An Introduction to Canadian Residential Schools

Less than 25 years ago, residential schools were still active in Canada. Your grandparents, parents, siblings, or even you may have been alive to experience it if you were an Indigenous person in Canada.

5 min read
An Introduction to Canadian Residential Schools

There’s no simple way to express the story of Canadian Residential Schools. The basis for the system was corrupt and unjust. It should have been a crime, the way Indigenous children were treated in residential schools, but it was accepted and it was enforced; it was the means to a cultural genocide.

Less than 25 years ago, residential schools were still active in Canada. Your grandparents, parents, siblings, or even you may have been alive to experience it if you were an Indigenous person in Canada. As many are going back to school, as teachers or students, it is important to acknowledge your own privilege, to learn or be reminded of how Indigenous people in Canada have experienced an “education” in residential schools and how it has impacted and will continue to impact generations of Indigenous Canadians.

Residential schools were government-funded and federally run by the Department of Indian Affairs, taught by churches and staffed by nuns who needed no qualifications or training to teach. The government believed it was their responsibility to educate Indigenous children by developing a policy whose purpose was to forcibly assimilate them into Euro-Canadian society. More than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children were taken from their families to attend residential schools as young as four-years-old and parents would be arrested if they refused. Siblings and friends were separated, and children were forbidden to speak their native language or practice their traditional faiths. They were made to cut their long hair short, which is a very important aspect of their cultural identity, they were stripped of their traditional clothes and given uniforms. If the children’s names were too different, or too difficult to pronounce they were given new English names, all in effort to erase their culture.

Over 130 residential schools operated in Canada from the early 1830’s to late 1990’s. In 1831 the Mohawk Institute was the first boarding school for Indigenous people to open in what is now Brantford, Ontario. This institute was established before Canada became a sovereign nation and before residential schools became law in The Indian Act of 1876. The last federally-funded school to close was the Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan in 1996. However, the last residential school to close was Grollier Hall in 1997, which was not a government run school that year.

Education provided by these schools was limited and irrelevant to the students' needs; many children were left without the skills required for further education. The teaching staff was underqualified and inadequate. The children were not taught subjects like math, science, history or literature; they were taught aspects of Euro-Canadian culture and basic English, they had to learn religious values and were forced to convert to Christianity. They were made to sing songs about a god whom they might not have believed in, and made to pray and ask for forgiveness because being Native was a sin in and of itself; and those who sin go to hell. Most unfortunately, they were taught to hate their own kind. In addition to being brainwashed by nuns, the children were taught various trades. The girls and boys were separated: girls had lessons for laundry, cooking, cleaning, knitting and sewing. The boys learned shoe-making, gardening and construction, among other labors. However, these lessons were not for the benefit of the children, they were taught then forced into unpaid labor.

Throughout the years, over 25 schools were set on fire and several burnt down, some were set fire in protest by students or parents. Many of them spent their fundamental learning years experiencing abuse in every aspect. Students were forced to work without compensation; cooking, cleaning, building and rebuilding their own schools. Children were physically abused, neglected, medically experimented on, and tortured by electrocution. They were often chained in confinement, and sexually assaulted by staff who never faced a consequence other than being fired and very rarely received charges. Most sexual assaults were never reported so the child would have to continue living with the abuser. Due to low funding, their food was low in quantity and poor in quality causing students to be malnourished, buildings were poorly built and unsanitary making them vulnerable to diseases such as tuberculosis, Spanish flu and influenza. Students were also affected by smallpox, measles, typhoid, diphtheria, pneumonia and whooping cough, killing thousands of children.

It is clear that the Canadian government's efforts to make peace on account of their past actions were and still are inadequate. In 2005, the government established a $1.9 billion compensation package for the survivors and in 2007 the churches that operated the schools provided financial compensation to the former students under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. In June of 2008,former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized, but refused to give compensation to survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador because they were not part of Canada at the time the schools began operating. Thankfully a lawsuit launched by the survivors against the government was approved for $50 million on September 28, 2016. Most recently, on November 24 of 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an apology to the survivors of Newfoundland and Labrador. Though some survivors felt relief from Trudeau's apology, many are still waiting for real action to be taken. Wanbdi Wakita, a residential school survivor, says he has done his part for reconciliation in an interview with CBC News:

“In my mind, when I went to residential school and left the residential school, after a while I had to get counselling to take that junk out; what I experienced.”, he says. “That’s not the end, there’s other things that has to be righted and it’s not my turn. It’s the other side's turn to right the wrongs.” He continues, “Don’t hide anything anymore, start providing meaningful actions.”

How have Residential Schools affected the lives of Indigenous Canadians to this day? It comes down to their emotional and psychological trauma; the abuse and neglect has caused many survivors to have difficulty creating close bonds with other people. Because they were not allowed to have friends and were separated from siblings, some find that relationships with their own family, especially their children, suffer. In an effort to protect their children, some parents stopped speaking their native language and spoke only English so when the time came for their children to attend school, they wouldn’t suffer as they did. Furthermore, the psychological trauma behind eating habits have affected many survivors of residential schools. Memories of being forced to eat rotten food, looking for scraps but settling for food intended for pigs and being denied the necessary calories needed for growing children would undoubtedly cause trauma to those who have experienced it. Many children grew up having to find other ways to eat, sneaking around at night to find food despite the risk of being caught and punished. The way Indigenous people in Canada have suffered in residential schools has trickled down through generations, yet the current Canadian education system is still failing to teach this native history. Jesse Wente, a Canadian arts journalist and member of the Indigenous Canadian community in Toronto voiced his thoughts concerning reconciliation in a CBC News story.

“As an Indigenous kid who grew up in Toronto, I didn’t get taught my own history in class and I would say that Indigenous history is Canadian history.”, Jesse recounts.

If the Canadian education system can take the time to teach the discoveries of Jacques Cartier, should they not also teach the people who occupied the land first and what they experienced while their land was being taken from them and even after it was taken? Residential schools are but one aspect of Canadian history and the injustices against Indigenous Canadians are substantial. One cannot have the sympathy to reconcile if they do not learn, understand and empathize with this element of history.

Indigenous Organizations to Support

Native Women’s Association of Canada

True North Aid

Native Canadian Centre of Toronto

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami

Legacy of Hope Foundation


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