Canadian Indian residential school system

In Canada, the Indian residential school system[nb 1] was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples.[nb 2] The network was funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches. The school system was created for the purpose of removing Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture, "to kill the Indian in the child." Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, about 30 per cent of Indigenous children (around 150,000) were placed in residential schools nationally.[3][4]:2–3 The number of school-related deaths remains unknown due to an incomplete historical record, though estimates range from 3,200 upwards of 6,000.[5][6]

The system had its origins in laws enacted before Confederation, but it was primarily active from the passage of the Indian Act in 1876. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1884 made attendance at day schools, industrial schools, or residential schools compulsory for First Nations children. Due to the remote nature of many communities, school locations meant that for some families residential schools were the only way to comply. The schools were intentionally located at substantial distances from Indigenous communities to minimize contact between families and their children. Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued for schools at greater distances to reduce family visits, which he thought counteracted efforts to civilize Indigenous children. Parental visits were further restricted by the use of a pass system designed to confine Indigenous peoples to reserves. The last federally operated residential school closed in 1996, called Gordon Indian Residential School and was located in Punnichy, Saskatchewan. Schools operated in every province and territory with the exception of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.[7]

The residential school system harmed Indigenous children significantly by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse, and forcibly enfranchising them. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system often graduated unable to fit into either their communities and still subject to racist attitudes in mainstream Canadian society. The system ultimately proved successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs across generations. The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which persist within Indigenous communities today.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology on behalf of the Government of Canada and the leaders of the other federal parties in the House of Commons. Nine days prior, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to uncover the truth about the schools. The commission gathered about 7,000 statements from residential school survivors[nb 3] through public and private meetings at various local, regional and national events across Canada. Seven national events held between 2008 and 2013 commemorated the experience of former students of residential schools. In 2015, the TRC concluded with the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the publication of a multi-volume report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. The TRC report concluded that the school system amounted to cultural genocide.


Attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples were rooted in imperial colonialism, which centred around a European worldview of cultural practice and an understanding of land ownership based on the doctrine of Discovery.[4]:47–50 As explained in the executive summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's (TRC) final report: "Underlying these arguments was the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves. The 'civilizing mission' rested on a belief of racial and cultural superiority."[4]:50

Assimilation efforts began as early as the 17th century with the arrival of French colonists in New France.[9] They were resisted by Indigenous communities who were unwilling to leave their children for extended periods and who came to associate missionaries with the diseases devastating Indigenous populations.[10] The establishment of day and boarding schools by groups including the Récollets, Jesuits and Ursulines was largely abandoned by the 1690s. The political instability and realities of colonial life also played a role in the decision to halt the education programs.[11] An increase in orphaned and foundling colonial children limited church resources, and colonists benefited from favourable relations with Indigenous peoples in both the fur trade and military pursuits.[12]:3[13]:58–60

After a failure to assimilate Indigenous children by early missionaries in the 17th century, educational programs were not widely attempted again by religious officials until the 1820s, prior to the introduction of state-sanctioned operations.[14] Included among them was a school established by John West, an Anglican missionary, at the Red River Colony in what is today Manitoba.[4]:50 Protestant missionaries also opened residential schools in the current Ontario region, spreading Christianity and working to encourage Indigenous peoples to adopt subsistence agriculture as a way to ensure they would not return to their original, nomadic ways of life upon graduation.[15]

Although many of these early schools were open for only a short time, efforts persisted. The Mohawk Institute Residential School, the oldest, continuously operated residential school in Canada, opened in 1834 on Six Nations of the Grand River near Brantford, Ontario. Administered by the Anglican Church, the facility opened as the Mechanics' Institute, a day school for boys, in 1828 and became a boarding school four years later when it accepted its first boarders and began admitting female students. It remained in operation until June 30, 1970.[16]

The renewed interest in residential schools in the early 1800s has been linked to the decline in military hostility faced by British settlers, particularly after the War of 1812. With the threat of invasion by American forces minimized, Indigenous communities were no longer viewed as allies but as barriers to permanent settlement.[12]:3[17] This perspective was further underscored by the transfer of affairs with Indigenous communities from military officials, familiar with and sympathetic to their customs and way of life, to civilian representatives concerned only with permanent colonial settlement.[13]:73–75

Beginning in the late 1800s, the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) officially encouraged the growth of the residential school system as a valuable component in a wider policy of integrating Indigenous people into European-Canadian society.[12] Responsible for separating Indigenous children from their families and communities, this process was found by the TRC to be cultural genocide, a conclusion that echoed the words of historian John S. Milloy, who argued that the system's aim was to "kill the Indian in the child".[15]:42[18][19] As the system was designed as an immersion program, Indigenous children were in many schools prohibited from, and sometimes punished for, speaking their own languages or practising their own faiths.[20] The primary stated goal was to convert Indigenous children to Christianity and to civilize them.[13]

Many of the government-operated residential schools were run by churches of various denominations, with the majority administered by Roman Catholics. Between 1867 and 1939, the number of schools operating at one time peaked at 80 in 1931. Of those schools, 44 were operated by Roman Catholics; 21 were operated by the Church of England / Anglican Church of Canada; 13 were operated by the United Church of Canada, and 2 were operated by Presbyterians.[21]:682 The approach of using established school facilities set up by missionaries was employed by the federal government for economic expedience: the government provided facilities and maintenance, while the churches provided teachers and their own lesson-planning.[22] As a result, the number of schools per denomination was less a reflection of their presence in the general population, but rather their legacy of missionary work.[21]:683

Government involvement

Although education in Canada was made the jurisdiction of the provincial governments by the British North America Act, Indigenous peoples and their treaties were under the jurisdiction of the federal government.[22] Residential schools were funded under the Indian Act by what was then the federal Department of the Interior. Adopted in 1876 as An Act to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians, it consolidated all previous laws placing Indigenous communities, land and finances under federal control. As explained by the TRC, the Act "made Indians wards of the state, unable to vote in provincial or federal elections or enter the professions if they did not surrender their status, and severely limited their freedom to participate in spiritual and cultural practices".[21]:110

The by Governor General Charles Bagot, entitled Report on the affairs of the Indians in Canada.[15]:12–17[23] Referred to as the Bagot Report, it is seen as the foundational document for the federal residential school system.[24] It was supported by James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, who had been impressed by industrial schools in the West Indies, and Egerton Ryerson, who was then the Chief Superintendent of Education in Upper Canada.[15]:15

On May 26, 1847, Ryerson wrote a letter for George Vardon, Assistant Superintendent of Indian Affairs, asserting that "the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings".[25]:3 He expressly recommended that Indigenous students be educated in a separate, denominational, English-only system with a focus on industrial training.[11][14][24] This letter was published as an appendix to a larger report entitled Statistics Respecting Indian Schools.[25]

The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 formed the foundations for this system prior to Confederation. These acts assumed the inherent superiority of French and British ways, and the need for Indigenous peoples to become French or English speakers, Christians, and farmers. At the time, many Indigenous leaders argued to have these acts overturned.[26] The Gradual Civilization Act awarded 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land to any Indigenous male deemed "sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education" and would automatically "enfranchise" him, removing any tribal affiliation or treaty rights.[15]:18[27] With this legislation, and through the creation of residential schools, the government believed Indigenous peoples could eventually become assimilated into the general population. For graduates to receive individual allotments of farmland would require changes in the communal reserve system, something fiercely opposed by First Nations governments.[15]:18–19

In January 1879, Sir John A. Macdonald, Prime Minister of what was now post-Confederation Canada, commissioned politician Nicholas Flood Davin to write a report regarding the industrial boarding-school system in the United States.[21]:154[28] Now known as the Davin Report, the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds was submitted to Ottawa in March 14, 1879, and made the case for a cooperative approach between the Canadian government and the church to implement the "aggressive assimilation" pursued by President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.[29][28]:1 Davin's report relied heavily on findings he acquired through consultations with government officials and representatives of the Five Civilized Tribes in Washington, DC, and church officials in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He visited only one industrial day school, in Minnesota, before submitting his findings.[21]:154–158 In his report Davin concluded that the best way to civilize Indigenous peoples was to start with children in a residential setting, away from their families, so that they could be "kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions".[21]:157[28]:12

Davin's findings were supported by Vital-Justin Grandin, who felt that while the likelihood of civilizing adults was low, there was hope when it came to Indigenous children. He explained in a letter to Public Works Minister Hector-Louis Langevin that the best course of action would be to make children "lead a life different from their parents and cause them to forget the customs, habits & language of their ancestors".[21]:159 In 1883 Parliament approved $43,000 for three industrial schools and the first, Battleford Industrial School, opened on December 1 of that year. By 1900 there were 61 schools in operation.[21]:161

The government began purchasing church-run boarding schools in the 1920s. During this period capital costs associated with the schools were assumed by the government, leaving administrative and instructional duties to church officials. The hope was that minimizing facility expenditures would allow church administrators to provide higher quality instruction and support to the students in their care. Although the government was willing to, and did, purchase schools from the churches, many were acquired for free given that the rampant disrepair present in the buildings resulted in their having no economic value. Schools continued to be maintained by churches in instances where they failed to reach an agreement with government officials with the understanding that the government would provide support for capital costs. The understanding ultimately proved complicated due to the lack of written agreements outlining the extent and nature of that support or the approvals required to undertake expensive renovations and repairs.[21]:240

By the 1930s it was recognized by government officials that the residential school system was financially unsustainable and failing to meet the intended goal of training and assimilating Indigenous children into European-Canadian society. Robert Hoey, superintendent of welfare and training at Indian Affairs, opposed the expansion of new schools, noting in 1936 that "to build educational institutions, particularly residential schools, while the money at our disposal is insufficient to keep the schools already erected in a proper state of repair, is, to me, very unsound and a practice difficult to justify".[30]:3 He proposed the expansion of day schools, an approach to educating Indigenous children that he would continue to pursue after being promoted to director of the welfare and training branch in 1945. The proposal was resisted by the United Church, the Anglican Church, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who believed that the solution to the system's failure was not restructuring but intensification.[30]:3–5

Between 1945 and 1955, the number of First Nations students in day schools run by Indian Affairs expanded from 9,532 to 17,947. This growth in student population was accompanied by an amendment to the Indian Act in 1951 that allowed federal officials to establish agreements with provincial and territorial governments and school boards regarding the education of Indigenous students in the public school system. These changes were indicative of the government's shift in policy from assimilation-driven education at residential schools to the integration of Indigenous students into public schools.[4]:71 It was believed that Indigenous children would receive a better education as a result of their transition into the public school system.[31]

Despite the shift in policy from educational assimilation to integration, the removal of Indigenous children from their families by state officials continued through much of the 1960s and 70s.[30]:147 The removals were the result of the 1951 addition of section 88 to the Indian Act, which allowed for the application of provincial laws to Indigenous peoples living on reserves in instances where federal laws were not in place. The change included the monitoring of child welfare.[32][33] With no requirement for specialized training regarding the traditions or lifestyles of the communities they entered, provincial officials assessed the welfare of Indigenous children based on Euro-Canadian values that, for example, deemed traditional diets of game, fish and berries insufficient and grounds for taking children into custody.[31] This period resulted in the widespread removal of Indigenous children from their traditional communities, first termed the Sixties Scoop by Patrick Johnston, the author of the 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System. Often taken without the consent of their parents or community elders, some children were placed in state-run child welfare facilities, increasingly operated in former residential schools, while others were fostered or placed up for adoption by predominantly non-Indigenous families throughout Canada and the United States. While the Indian and Northern Affairs estimates that 11,132 children were adopted between 1960 and 1990, the actual number may be as high as 20,000.[32][34]:182

In 1969, after years of sharing power with churches, the DIA took sole control of the residential school system.[15][30]:79–84 The last residential school operated by the Canadian government, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996.[35] Residential schools operated in every Canadian province and territory with the exception of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.[7] It is estimated that the number of residential schools reached its peak in the early 1930s with 80 schools and more than 17,000 enrolled students. About 150,000 children are believed to have attended a residential school over the course of the system's existence.[4]:2–3[36]

Parental resistance and compulsory attendance

The parents and families of Indigenous children resisted the residential school system throughout its existence. Children were kept from schools and, in some cases, hidden from government officials tasked with rounding up children on reserves.[37] Parents regularly advocated for increased funding for schools, including the increase of centrally located day schools to improve access to their children, and made repeated requests for improvements to the quality of education, food, and clothing being provided at the schools. Demands for answers in regards to claims of abuse were often dismissed as a ploy by parents seeking to keep their children at home, with government and school officials positioned as those who knew best.[21]:669–674

In 1894, amendments to the Indian Act made school attendance compulsory for Indigenous children between 7 and 16 years of age. The changes included a series of exemptions regarding school location, the health of the children and their prior completion of school examinations.[21]:254–255 It was changed to children between 6 and 15 years of age in 1908.[21]:261[38] The introduction of mandatory attendance was the result of pressure from missionary representatives. Reliant on student enrollment quotas to secure funding, they were struggling to attract new students due to increasingly poor school conditions.[13]:128

Compulsory attendance ended in 1948, following the 1947 report of a special joint committee and subsequent amendment of the Indian Act.[39] Government officials were still able to influence student attendance. The introduction of the Family Allowance Act in 1945 stipulated that school-aged children had to be enrolled in school for families to qualify for the "baby bonus", further coercing Indigenous parents into having their children attend residential schools.[13]:170[40]


Students in the residential school system were faced with a multitude of abuses from teachers and administrators, including sexual and physical assault. They suffered from malnourishment and harsh discipline that would not have been tolerated in any other school system.[13][15] Corporal punishment was often justified by a belief that it was the only way to save souls, civilize the savage, or punish and deter runaways – whose injuries or death sustained in their efforts to return home would become the legal responsibility of the school.[13] Overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate heating, and a lack of medical care led to high rates of influenza and tuberculosis; in one school, the death rate reached 69 per cent.[20] Federal policies that tied funding to enrollment numbers led to sick children being enrolled to boost numbers, thus introducing and spreading disease. The problem of unhealthy children was further exacerbated by the conditions of the schools themselves – overcrowding and poor ventilation, water quality and sewage systems.[15]:83–89

Until the late 1950s, when the federal government shifted to a day school integration model, residential schools were severely underfunded and often relied on the forced labour of their students to maintain their facilities, although it was presented as training for artisan skills. The work was arduous, and severely compromised the academic and social development of the students. School books and textbooks were drawn mainly from the curricula of the provincially funded public schools for non-Indigenous students, and teachers at the residential schools were often poorly trained or prepared.[13] During this same period, Canadian government scientists performed nutritional tests on students and knowingly kept some students undernourished to serve as the control sample.[41]

Details of the mistreatment of students were published numerous times throughout the 20th century by both government officials, reporting on the condition of schools, and by the proceedings of civil cases brought forward by survivors seeking compensation for the abuse they endured.[3][7] Attention to the conditions and impacts of residential schools were also brought to light in popular culture as early as 1967 with the publication of "The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack" by Ian Adams in Maclean's and the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67. In the 1990s, investigations and memoirs by former students revealed that many students at residential schools were subjected to severe physical, psychological, and sexual abuse by school staff members and by older students. Among the former students to come forward was Phil Fontaine, then Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, who in October 1990 publicly discussed the abuse he and others suffered while attending Fort Alexander Indian Residential School.[4]:129–130

Following the government's closure of most of the schools in the 1960s, the work of Indigenous activists and historians led to greater awareness by the public of the damage the schools had caused, as well as to official government and church apologies, and a legal settlement. These gains were achieved through the persistent organizing and advocacy by Indigenous communities to draw attention to the residential school system's legacy of abuse, including their participation in hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.[30]:551–554

Family visitation

Parents and family members regularly travelled to the schools, often camping outside to be closer to their children. The number of parents who made the trip prompted Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed to argue that industrial schools, like residential schools, be moved greater distances from reserves to make visiting more difficult.[21]:601–604 He also objected to allowing children to return home during school breaks and holidays because he believed the trips interrupted the civilizing of school attendees.[42] As Reed explained in 1894, the problem with day schools was that students returned home each night where they were influenced by life on the reserve, whereas "in the boarding or industrial schools the pupils are removed for a long period from the leadings of this uncivilized life and receive constant care and attention".[21]:199

Visitation, for those able to make the journey, was strictly controlled by school officials in a manner similar to the procedures enforced in the prison system. In some cases visitors were altogether denied access to their children, while in others families were required to meet in the presence of school officials and forced to communicate in English. For parents unable to speak the language, verbal communication with their children was impossible. The obstacles families faced to visit their children were further exacerbated by the pass system. Introduced by Reed without legislative authority to do so, the system restricted and closely monitored the movement of Indigenous peoples off reserves.[21]:601–604 Launched in 1885 as a response to the North-West Rebellion, and later replaced by permits, the system was designed to prevent Indigenous people from leaving reserves without a pass issued by a local Indian agent.[43]

Instruction style and outcomes

Instruction provided to students was rooted in an institutional and European approach to education. It differed dramatically from child rearing in traditional knowledge systems that are generally based on 'look, listen, and learn' models. Unlike the corporal punishment and loss of privileges that characterized the residential school system, traditional approaches to education favour positive guidance toward desired behaviour through the use of game-based play, story-telling, and formal ritualized ceremonies.[13]:15–21[44] While at school, many children had no contact with their families for up to 10 months at a time because of the distance between their home communities and schools, and in some cases had no contact for years. The impact of the disconnect from their families was furthered by students being discouraged or prohibited from speaking Indigenous languages, even among themselves and outside the classroom, so that English or French would be learned and their own languages forgotten. In some schools, they were subject to physical violence for speaking their own languages or for practicing non-Christian faiths.[36][45]

Most schools operated with the goal of providing students with the vocational training and social skills required to obtain employment and integrate into Canadian society after graduation. In actuality, these goals were poorly and inconsistently achieved. Many graduates were unable to land a job due to poor educational training. Returning home was equally challenging due to an unfamiliarity with their culture and, in some cases, an inability to communicate with family members using their traditional language. Instead of intellectual achievement and advancement, it was often physical appearance and dress, like that of middle class, urban teenagers, or the promotion of a Christian ethic, that was used as a sign of successful assimilation. There was no indication that school attendees achieved greater financial success than those who did not go to school. As the father of a pupil who attended Battleford Industrial School, in Saskatchewan, for five years explained: "he cannot read, speak or write English, nearly all his time having been devoted to herding and caring for cattle instead of learning a trade or being otherwise educated. Such employment he can get at home."[13]:164–172, 194–199

Mortality rates

Residential school deaths were common and have been linked to the persistence of poorly constructed and maintained facilities.[4]:92–101 The actual number of deaths remains unknown due to inconsistent reporting by school officials and the destruction of medical and administrative records in compliance with retention and disposition policies for government records.[4]:92–93 Research by the TRC revealed that at least 3,201 students had died, mostly from disease.[6][4]:92 TRC chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, has suggested that the number of deaths may be closer to more than 6,000.[5][46][47]

The 1906 Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs, submitted by chief medical officer Peter Bryce, highlighted that the "Indian population of Canada has a mortality rate of more than double that of the whole population, and in some provinces more than three times".[4]:97–98[48]:275 Among the list of causes he noted tuberculosis and the role residential schools played in spreading the disease by way of poor ventilation and medical screening.[4]:97–98[48]:275–276

In 1909, Bryce reported that, between 1894 and 1908, mortality rates at some residential schools in western Canada ranged from 30 to 60 per cent over five years (that is, five years after entry, 30 to 60 per cent of students had died, or 6 to 12 per cent per annum).[49] These statistics did not become public until 1922, when Bryce, who was no longer working for the government, published The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921. In particular, he alleged that the high mortality rates could have been avoided if healthy children had not been exposed to children with tuberculosis.[4][50][51] At the time, no antibiotic had been identified to treat the disease, and this exacerbated the impact of the illness. Streptomycin, the first effective treatment, was not introduced until 1943.[21]:381

In 1920 and 1922, Regina physician F. A. Corbett was commissioned to visit the schools in the west of the country, and found similar results to those reported by Bryce. At the Ermineskin school in Hobbema, Alberta, he found 50 per cent of the children had tuberculosis.[15]:98 At Sarcee Boarding School near Calgary, he noted that all 33 students were "much below even a passable standard of health" and "[a]ll but four were infected with tuberculosis".[15]:99 In one classroom, he found 16 ill children, many near death, who were being made to sit through lessons.[15]:99

In 2011, reflecting on the TRC's research, Justice Murray Sinclair told the Toronto Star: "Missing children – that is the big surprise for me ... That such large numbers of children died at the schools. That the information of their deaths was not communicated back to their families."[52]

Missing children and unmarked graves

The TRC concluded that it may be impossible to ever identify the number of deaths or missing children, in part because of the habit of burying students in unmarked graves.[53][54][55] The work is further complicated by a pattern of poor record keeping by school and government officials, who neglected to keep reliable numbers about the number of children who died or where they were buried.[6] While most schools had cemeteries on site, their location and extent remain difficult to determine as cemeteries that were originally marked were found to have been later razed, intentionally hidden or built over.[55][56]

The fourth volume of the TRC's final report, dedicated to missing children and unmarked burials, was developed after the original TRC members realized, in 2007, that the issue required its own working group. In 2009, the TRC requested $1.5 million in extra funding from the federal government to complete this work, but was denied.[6] The researchers concluded, after searching land near schools using satellite imagery and maps, that, "for the most part, the cemeteries that the Commission documented are abandoned, disused, and vulnerable to accidental disturbance".[57]:1

Self-governance and school closure

When the government revised the Indian Act in the 1940s and 1950s, some bands, along with regional and national Indigenous organizations, wanted to maintain schools in their communities.[58] Motivations for support of the schools included their role as a social service in communities that were suffering from extensive family breakdowns; the significance of the schools as employers; and the inadequacy of other opportunities for children to receive education.

In the 1960s, a major confrontation took place at the Saddle Lake Reserve in Alberta. After several years of deteriorating conditions and administrative changes, parents protested against the lack of transparency at the Blue Quills Indian School in 1969. In response, the government decided to close the school, convert the building into a residence, and enroll students in a public school 5 kilometres (3 mi) away in St. Paul, Alberta.[30]:84 The TRC report pertaining to this period states:

Fearing their children would face racial discrimination in St. Paul, parents wished to see the school transferred to a private society that would operate it both as a school and a residence. The federal government had been open to such a transfer if the First Nations organization was structured as a provincial school division. The First Nations rejected this, saying that a transfer of First Nations education to the provincial authority was a violation of Treaty rights.[30]:84

In the summer of 1970, members of the Saddle Lake community occupied the building and demanded the right to run it themselves. More than 1,000 people are believed to have participated over the course of the 17-day sit-in, which lasted from July 14 to 31.[30]:89–90 Their efforts resulted in Blue Quills becoming the first Indigenous-administered school in the country.[59] It continues to operate today as University nuhelotʼįne thaiyotsʼį nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, the first Indigenous-governed university in Canada.[60][61] Following the success of the Blue Quills effort the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) released the 1972 paper Indian Control of Indian Education that responded, in part, to the Canadian Government's 1969 White Paper calling for the abolishment of the land treaties and the Indian Act. The NIB paper underscored the right of Indigenous communities to locally direct how their children are educated and served as the integral reference for education policy moving forward.

Few other former residential schools have transitioned into independently operated community schools for Indigenous children. White Calf Collegiate in Lebret, Saskatchewan, was run by the Star Blanket Cree Nation from 1973 until its closure in 1998, after being run by the Oblates from 1884 to 1969.[62] Old Sun Community College is run by the Siksika Nation in Alberta in a building designed by architect Roland Guerney Orr.[63][64] From 1929 to 1971 the building housed Old Sun residential school, first run by the Anglicans and taken over by the federal government in 1969.[65] It was converted to adult learning and stood as a campus of Mount Royal College from 1971 to 1978, at which point the Siksika Nation took over operations. In 1988, the Old Sun College Act was passed in the Alberta Legislature recognizing Old Sun Community College as a First Nations College.[66]

Lasting effects

Survivors of residential schools and their families have been found to suffer from historic trauma that has had a lasting and adverse effect on the transmission of Indigenous culture between generations. Passed on intergenerationally, a 2010 study led by Gwen Reimer explains historic trauma as the process through which "cumulative stress and grief experienced by Aboriginal communities is translated into a collective experience of cultural disruption and a collective memory of powerlessness and loss".[67]:x It has been used to explain the persistent negative social and cultural impacts of colonial rule and residential schools, including the prevalence of sexual abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, lateral violence, mental illness and suicide among Indigenous peoples.[68]:10–11[69]

The 2012 national report of the First Nations Regional Health Study found that of respondents who attended residential schools were more likely than those who did not to have been diagnosed with at least one chronic medical condition.[70] A sample of 127 survivors revealed that half have criminal records; 65 per cent have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder; 21 per cent have been diagnosed with major depression; 7 per cent have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder; and 7 per cent have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.[68]

Loss of language and culture

Although encouragement to keep Indigenous languages alive was present in some schools, a key tactic used to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society was to suppress Indigenous languages and culture. Many students spoke the language of their families fluently when they first entered residential schools. Teachers responded by strictly prohibiting the use of these languages despite many students having little or no understanding of English or French.[18][71] The practice of traditional and spiritual activities including the Potlatch and Sun Dance were also banned.[72] Some survivors reported being strapped or forced to eat soap when they were caught speaking their own language. The inability to communicate was further affected by their families' inabilities to speak English or French. Upon leaving residential school some survivors felt ashamed for being Indigenous as they were made to view their traditional identities as ugly and dirty.[4]:4, 83–87[73]

The stigma created by the residential school system regarding transmission of Indigenous culture by elders to younger generations has been linked to the over-representation of Indigenous languages on the list of endangered languages in Canada. The TRC noted that the majority of 90 Indigenous languages still in existence are "under serious threat of extinction".[4]:202 With great-grandparents representing the only speakers of many Indigenous languages, it was concluded that a failure of governments and Indigenous communities to prioritize the teaching and preservation of traditional languages would ensure that, despite the closure of resident schools, the eradication of Indigenous culture desired by government officials and administrators would inevitably be fulfilled "through a process systemic neglect".[4]:202 In addition to the forceful eradication of elements of Indigenous culture, the schools trained students in patriarchal dichotomies useful to state institutions, such as the domesticization of female students through imbuing ‘stay-at-home’ values and the militarization of male students through soldierlike regimentation.[74]  


I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.

On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.

Archbishop Michael Peers, "A Step Along the Path"[75]

Acknowledgment of the wrongs done by the residential school system began in the 1980s.[4][3] In 1986, at its 31st General Council, the United Church of Canada responded to the request of Indigenous peoples that it apologize to them for its part in colonization and in 1998 apologized expressly for the role it played in the residential school system.[76][72][77]

Archbishop Michael Peers apologized to residential school survivors, on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, on August 6, 1993, at the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ontario.[75] The following year the Presbyterian Church in Canada adopted a confession at its 120th General Assembly in Toronto on June 5, recognizing its role in residential schools and seeking forgiveness. The confession was presented on October 8 during a ceremony in Winnipeg.[78]

In 2004, immediately before signing the first Public Safety Protocol with the Assembly of First Nations, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli issued an apology on behalf of the RCMP for its role in the Indian residential school system: "We, I, as Commissioner of the RCMP, am truly sorry for what role we played in the residential school system and the abuse that took place in the residential system."[79][80]

Federal government

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology, on behalf of the sitting Cabinet, in front of an audience of Indigenous delegates, and in an address that was broadcast nationally on the CBC, for the past governments' policies of assimilation.[81][82] The Prime Minister apologized not only for the known excesses of the residential school system, but for the creation of the system itself. Harper delivered the speech in the House of Commons; the procedural device of a Committee of the Whole was used, so that Indigenous leaders, who were not Members of Parliament, could be allowed to respond to the apology on the floor of the House.[83]

Harper's apology excluded Newfoundland and Labrador as it was argued that the government should not be held accountable for pre-Confederation actions. Residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador were located in St. Anthony, Cartwright, North West River, Nain and Makkovik. These schools were run by the International Grenfell Association and the German Monrovian Missionaries.[84] The government argued that because these schools were not created under the auspices of the Indian Act, they were not true residential schools. More than 1,000 survivors disagreed and filed a class action lawsuit against the government for compensation in 2007. By the time the suit was settled in 2016, almost a decade later, dozens of plaintiffs had died. It was expected that up to 900 former students would be compensated.[85]

On November 24, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology to former Innu, Inuit and NunatuKavut school survivors and their families during a ceremony in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador.[86][87] He acknowledged that students experienced multiple forms of abuse linking their treatment to the colonial thinking that shaped the school system.[88] Trudeau's apology was received on behalf of residential school survivors by Toby Obed who framed the apology as a key part of the healing process that connected survivors from Newfoundland and Labrador with school attendees from across the country.[86] Members of the Innu Nation were less receptive, rejecting the apology ahead of the ceremony.[89] Grand Chief Gregory Rich noted in a released statement that he was "not satisfied that Canada understands yet what it has done to Innu and what it is still doing", indicating that members felt they deserved an apology for more than their experiences at residential schools.[86][89]


On June 22, 2015, Rachel Notley, Premier of Alberta, issued a formal apology as a ministerial statement in a bid to begin to address the wrongs done by the government to the Indigenous peoples of Alberta and the rest of Canada.[90] Notley's provincial government called on the federal government to hold an inquiry on the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada at the same time. They also stated their intent to build relationships with provincial leaders of Indigenous communities, and sought to amend the provincial curriculum to include the history of Indigenous culture.[91]

On June 18, 2015, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger became the first politician to issue a formal apology for the government's role in the Sixties Scoop.[92] Class action lawsuits have been brought against the Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario governments for the harm caused to victims of the large-scale adoption scheme that saw thousands of Indigenous children forcibly removed from their parents in the 1960s.[93] Indigenous leaders responded by insisting that while apologies were welcomed, action – including a federal apology, reunification of families, compensation and counselling for victims – must accompany words for them to have real meaning.[94]

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized on behalf of the provincial government for the harm done at residential schools at Legislative Assembly of Ontario on May 30, 2016.[95] Affirming Ontario's commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples she acknowledged the school system as "one of the most shameful chapters in Canadian history".[96] In a 105-minute ceremony, Wynne announced that the Ontario government would spend $250 million on education initiatives and renamed the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. It was further announced that the first week of November would be known as Treaties Recognition Week.[97][98]


On October 27, 2011, University of Manitoba president David Barnard apologized to the TRC for the institution's role in educating people who operated the residential school system. This is believed to be the first time a Canadian university has apologized for playing a role in residential schools.[99]

Vatican's expression of sorrow

In 2009, Chief Fontaine had a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI to obtain an apology for abuses that occurred in the residential school system. Fontaine was accompanied at the meeting by a delegation of Indigenous peoples from Canada funded by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. Following the meeting, the Vatican released an official expression of sorrow on the church's role in residential schools:

His Holiness [i.e. the Pope] recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the Indigenous peoples.

Given the sufferings that some Indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope.[100]

Fontaine later stated at a news conference that, at the meeting, he sensed the Pope's "pain and anguish" and that the acknowledgement was "important to [him] and that was what [he] was looking for".[101]

On May 29, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the current Pope Francis for a public apology to all survivors of the residential school system, rather than the expression of sorrow issued in 2009.[102][103][104] The request aligned with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call for "a formal apology issued by the Pope to the survivors of the residential school system for the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of Canada's First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples".[105] Trudeau invited the Pope to issue the apology in Canada. Although no commitment for such an apology followed the meeting, he noted that the Pope pointed to a lifelong commitment of supporting marginalized people and an interest in working collaboratively with Trudeau and Canadian bishops to establish a way forward.[102]


In the summer of 1990, the Mohawks of Kanesatake confronted the government about its failure to honour Indigenous land claims and recognize traditional Mohawk territory in Oka, Quebec. Referred to by media outlets as the Oka Crisis, the land dispute sparked a critical discussion about the Canadian government's complacency regarding relations with Indigenous communities and responses to their concerns. The action prompted then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to underscore four government responsibilities: "resolving land claims; improving the economic and social conditions on reserves; defining a new relationship between aboriginal peoples and governments; and addressing the concerns of Canada's aboriginal peoples in contemporary Canadian life."[4]:240 The actions of the Mohawk community members led to, in part, along with objections from Indigenous leaders regarding the Meech Lake Accord, the creation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples to examine the status of Indigenous peoples in Canada. In 1996, the Royal Commission presented a final report which first included a vision for meaningful and action-based reconciliation.[4]:239–240[107]

Financial compensation

In January 1998, the government made a "statement of reconciliation" – including an apology to those people who were sexually or physically abused while attending residential schools – and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF). The foundation was provided with $350 million to fund community-based healing projects addressing the legacy of physical and sexual abuse.[108] In its 2005 budget, the Canadian government committed an additional $40 million to support the work of the AHF.[109] Federal funding for the foundation was cut in 2010 by the Stephen Harper government, leaving 134 national healing-related initiatives without an operating budget.[110] The AHF closed in 2014. Former AHF executive director Mike DeGagne has said that the loss of AHF support has created a gap in dealing with mental health crises such as suicides in the Attawapiskat First Nation.[111]

In June 2001, the government established Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada as an independent government department to manage the residential school file. In 2003, the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process was launched as part of a larger National Resolution Framework which included health supports, a commemoration component and a strategy for litigation.[112] As explained by the TRC, the ADR was designed as a "voluntary process for resolution of certain claims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and forcible confinement, without having to go through the civil litigation process".[30]:564 It was created by the Canadian government without consultation with Indigenous communities or former residential school students. The ADR system also made it the responsibility of the former students to prove that the abuse occurred and was intentional, resulting in former students finding the system difficult to navigate, re-traumatizing, and discriminatory. Many survivor advocacy groups and Indigenous political organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) worked to have the ADR system dissolved.[113] In 2004 the Assembly of First Nations released a report critical of the ADR underscoring, among other issues, the failure of survivors to automatically receive the full amount of compensation without subsequent ligation against the church and failure to compensate for lost family, language and culture.[30]:565 The Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development released its own report in April 2005 finding the ADR to be "an excessively costly and inappropriately applied failure, for which the Minister and her officials are unable to raise a convincing defence".[30]:566 Within a month of the report's release a Supreme Court of Canada decision granted school attendees the right to pursue class-action suits, which ultimately led to a government review of the compensation process.[30]:566

On November 23, 2005, the Canadian government announced a $1.9-billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former students. National Chief of the AFN, Phil Fontaine, said the package was meant to cover "decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities".[114] Justice Minister Irwin Cotler applauded the compensation decision noting that the placement of children in the residential school system was "the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history".[114] At an Ottawa news conference, Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan said: "We have made good on our shared resolve to deliver what I firmly believe will be a fair and lasting resolution of the Indian school legacy."[114]

The compensation package led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), announced on May 8, 2006, and implemented in September 2007.[115] At the time, there were about 86,000 living victims. The IRSSA included funding for the AHF, for commemoration, for health support, and for a Truth and Reconciliation program, as well as an individual Common Experience Payment (CEP).[73] Any person who could be verified as having resided at a federally run Indian residential school in Canada was entitled to a CEP.[116] The amount of compensation was based on the number of years a particular former student resided at the residential schools: $10,000 for the first year attended (from one night residing there to a full school year) plus $3,000 for every year thereafter.[117][118]:44

The IRSSA also included the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), a case-by-case, out-of-court resolution process designed to provide compensation for sexual, physical and emotional abuse. The IAP process was built on the ADR program and all IAP claims from former students are examined by an adjudicator. The IAP became available to all former students of residential schools on September 19, 2007. Former students who experienced abuse and wished to pursue compensation had to apply by themselves or through a lawyer of their choice to receive consideration.[119] The deadline to apply for the IAP was September 19, 2012. This gave former students of residential schools four years from the implementation date of the IRSSA to apply for the IAP. Claims involving physical and sexual abuse were compensated up to $275,000.[120] By the end of January 2017, the IAP had resolved 36,538 claims and paid $3.1 billion in compensation.[121]

The IRSSA also proposed an advance payment for former students alive and who were 65 years old and over as of May 30, 2005. The deadline for reception of the advance payment form by IRSRC was December 31, 2006. Following a legal process, including an examination of the IRSSA by the courts of the provinces and territories of Canada, an "opt-out" period occurred. During this time, the former students of residential schools could reject the agreement if they did not agree with its dispositions. This opt-out period ended on August 20, 2007, with about 350 former students opting out. The IRSSA was the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. By December 2012, a total of $1.62 billion was paid to 78,750 former students, 98 per cent of the 80,000 who were eligible.[122] In 2014, the IRSSA funds left over from CEPs were offered for educational credits for survivors and their families.[123]

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to travel across Canada collecting the testimonies of people affected by the residential school system. About 7,000 Indigenous people told their stories.[124] The TRC concluded in 2015 with the publication of a six volume, 4,000-plus-page report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. It focused on the importance of moving "from apology to action"[4]:262 to achieve true reconciliation and resulted in the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.[125][126]

The executive summary of the TRC concluded that the assimilation amounted to cultural genocide.[4]:1 The ambiguity of the phrasing allowed for the interpretation that physical and biological genocide also occurred. The TRC was not authorized to conclude that physical and biological genocide occurred, as such a finding would imply a legal responsibility of the Canadian government that would be difficult to prove. As a result, the debate about whether the Canadian government also committed physical and biological genocide against Indigenous populations remains open.[127][128]

Among the 94 Calls to Action that accompanied the conclusion of the TRC were recommendations to ensure that all Canadians are educated and made aware of the residential school system.[34]:175–176 Justice Murray Sinclair explained that the recommendations were not aimed solely at prompting government action, but instead a collective move toward reconciliation in which all Canadians have a role to play: "Many of our elements, many of our recommendations and many of the Calls to Action are actually aimed at Canadian society."[129]

Preservation of documentation of the legacy of residential schools was also highlighted as part of the TRC's Calls to Action. Community groups and other stakeholders have variously argued for documenting or destroying evidence and testimony of residential school abuses.[130][131][132] On April 4, 2016, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that documents pertaining to IAP settlements will be destroyed in 15 years if individual claimants do not request to have their documents archived. This decision was fought by the TRC as well as the federal government, but argued for by religious representatives.[133]

In March 2017, Lynn Beyak, a Conservative member of the Senate Standing Committee of Aboriginal Peoples, voiced disapproval of the final TRC report, saying that it had omitted an "abundance of good" that was present in the schools.[134][135] Although Beyak's right to free speech was defended by some Conservative senators, her comments were widely criticized by members of the opposition, among them Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, and leader of the New Democratic Party, Tom Mulcair.[136] The Anglican Church also raised concerns stating in a release co-signed by bishops Fred Hiltz and Mark MacDonald: "There was nothing good about children going missing and no report being filed. There was nothing good about burying children in unmarked graves far from their ancestral homes."[137][138] In response, the Conservative Party leadership removed Beyak from the Senate committee underscoring that her comments did not align with the views of the party.[136]

Ecclesiastical projects

The four churches of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – the United, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches[73] – agreed to participate in the reconciliation process between Indigenous and settler Canadians. They have been involved in funding various projects and services that assist former residential school students and their families in healing from the trauma caused by the schools. The Anglican Church of Canada set up the Anglican Healing Fund in the 1990s to respond to the ongoing need for healing related to residential schools.[139] In the 2000s the United Church established the Justice and Reconciliation Fund to support healing initiatives and the Presbyterian Church has established a Healing & Reconciliation Program.[140][141]

The churches have also engaged in reconciliation initiatives such as the Returning to Spirit: Residential School Healing and Reconciliation Program, a workshop that aims to unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous people through discussing the legacy of residential schools and fostering an environment for them to communicate and develop mutual understanding.[4] In 2014, the federal government ceased to contribute funds to Indigenous health organizations such as the AHF and the National Aboriginal Health Organization. Since then, more pressure has been placed on churches to sustain their active participation in these healing efforts.[4]

Educational initiatives

For many communities the existence of buildings that formerly housed residential schools is a traumatic reminder of the system's legacy, and there has been much discussion about demolition, heritage status and how the possibility of incorporating sites into the healing process.[130][131][132] In July 2016, it was announced that the building of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School would be converted into an educational centre with exhibits on the legacy of residential schools. Ontario's Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, David Zimmer, noted: "Its presence will always be a reminder of colonization and the racism of the residential school system; one of the darkest chapters of Canadian history."[142]

Reconciliation efforts have also been undertaken by several Canadian universities. In 2015 Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg introduced a mandatory course requirement for all undergraduate students focused on Indigenous culture and history.[143] The same year the University of Saskatchewan hosted a two-day national forum at which Canadian university administrators, scholars and members of Indigenous communities discussed how Canadian universities can and should respond to the TRC's Calls to Action.[144][145]

On April 1, 2017, a 17-metre (56 ft) pole, titled Reconciliation Pole, was raised on the grounds of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Vancouver campus, which sits on the unceded territory of the Musqueam people. Carved by Haida master carver and hereditary chief, 7idansuu (Edenshaw), James Hart, the pole tells the story of the residential school system prior to, during and after its operation. It features thousands of copper nails, used to represent the children who died in Canadian residential schools, and depictions of residential school survivors carved by artists from multiple Indigenous communities. Included among them are Canadian Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk, Maliseet artist Shane Perley-Dutcher, and Muqueam Coast Salish artist Susan Point.[146][147]

In October 2016, Canadian singer-songwriter Gord Downie released Secret Path, a concept album about Chanie Wenjack's escape and death. It was accompanied by a graphic novel and animated film, aired on CBC Television. All proceeds go to the University of Manitoba's Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Following his death in October 2017, Downie's brother Mike said he was aware of 40,000 teachers who had used the material in their classrooms, and hoped to continue this.[148] In December 2017, Downie was posthumously named Canadian Newsmaker of the Year by the Canadian Press, in part because of his work with reconciliation efforts for survivors of residential schools.[149]

See also

Notes on terminology

  1. Indian has been used because of the historical nature of the article and the precision of the name. It was, and continues to be, used by government officials, Indigenous peoples and historians while referencing the school system. The use of the name also provides relevant context about the era in which the system was established, specifically one in which Indigenous peoples in Canada were homogeneously referred to as Indians rather than by language that distinguishes First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Use of Indian is limited throughout the article to proper nouns and references to government legislation.
  2. Indigenous has been capitalized in keeping with the style guide of the Government of Canada.[1] The capitalization also aligns with the style used within the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In the Canadian context, Indigenous is capitalized when discussing peoples, beliefs or communities in the same way European or Canadian is used to refer to non-Indigenous topics or people.[2]
  3. Survivor is the term used in the final report of the TRC and the Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools issued by Stephen Harper on behalf of the Government of Canada in 2008.[8]


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