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Canada's Dark Residential Schools History

Quick facts:

  • In this article, "Indigenous/Aboriginal peoples" is a collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants. The Canadian Constitution recognizes 3 groups of Aboriginal peoples: Indians (First Nations), Inuit and Métis.  They are three distinct peoples whose histories, languages, cultural practices and religious beliefs vary greatly. In Canada, 1.8 million people identified themselves as Indigenous in the 2021 Census.

  • Colonial activity in Canada began as early as the 16th century. Following European contact until 1763, Indigenous groups formed military and commercial alliances with groups from different European countries.

  • The residential school system refers to what some consider a form of cultural 'genocide' of indigenous people: over 150,000 children were taken from their homes in an effort to ‘civilise’ them and eradicate indigenous customs and independence. Many were physically and sexually abused, and thousands died from disease, neglect and suicide. At least 4,100 students died while attending the schools.

  • Residential schools started in around 1883, with the last one closing as late as 1996.

A History Of Residential School Systems

European settlers and their churches believed Indigenous Peoples to be ‘savage’ due to the huge differences in culture, customs and lifestyles between both. This form of discrimination was prevalent throughout their global colonies. Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald (1867 - 1891) commissioned politician Nicholas Flood Davin to study industrial schools for Indigenous children in the US, leading to public funding for the residential school system. They aggressively attempted to civilise them and integrate them into Canadian society, largely because they wanted them, a minority group with unique treaty statuses, to disappear. 

A Brief Timeline

  1. The indigenous peoples had existed in hundreds of different areas before Europeans settled the country.  The largest group consists of the First Nations, a name that is widely known for 634 distinct communities spread over an immense range of forests, meadows and mountains. Canada's constitution also recognises the Métis and the Inuits).

  2. 1763 -  The indigenous groups formed military and commercial alliances with groups from different European countries  following European contact until 1763.

  3. After 1763, there was a greater demand for land due to an increase in the number of settlers. Unfortunately, settlers began viewing indigenous people as nuisances in the way of Canadian expansion rather than diplomatic partners.

  4. Between 1871 - 1921 the British Crown entered into 11 Numbered Treaties with some First Nations, giving European settlers access to natural resources and rights of settlement.  In many treaties, the Crown had falsely promised to provide agricultural tools and financial compensation for land.

  5. The Indian Act (1876) led to the Canadian government taking over responsibility for Indians, their land, finance and resources. This Act was the first attempt at Indigenous assimilation into society, imposed on First Nations peoples without their consultation.

  6. Residential schools were established as long ago as 1883, with the last one closing as late as 1996. In 1920 it became mandatory for every Indigenous child to attend a residential school and illegal for them to attend any other educational institution.

  7. The government reduced resistance through legislation such as making it illegal for Aboriginal people to organise politically. The government did not repeal these pieces of legislation until 1951.

What Actually Happened In The Residential Schools?

The motto of these residential schools was “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” Students were strictly forbidden to speak their language or to practise Indigenous customs or traditions.  The infringement of these rules was severely punished. The idea was to have residential schools placed far from the communities in which children grew up, so that their parents would not be able to visit.  

Many students attended class part-time and worked for the school the rest of the time: girls did the housekeeping; boys, general maintenance and agriculture. This unpaid work that the schools need to run was disguised as practical training for the students. Most students had only reached grade five by the time they were 18 due to the lack of actual education. 

After having visited 35 government funded schools in western Canada in 1907, Indian Affairs chief medical officer Peter Bryce reported that 25 % of all children who had attended these schools had died. While Bryce acknowledged this was due to tuberculosis, he pointed out how the treatment of indigenous children and the conditions in the residential schools itself exacerbated the students' health.

Indian hospitals and sanatoriums, like residential schools, were funded at often just 50% of the per capita cost for non-Indigenous patients in provincial and municipal hospitals leading to inadequate and low quality healthcare. Similar to residential schools, hospitals did not always bother informing families about their own child’s death - many families still have no idea what happened to their loved ones who were taken away from them to these schools and never returned.

The Decline of Residential Schools:

  • Many Indigenous people fought in both World Wars for Canada which led to a change in their treatment. In 1960, First Nations were given the right to vote. When the federal government started funding First Nations policy organisations, it gave them more control over their affairs and allowed treaty renegotiations.

  • The number of residential schools in Canada started to fall from 1969 onwards. That was the same year that the Catholic Church no longer had control over residential schools and the government took over. 

  • By 1980, the Department of Indian Affairs calculated 16 remaining schools, excluding the Northwest Territories. In 1996, Gordon Reserve Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, the last remaining school, was closed and demolished.

How Did The Attention on Residential Schools Increase In The Media and Canada?

After the late 1980s, the Canadian legal system began to respond to allegations of abuse brought forward by survivors - one 1988 case involving 8 former students of St. George’s Indian Residential School suing the government, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Both admitted fault and agreed to a settlement. In the meantime, individuals from indigenous communities and nations across Canada were interviewed by the Royal Commission on Aborigines about their experiences. The commission’s report, published in 1996, brought critical attention to this dark part of Canadian history as many non-Indigenous Canadians did not know about residential schools.  In 1998, the Foundation for the Healing of Aborigines was set up as part of a $350 million government plan to help communities affected by residential schools (it ran until 2014). 

In 2005, Canada and nearly 80,000 Survivors reached the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement in which Canada committed to individual compensation for Survivors and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Kamloops was, at one time, the largest residential school in Canada. Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation said the search for remains/graves at Kamloops began in the early 2000s after bringing in ground-penetrating radar, in part because official explanations stated the missing children were simply runaways which did not match former students’ testimonies. About 200 bodies were found by May 2021, including that of a child as young as 3. The discovery of the Kamloops gravesites received global media attention and led to the discovery of numerous other residential school gravesites.

In 2021, the government also announced the new position of a special investigator appointed by Canada’s minister of justice was announced to make recommendations regarding the burial sites as well as changes to federal laws and additional funding.


Much of the Canadian public sees the residential school system as part of a distant past, with no visible impact on the present day or relation to current Indigenous generations. However, their effects extend to many aspects of indigenous communities today. 

Métis, Inuit, and First Nations children are still disproportionately represented in the child welfare system because of discriminatory colonial policies. First Nations children living on reserve receive less money for healthcare and education than other children in Canada. Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people experience disproportionately high rates of violence. Additionally, without prior consent or recognition of indigenous law and scientific knowledge, the Canadian Government often approves industrial projects on indigenous territories.

While the last residential school closed in 1996, many discriminatory policies continued such as laws allowing forced sterilisations of Indigenous Peoples in certain provinces (reported up until 2018) and “birth alerts” in child welfare cases, which allowed the flagging of mothers deemed “high risk” without their consent - a practice which disproportionately targeted Indigenous mothers, ending in 2019 in British Columbia. Many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of today’s Indigenous communities are residential school Survivors. Despite strides being made by the Canadian government and Catholic church today, whether that be in the form of funding or formal apologies from individuals like Pope Francis, colonial policies of Canada’s past and residentialschools continue to impact Indigenous communities today, at a time where reparations for historical aggravations ride a global trend.

By Eesha Singh


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