Canadian Indian residential school system

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"Aboriginal residential schools" redirects here. For the residential school system in the United States, see American Indian boarding schools. For other uses, see Indian school (disambiguation).
Exterior view of Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School in Lebret, District of Assiniboia, ca. 1885. Surround land and tents are visible in the foreground.
Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School in Lebret, District of Assiniboia, ca. 1885

In Canada, the Indian (Aboriginal) residential schools (French: pensionnats autochtones / écoles résidentielles) were a network of boarding schools for Indigenous people (First Nations or "Indians"; Métis; and Inuit). The network was funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, and administered by Christian churches.

The school system was created for the purpose of removing children from the influence of their own culture and assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture. Over the course of the system's existence, approximately 30% of native children, or roughly 150,000, were placed in residential schools nationally.[1][2]:2–3 At least 6,000 of these students are estimated to have died while in attendance.[3]

The system had its origins in laws enacted before Confederation, but was primarily active following the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, until 1996, when the last federally operated residential school was closed. 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. Distance between the schools and Indigenous communities was also used as a way to intentionally keep families from their children. Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued for schools at greater distances to cut down on family visits that he viewed as counteracting the "civilizing" of Indigenous children. Parental visits were further restricted by the use of a pass system designed to confine Indigenous peoples to reserves.

The residential school system did significant harm to Indigenous children 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 or Canadian society. Ultimately successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs, the legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which continue to persist within Indigenous communities.

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 Canadian House of Commons. Nine days prior, the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to uncover the truth about the schools. The commission gathered statements from residential school survivors 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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded with the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and with the publication of a 4,000-plus-page report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time.


The assimilation of Indigenous peoples is the result of imperial colonialism, which centred around a European worldview of cultural practice and an understanding of land ownership based on the Doctrine of Discovery.[2]:47–50 As explained in the executive summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 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."[2]:50

Illustrated view of fur traders, in what is now Canada, trading with an Indigenous person in 1777
Fur traders, in what is now Canada, trading with an Indigenous person in 1777

Attempts at assimilating Indigenous populations began as early as the 17th century with the arrival of French colonists in New France.[4] The efforts, however, 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.[5] 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.[6] An increase in orphaned and foundling colonial children limited Church resources, and colonists benefited from favorable relations with Indigenous peoples in both the fur trade and military pursuits.[7]:3[8]:58–60

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs officially encouraged the growth of the residential school system as a valuable component in a wider policy of integrating Indigenous people with European-Canadian society.[7] Responsible for separating children from their families and communities, this process has been described as cultural genocide because its aim was "killing the Indian in the child."[9][10][11] As the system was designed as an immersion program, children were in many schools prohibited from (and sometimes punished for) speaking their own languages or practicing their own faiths.[12] The primary stated goal was to convert Indigenous children to Christianity and to "civilize" them.[8]

The renewed interest in residential schools at the turn of the 19th century has been linked to the decline in military hostility faced by British settlers, particularly after the War of 1812. With the threat of invasion minimized, Indigenous communities were no longer viewed as allies but as barriers to permanent settlement.[7]:3[13] 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.[8]:73–75

Religious involvement[edit]

Exterior view of Mohawk Institute Residential School, ca. 1932
Mohawk Institute Residential School, ca. 1932

Residential schools were run by churches of various denominations: about 60% were administered by Roman Catholics, 30% by the Anglican Church of Canada, and 10% the United Church of Canada, or its pre-1925 predecessors, the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Methodist churches.[14] This system 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.[15]

Some independent church-run schools have been traced back to the 1620s; these schools were closed in the 1680s.[16] There is some debate about which was the first residential school of the 1800s: some claim that the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario, founded in 1831, was the first.[11] Other sources say that Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists began to operate residential schools in the 1820s, before any state-sanctioned operations.[16] Protestant missionaries opened residential schools in the current Ontario region, not only spreading Christianity, but also trying to encourage Indigenous peoples to adopt subsistence agriculture as a way to ensure they would not return to their original ways of life upon graduation.[17]

Government involvement[edit]

Although education in Canada was made the jurisdiction of the provincial governments by the British North America Act, Aboriginal peoples and their treaties were under the jurisdiction of the federal government.[15] 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. In effect, 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."[18]:110

Photocopied, front cover view of Statistics Respecting Indian Schools, 1898
Front cover of Statistics Respecting Indian Schools, 1898, including Egerton Ryerson's letter "Report by Dr Ryerson on Industrial Schools"

The design of a federally-supported residential school system relied on the expert advice of several prominent Canadian and British statesmen. Sir Peregrine Maitland first proposed boarding schools in 1820, believing that civilizing Aboriginal children, rather than adults, was the best way to influence cultural change. Residential schools focused on imparting industry and knowledge were proposed again in 1845 by Charles Bagot as part of his Report on the affairs of Indians in Canada.[17]:12–17[19] Referred to as the Bagot Report, it is seen as the foundational document for the federal residential school system.[20] 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.[17]:15

On May 26, 1847, Ryerson wrote a letter for George Vardon, Assistant Superintendent of Indian Affairs asserting that and "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."[21]:3 He expressly recommended that Indigenous students be educated in a separate, denominational, English-only system with a focus on industrial training.[6][16][20] This letter was published as an appendix to a larger report entitled Statistics Respecting Indian Schools.[21]

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 Indians to become French or English speakers, Christians, and farmers. At the time, many Indigenous leaders argued to have these acts overturned.[22] 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.[17]:18[23] With this legislation, and through the creation of residential schools, the government believed Indigenous people could eventually become assimilated into the general population. For graduates to receive individual allotments of farmland, however, would require changes in the communal reserve system, something fiercely opposed by First Nations governments.[17]:18–19

After Confederation in 1867, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald commissioned Nicholas Flood Davin to write a Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds.[24] Known today as the Davin Report, it was submitted to Ottawa in March 1879 and led to public funding of the residential school system in Canada.[25]

By the 1930s government officials recognized that the residential school system was financially unsustainable and failing to meet the intended goal of training and assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-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."[26]: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 actively resisted by the United Church, the Anglican Church, and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who believed that the solution to the system's failure was not restructuring but intensification.[26]:3–5

Between 1945 to 1955 the number of day schools run by Indian Affairs expanded from 9,532 to 17,947. The growth in day schools 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.[2]:71 It was believed that Indigenous children would receive a better education as a result of their transition into the public school system.[27]

By the 1950s the expansion of the residential school system had plateaued, although the removal of Indigenous children from their families by state officials continued through much of the 1960s and 70s.[26]: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.[28][29] With no requirement for specialised 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.[27] 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 roughly 11,132 children were adopted between 1960 and 1990, others have suggested that the number may be as high as 20,000.[28]

In 1969, after years of sharing power with churches, the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) took sole control of the residential school system.[17][26]:79–84 The last residential school operated by the Canadian government, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996.[30] 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. Approximately 150,000 children are believed to have attended a residential school over the course of their existence.[11]:15[2]:2–3[31]

Parental resistance and compulsory attendance[edit]

The parents and families of Indigenous children resisted the residential school system throughout its existence. Children were actively kept from schools and, in some cases, hidden from government officials tasked with rounding up children on reserves.[32] 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.[18]:669–674

In 1884, 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 child and their prior completion of school examinations.[18]:254–255 It was changed to children between 6 and 15 years of age in 1908.[18]:261[33] 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.[8]:128

Compulsory attendance ended in 1948, following the 1947 report of a Special Joint Committee and subsequent amendment of the Indian Act.[34] Government officials, however, 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.[8]:170[35]


There was an elevated rate of physical and sexual abuse in residential schools. 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.[8] 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%.[12] Federal policies that tied funding to enrollment numbers led to sick children being enrolled in order 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.[17]:83–89

Students in residential school systems were faced with a multitude of abuses from teachers and administrators.[11] They suffered from malnourishment and harsh discipline that would not have been tolerated in any other school system.[17][8] The Executive Summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the assimilation amounted to cultural genocide.[2]:1 The ambiguity of the phrasing allowed for the interpretation that physical and biological genocide also occurred. The Commission, however, was not authorized to conclude that physical and biological genocide occurred, as such a finding would imply a difficult to prove legal responsibility of the Canadian government. As a result, the debate about whether the Canadian government also committed physical and biological genocide against Indigenous populations remains open.[36][37]

Posed, group photo of students and teachers, dressed in black and white, outside Middlechurch, Manitoba's St. Paul's Indian Industrial School in 1901
St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba, 1901

Until the late 1950s, 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.[8] During this same period, Canadian government scientists performed nutritional tests on students and knowingly kept some students undernourished to serve as the control sample.[38]

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.[39][1] 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.[2]: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.[26]:551–554

Family visitation[edit]

Parents and family members regularly traveled to the schools, often camping outside school grounds 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.[18]:601–604 He also objected to allowing children to return home during the school breaks and holidays because he believed that interrupted the "civilizing" of school attendees.[40]

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.[18]:601–604 Introduced 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.[41]

Instruction style and outcomes[edit]

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 characterised 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.[8]:15–21[42] 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.[31][43]

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, with many graduates unable to easily return home due to an unfamiliarity with their culture and unable to land a job due to poor educational training. 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 an assimilation success indicator. Indeed, there was no indication that school attendees obtained greater financial success than those who did not go to school. As the father of a pupil who attended Battleford Industrial School 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."[8]:164–172, 194–199

Mortality rates[edit]

Residential school deaths were not uncommon and have been linked to the persistence of poorly constructed and maintained facilities.[44]:3 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.[2]:92–93 Research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed that at least 6,000 students had died, mostly from disease.[3]

Portrait of Dr. Peter Bryce in 1890. Wearing a jacket and tie, Dr. Bryce is seen looking off-camera with his face expressionless
Dr. Peter Bryce (1890)

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."[2]:97–98[45]: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.[2]:97–98[45]: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% over five years (that is, five years after entry, 30% to 60% of students had died, or 6–12% per annum).[46] 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.[2][47][48] At the time, no antibiotic had been identified to treat the disease, and this exasperated the impact of the illness. Streptomycin, the first effective treatment, was not introduced until 1943.[18]:381

In 1920 and 1922, Dr. 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% of the children had tuberculosis.[17]:98 At Sarcee Boarding School near Calgary, all 33 students were "much below even a passable standard of health" and "[a]ll but four were infected with tuberculosis." In one classroom, he found 16 ill children, many near death, who were being made to sit through lessons.[17]:99

In 2011, reflecting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission'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."[49]

Missing children and unmarked graves[edit]

One of the conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that it may be impossible to ever identify the number of deaths or missing children, compounded by the habit of burying students in unmarked graves.[50][51][52] Researchers have asserted that "nearly every school ... had a cemetery on the grounds."[53] Some cemeteries were reportedly marked at first but later razed, intentionally hidden or built over.[52][53] The fourth volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final reports is about missing children and unmarked burials, after the original commission members realized that the issue required its own working group in 2007. In 2009, the commission requested $1.5 million in extra funding from the federal government to complete this work, but was denied.[54] 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."[55]:1 This work is as yet incomplete, and will require more funding.[54]

Self-governance and school closure[edit]

A grouping of about 30 students in front of a brick building. There is a nun in the back row.
Students at the Blue Quills residential school in Alberta

When the government revised the Indian Act in the 1940s and '50s, some bands, along with regional and national native organizations, wanted to maintain schools in their communities.[56] Motivations for support of the schools included their role as a social service in communities suffering extensive family breakdown; the significance of the schools as employers; and the inadequacy of other opportunities for children to receive education. For most communities, though, the existence of buildings that formerly housed residential schools are a traumatic reminder, and there is much discussion about demolition, heritage status, and how to incorporate sites into the healing process.[57][58][59]

Posed, group photo of students and teachers, dressed in black and white, outside a brick building in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1908
Residential school group photograph, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1908

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 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 (3.1 mi) away in St. Paul, Alberta.[26] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission 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.[26]:84

In the summer of 1970, members of the Saddle Lake community occupied the building and demanded the right to run it themselves. Their protests were successful and Blue Quills became the first Native-administered school in the country.[60] It continues to operate today as University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, the first Indigenous-governed university in Canada.[61][62]

Very 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. Old Sun Community College is run by the Siksika Nation in Alberta, in a building that operated as a residential school from 1929 to 1971, first run by the Anglicans and taken over by the federal government in 1969.[63] After the Albertan government chose to bus children to nearby public schools, it was converted to adult learning and stood as a campus of Mount Royal College from 1971 to 1976. In 1976, the Siksika Nation took over operations and in 1988, the Old Sun College Act was passed in the Alberta Legislature.[64][65]


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[66]

Acknowledgment of the wrongs done by the residential school system began in the 1980s with church apologies for what had been done to Indigenous peoples.[2][1] 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 specifically for its role in Indian residential schools.[67][68][69]

On Friday, August 6, 1993, at the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ontario, Archbishop Michael Peers offered an apology to all the survivors of the Indian residential schools on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada.[66] 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.[70]

In 2004, immediately prior to signing the historic first Public Safety Protocol with the Assembly of First Nations, RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli veered from his corporate speech and issued an apology on behalf of the RCMP for their 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".[71]

Federal government apology[edit]

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.[72][73] 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.[74]

Prime Minister 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 in St. Anthony, Cartwright, North West River, Nain and Makkovik. These schools were run by the International Grenfell Association and the German Monrovian Missionaries.[75] 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 1000 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.[76]

Provincial apologies[edit]

On June 22, 2015, Rachel Notley, Premier of the province 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.[77] 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.[78]

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall stated that he intended to issue a formal apology for the provincial governments role in the Sixties Scoop on June 25, 2015. He also reiterated that while the apology would be forthcoming, no compensatory funds would be offered to the victims; rather there would be an emphasis on education initiatives to increase awareness of the issue.[79] While not strictly related to the Indian residential school system, there is an inherent link between the Scoop and residential schools, as both systems robbed Indigenous people of their traditions and forcibly separated children from their parents.[80][81]

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.[82] 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.[83] 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.[84]

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.[85] Affirming Ontario's commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples she acknowledged the school system as "one of the most shameful chapters in Canadian history."[86] 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.[87][88]

University apologies[edit]

On October 27, 2011, University of Manitoba president David Barnard apologized to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission 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.[89]

Vatican expression of sorrow[edit]

Students in the classroom, with a teacher in nun's garb at the back of the room.
Students of St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario, circa 1945

In 2009, Chief Fontaine had a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI to try 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 statement 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.[90]

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 me and that was what I was looking for."[91]

Reconciliation attempts[edit]

Exterior view of the abandoned and decrepit, red brick building that formally housed the St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay, British Columbia. Peeling paint is visible over the entirety of the building
Former St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay, British Columbia. Formerly standing on the traditional territory of the 'Namgis First Nation, it was demolished in February 2015.[92]

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."[2]: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.[2]:239–240[93]

Financial compensation[edit]

In March 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.[94] In its 2005 budget, the Canadian government committed an additional $40 million to support the work of the AHF.[95] Federal funding for the foundation was cut in 2010 by the Stephen Harper government leaving 134 national healing-related initiatives without an operating budget.[96] The AHF closed in 2014. Former AHF executive director Mike DeGagne has identified the Indigenous-led mental health and healing infrastructure provided by the AHF as a gap in how current mental health crises being experienced by Indigenous communities, like the suicides occurring in the Attawapiskat First Nation, are being addressed.[97]

In June 2001 the government established Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada as an independent government department to manage the residential school file. After a number of pilot projects from 1999 to 2003, the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process was launched in the fall of 2003. The ADR was part of a larger National Resolution Framework which included health supports, a commemoration component, litigation and the ADR. The ADR was designed as a process outside of court, providing compensation and psychological support for former students of residential schools who were physically or sexually abused, or wrongfully confined.[68] The ADR process 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. Many former students found the system difficult to navigate, re-traumatizing, and discriminatory. Many survivor advocacy groups and Indigenous political organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations worked to have the ADR system dissolved.[98]

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 Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, said the package was meant to cover "decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities." Justice Minister Irwin Cotler called the decision to house young Canadians in church-run residential schools "the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history." At a news conference in Ottawa, 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."[99]

This compensation package became the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), announced on May 8, 2006, and implemented in September 2007.[100] At the time, there were approximately 86,000 living victims. The IRSSA included funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, for commemoration, for health support, and for a "Truth and Reconciliation" program, as well as an individual Common Experience Payment (CEP).[101] Any person who could be verified as having resided at a federally run Indian residential school in Canada was entitled to a CEP.[102] 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.

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.[103] 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.[104] By the end of January 2017, the IAP had resolved 36,538 claims and paid $3,100,000,000 in compensation.[105]

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 an 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 approximately 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% of the 80,000 who were eligible.[106] In 2014, the IRSSA funds left over from CEPs were offered for educational credits for survivors and their families.[107]

Reconciliation projects[edit]

The four churches of the IRSSA, the United, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches,[101] 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.[108] 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.[109][110]

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.[2] In 2014, the federal government ceased to contribute funds to Indigenous health organizations such as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the National Aboriginal Health Organization. Since then, more pressure has been placed on churches to sustain their active participation in these healing efforts.[2]

In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to travel across Canada collecting the testimonies of people affected by the residential school system. Approximately six thousand Indigenous people told their stories. The Commission concluded in 2015 with the publication of a multi-volume, 4,000-plus-page report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. The outputs of the Commission included 94 Calls to Action and resulted in the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.[111][112]

An action shot of people, wearing orange and yellow construction clothing, working from the ground and from a crane during the raising of the Reconciliation Pole on UBC Vancouver campus.
Raising of the Reconciliation Pole on UBC Vancouver campus

Reconciliation efforts have also been undertaken by several Canadian universities, particularly in regards to education and awareness. In 2015 Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg introduced a mandatory course requirement for all undergraduate students focused on Indigenous culture and history.[113] The same year the University of Saskatchewan hosted Building Reconciliation: Universities Answering the TRC's Calls to Action. The two-day national forum included Canadian university administrators, scholars and members of Indigenous communities with the aim of discussing how Canadian universities can and should respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action.[114][115]

On April 1, 2017 a 17-metre (56 ft) pole, titled Reconciliation Pole, was raised on the grounds of the University of British Columbia, 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.[116][117]

Heritage, documentation, and education[edit]

Among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls To Action were several calling for exhibits on and preservation of documentation of the legacy of residential schools. The federal government, having pledged during the 2015 election campaign to implement those Calls in their entirety, have reiterated their intent to follow up.[118][119][120] On March 15, 2016, it was announced that $1.8 million of the Canada 150 fund will be set aside for projects on reconciliation in 2017.[121]

Community groups and other stakeholders have variously argued for documenting or destroying evidence and testimony of residential school abuses.[57][58][59] 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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the federal government, but argued for by religious representatives.[122]

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, is quoted: "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."[123]

Lasting effects[edit]

A sample of 127 survivors revealed that half have criminal records; 65% have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder; 21% have been diagnosed with major depression; 7% have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder; and 7% have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.[124] 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.[125]

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 from one generation to the next. Passed on intergenerationally, historic trauma describes how the "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."[126]: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.[124]:10–11[127]

Loss of language and culture[edit]

Given that the Canadian Indian residential school system was a coordinated effort by governments and churches to assimilate Indigenous children into Canadian society, a key tactic within the schools was to suppress language and culture. Many students spoke the Indigenous languages of their famiies fluently when they first entered residential schools. Teachers responded by strictly prohibited the use of these languages despite many students having little or no understanding of English or French.[9][128] The practice of traditional and spiritual activities including the Potlatch and Sun Dance were also banned. Some survivors reported being strapped or forced to eat soap when they were caught speaking their own language. Although encouragement to keep Indigenous languages alive was present in some schools, many students could no longer speak their languages after leaving the schools due to years of being forbidden to use it. The inability to communicate was further impacted 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.[2]:4, 83–87[101]

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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted that the majority of 90 Indigenous languages still in existence are "under serious threat of extinction." 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."[2]:202


The healing process related to historical trauma from residential schools can be long and difficult. Many residential school survivors find it difficult to talk about their experiences. Some people feel that no amount of time will be enough to heal the wound, such as the thousands of families of missing children. In the 2010s, the national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed the survivors to share their stories and put them on record. Some survivors say that this allowed them to see that their suffering is shared and allowed them to find joy and laughter with one another, demonstrating that it is a healing process.[129]

The conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on the importance of moving "from apology to action" to achieve true reconciliation. Among the 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were calls to ensure that all Canadians are educated and made aware of the residential school system. 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."[130]

See also[edit]


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