The Residential School System
Residential schools for Indigenous children existed in Canada from the 17th century until the late 1990s. During the 19th and 20th centuries, a formal system for the residential schooling of Indigenous children was established and expanded throughout Canada. Concerted federal government involvement in Residential Schools began in the 1880s. It is estimated that at least 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools during this period. These schools were largely operated by certain churches and religious organizations and administered and funded by the federal government as a key aspect of colonialism. The system was imposed on Indigenous peoples as part of a broad set of assimilation efforts to destroy their rich cultures and identities and to suppress their histories. The accounts of residential school survivors provide critical insight into the devastating experiences children had at residential schools, and the long-term impact of these experiences not only on survivors, but also on their families and communities. Throughout the system’s history, Indigenous peoples fought against the system in many ways. The efforts of residential school survivors to tell their stories and to seek justice have been a crucial catalyst in the growing public recognition of the harm and effects of residential schools.
The first boarding schools for Indigenous children in what would become Canada were established by Roman Catholic missionaries in 17th century colonial New France. In the first half of the 19th century, residential schools for Indigenous children were established under British colonial rule in Upper Canada (southern Ontario). Founded on notions of racial, cultural, and spiritual superiority, these schools attempted to convert Indigenous children to Christianity and separate them from their traditional cultures.
With the colonization of Indigenous territories in the years following Confederation, the Canadian government established and expanded a formal system of residential schooling through legislation and policies with the goal of accelerating the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into settler society. The system expanded west and north, and in time government-sponsored residential schools existed in almost every province and territory in Canada, with most of the schools in the north and Quebec opening after 1950. In general, schools focused on providing instruction in trades and agriculture for boys, and in domestic tasks for girls. Residential schools operated in addition to federally-funded day schools, which were often run by religious organizations. In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government began to pursue a policy of integration in southern Canada, whereby some First Nations children would attend schools in the provincial school system, especially for the higher grades. In the North, the government administered a system of hostels and day schools for First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children. Many Métis students were already attending provincial schools. In practice, the process of integrating students and then closing residential schools took decades, only ending in the late 1990s.
During the years that the system was in place, children were forcibly removed from their homes and, at school, were often subjected to harsh discipline, malnutrition and starvation, poor healthcare, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, neglect, and the deliberate suppression of their cultures and languages. Thousands of children died while attending residential schools, and the burial sites of many remain unknown. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada described the residential school system as a cultural genocide. The intergenerational effects of the trauma include lower levels of educational and social attainment, interpersonal violence, and broken relationships between parents and children. Residential schools undermined fundamental aspects of Indigenous cultures by separating Indigenous peoples from their traditional knowledge and ways of life, languages, family structures, and connections to the land.
From the earliest days of the schools, objections were raised by students, their families, and Indigenous leaders. They protested everything from attendance to poor conditions, mistreatment, and the inadequate quality of schooling itself. Children fought against the system by refusing to let go of their languages and identities. Some children ran away from the schools in an effort to return home. Some died in the process. In the decades when the schools were shutting down, Indigenous peoples fought for official acknowledgement of the harms inflicted by the schools. Survivors advocated for recognition and reparations, and demanded that governments and churches be held accountable for the lasting legacy of harms caused. These efforts ultimately culminated in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, apologies by the government, and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which ran from 2008 to 2015.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 79 in part called on the federal government to commemorate the history and legacy of residential schools. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and their Survivors Circle, Parks Canada, and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada have co-developed this designation and worked collaboratively to determine the national historic significance of this important and defining event in Canadian history that continues to have a significant impact today.