The Shubenacadie Residential School

Shubenacadie Residential School before 1967. In the foreground, the Shubenacadie River can be seen, as well as the houses of school employees on its border. © Sisters of Charity, Halifax, Congregational Archives
Shubenacadie Residential School, circa 1940. © Republished with permission from The Chronicle Herald

For the week of Monday, June 28, 2021.

NOTE: The Residential School system is a traumatic subject, as it can evoke memories of past abuse. The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Crisis Line has been set up to support former students of Indian Residential Schools.

You can obtain information on this website or, when in crisis, access emotional support and referral services by dialing 1-866-925-4419 at any time.

On June 30, 1967, the Shubenacadie Residential School closed its doors after over 37 years in operation. This residential school, located in Mi’kma’ki, the territory of the Mi’kmaq in central Nova Scotia, was the only residential school established by the federal government in the Maritime Provinces.

The first residential schools were established by Christian missionaries in New France during the 17th century. In the 1880s, a system of residential schools, orchestrated and funded by the federal government and administered locally by Christian churches, was gradually built across Canada. The ultimate purpose of this system was to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian, Christian cultures.

Opened in February 1930 and operated by the Roman Catholic Church, the Shubenacadie Residential School was intended to assimilate Mi’kmaw, Wolastoq'kew, Peskotomuhkati and other indigenous children from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the southern Gaspé Peninsula. These children, many of whom the State alleged were “underprivileged,” were often forced to report to the residential school by the local Indian agent, regardless of their families’ wishes. When families and children resisted enrollment, law enforcement often intervened and took children to the school. While at school, children were rarely allowed to visit home.

Children at the residential school spent half of the day learning academic lessons in English. During the other half of the day, boys performed agricultural tasks and girls domestic labour. This method, which was much like forced labour, helped lower the residential school’s operational and maintenance costs and encouraged a climate of abuse against the children.

Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse were rampant in residential schools, including the institution at Shubenacadie. Children were violently punished for minor infractions, notably for speaking their own languages instead of English. Residential schools were woefully underfunded by the Canadian state and this resulted in student malnutrition, overcrowding, and the spread of disease. Despite widespread protests by children and parents, the Shubenacadie school did not close until 1967, and nationally, residential schools were not entirely phased out until the 1990s.

Today, many former students, as well as subsequent generations of their families, live with the consequences of the poor education and the abuse and mistreatment suffered at the Shubenacadie Residential School.

The Former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School is a designated national historic site. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, cemeteries, complexes of buildings and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn
May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about Asian Canadian histories by exploring articles in our online archives about the Early Chinese Cemeteries in Victoria, British Columbia, Vietnamese immigration to Canada after 1978, and The Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple.