle of abuse and depression. In addition, their children and families still live with the intergenerational impacts of the time that was spent at these schools. 

Truth and Reconciliation

The legacy of these residential schools has been their intended weakening of Indigenous communities and cultures, which allowed the government to continue using Indigenous land as they see fit, without recognition of Indigenous law or their role in governing their land, and which Canadian society continues to benefit from to this day.

In 2002, a national class action lawsuit was started which fought for compensation for all former residential school survivors and their family members. In 2005, the Canadian government and nearly 80,000 survivors reached the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. In this agreement, Canada committed to providing compensation for survivors, funding for healing, and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

From 2010 to 2015, the TRC conducted hearings across the country where survivors were able to tell their stories. The testimony from survivors and evidence were collected in order to understand what really happened at residential schools. There were interviews, public forums, and written statements. All of the information collected was incorporated into a report by the TRC and translated into 94 Calls to Action. Today, this information is held by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), a place of learning and dialogue where the truths of residential school survivors, families, and communities are honoured and kept safe for future generations.

While the Settlement Agreement resulted in the TRC and some compensation for survivors, there were almost no consequences for the individuals involved in managing and running the residential schools. Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau have apologized on behalf of the government of Canada, however, many feel that, without consequences, these apologies are just symbolic. 

Ongoing discrimination against Indigenous children in the child welfare system

There is still a long way to go to rectify and restore the rights of the Indigenous people.  Today, there are more Indigenous children in the child welfare system than there ever were in residential schools. Over 50 per cent of children in foster care are Indigenous, even though they make up less than 8 per cent of the total children in Canada. 

Many of the cultural impacts of residential schools are similar to those felt in the foster care system, including alienation from their language, culture, family, and community. In addition, children in foster care can be at risk of abuse and have limited access to services and support once they “age out” of care and lose their safety net. 

Many, including Dr. Cindy Blackstock of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, argue that the Indigenous child welfare system is an evolution of residential school policies. Dr. Blackstock led a court case in which the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016 found that the Canadian government had discriminated against First Nations children by underfunding child welfare services. Today, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society continues to work to improve the child welfare system for Indigenous children and communities.

You can learn more about residential schools and their lasting impact on Indigenous communities by checking out books by Indigenous authors and exploring the films on Residential Schools available with the National Film Board.

It’s important that all Canadians, including newcomers, understand this history to prevent a recurrence and to continue re-balancing the scales in Canada. Only through acknowledgment of the truth, can we, as a society, support the Indigenous people in being able to live healthy, equitable, and fulfilling lives.

Read more about Indigenous cultures and the history of Indigenous people in Canada.

About the author: Leslie Anne St Amour is a member of the Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation and has mixed Algonquin and settler heritage. She is a lawyer with Durant Barristers and a member of the Board of Directors of Aboriginal Legal Services and the Board of Directors of the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station. Leslie Anne is also co-host of the podcast Rebalancing Act which focuses on climate solutions.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect RBC’s opinion or position.