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).
Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School in Lebret, District of Assiniboia, ca. 1885. Parents of First Nations children had to camp outside the gates of the residential schools in order to visit their children.

In Canada, the Indian (aboriginal) residential schools were a network of "residential" (boarding) schools for indigenous Canadians (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 policy was to remove children from the influence of their families and culture, and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. Over the course of the system's existence, about 30% of native children, or roughly 150,000, were placed in residential schools nationally; at least 6,000 of these students died while in attendance.[1][2]

The system had 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 made attendance at day schools, industrial schools, or residential schools compulsory for First Nations children; in some parts of the country, residential schools were the only option.[3] The number of residential schools reached its peak of 80 in 1931.[4][5]

Consensus emerged in the early 21st century that the latter schools did significant harm to indigenous children who attended them: by removing them from their families, by depriving them of their ancestral languages, through sterilization, by exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse by staff members, and other students, and by forcibly enfranchising them.

On June 11, 2008, a public apology was offered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the Government of Canada and the leaders of the other federal parties in the Canadian House of Commons.[6] 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 statement gatherings at various local, regional and national events across Canada. Seven national events held between 2008-2013 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.[7]


Attempts at assimilating Indigenous populations began as early as the 17th century with the arrival of French colonists in New France.[8] The efforts, however, were resisted by Indigenous communities who were unwilling to leave their children for extended periods of time and who came to associate missionaries with the diseases devastating Indigenous populations.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]:3[12]:58–60

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs officially encouraged the growth of the Indian residential school system as a valuable component in a wider policy of integrating Native Canadians with European-Canadian society.[11] Responsible for separating children from their families and communities, the system has been described as cultural genocide: "killing the Indian in the child."[13][14] Designed as an immersion program, children were prohibited, in many schools, from (and sometimes punished for) speaking their own languages or practicing their own faiths.[15] The primary stated goal to convert Indigenous children to Christianity and to "civilize them."[12]

The renewed interest in Indian 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 barriers to permanent settlement.[11]:3[16] This perspective was further underscored by the transfer of Indian affairs from military officials, familiar with and sympathetic to Indigenous communities, to civilian representatives concerned only with permanent colonial settlement.[12]:73–75

Religious Involvement[edit]

Residential schools were run by churches of various denominations: about 60 per cent were administered by Roman Catholics, 30 per cent by the Anglican Church of Canada, and 10 per cent the United Church of Canada, or its pre-1925 predecessors, the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Methodist churches.[17] This system of using established school facilities set up by missionaries was employed by the federal government for economic expedience. The federal government provided facilities and maintenance, while the churches provided teachers and their own lesson-planning.[18]

Some independent church-run schools have been traced back to the 1620s; these schools were closed in the 1680s.[4] There is some debate about which were the first residential school of the 1800s: some claim that the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario, founded in 1831, was the first.[19] Other sources say that Protestants, Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists began to operate residential schools in the 1820s, before any state-sanctioned operations.[4] Protestant missionaries opened residential schools in the current Ontario region, not only spreading Christianity, but also trying to encourage the Indigenous peoples to adopt subsistence agriculture as a way to ensure they would not return to their original ways of life upon graduation.[20]

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.[18] Residential schools were funded under the Indian Act, by what was then the federal Department of the Interior.

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".[20]:12–17[21] Referred to as the Bagot Report, it is seen as the foundational document for the federal residential school system.[22] 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.[20]:15

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

On May 26, 1847, Ryerson wrote a letter for George Vardon, Assistant Superintendent of Indian Affairs, asserting that "Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions" 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."[4][22][23] This letter was published as an appendix to a larger report entitled "Statistics Respecting Indian Schools."[23]

The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 formed the foundations for this system prior to Confederation. These 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 Aboriginal leaders argued to have these Acts overturned.[24] 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. With this legislation, and through the creation of residential schools, the government believed indigenous people could eventually become assimilated into the 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.[20]: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".[25] 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.[26]

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 child and their prior completion of school examinations.[27]:254–255 It was changed to children between 6 and 15 years of age in 1908.[27]:261[28] 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.[12]:128 Compulsory attendance ended in 1948, following the 1947 report of a Special Joint Committee and subsequent amendment of the Indian Act.[29] In 1969, after years of sharing power with churches, the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) took sole control of the residential school system.[20]

Several laws gave school administrators the supervision of the compulsory sterilization of students including Alberta's 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act,[30] and British Columbia's 1933 Sexual Sterilization Act.[31] Although some academic articles currently offer rough estimates of the numbers of sterilizations,[32][33] the review of archival documents that would produce more specific numbers is incomplete and ongoing.[34][35]

The last residential school operated by the Canadian government, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996.[36]

Conditions in residential schools[edit]

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.[12] 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%.[15] Federal policies that tied funding to enrollment numbers led to sick children being enrolled in order to boost numbers, thus introducing and spreading disease.[citation needed]

Students in residential school systems were faced with a multitude of abuses from teachers and administrators. The Executive Summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that physical genocide, biological genocide, and cultural genocide all occurred: physical, through abuse; biological, through sterilization; and cultural, through forced assimilation.[7]:1 One person has stated that “[o]ne in 25 children were killed at residential schools, countless others were raped and all who attended were kidnapped.”[37] Children also suffered from malnourishment and harsh discipline that would not have been tolerated in any other school system.

St. Paul's Indian Industrial School, Middlechurch, Manitoba, 1901

Parents were told that they were unfit to care for their children because they wanted to teach them aboriginal languages and traditions. Where residential schools were the only option, children were often forcibly removed from their families, or their families were threatened with fines or prison if they failed to send their children.[38] After the Second World War, the Canadian Family Allowance Act began to grant "baby bonuses" to families with children, but ensured that this money was cut off if parents refused to send their children to school. This act further coerced indigenous parents to accept the residential school system.[39]

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-Aboriginal students, and teachers at the residential schools were often poorly trained or prepared to administer it.[12] During this same period, Canadian government scientists performed nutritional tests on students and knowingly kept some students undernourished to serve as the control sample.[40]

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.[41] Details of the mistreatment of students were published numerous times throughout the 20th century. 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.

Instruction style and outcomes[edit]

Instruction provided to students was rooted in an institutional and European approach to education. The approach differed dramatically from child rearing in traditional knowledge systems that are generally based on ‘look, listen, and learn’ models. Unlike the corporeal punishment and loss of privileges that characterised the residential school system, traditional approaches to education favoured positive guidance toward desired behaviour through the use of game-based play, story telling, and formal ritualized ceremonies.[12]:15-21 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 further impacted by students being discouraged or prohibited from speaking Aboriginal 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.[42][43][44]

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. As one father of a pupil who attended Battleford 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."[12]: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.[45]: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.[7]:92–93 Research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission revealed that at least 6,000 students had died, mostly from disease.[2]

The 1906 Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs, submitted by chief medical officer Dr. 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." 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.[7]:97–98[46]:275–276

Residential school group photograph, Regina, Saskatchewan 1908

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).[47] 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.[48] At the time, no antibiotic had been identified to treat the disease.

In 1920 and 1922, Dr. A. Corbett was commissioned to visit the schools in the west of the country, and found similar results to Bryce. At the Ermineskin school in Hobbema, Alberta, he found 50% of the children had tuberculosis.[20] 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.[20]

Other reports have suggested that students of residential schools were impregnated by teachers or priests, and that the children of those pregnancies were taken away as newborns.

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 TRC is 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" by priests or built over.[53][52] The fourth volume of the TRC Report 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] 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]

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 five kilometres away in St. Paul, Alberta.[60] The TRC Report 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. (pg. 84)[60]

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.[61] It continues to operate today as the Blue Quills First Nations College, a tribal college.

Very few other former residential schools have transitioned into independently-operated community schools for aboriginal 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 the 1969.[62] After the Albertan government chose to bus children to nearby public schools, it was converted into 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.[63][64]

Reconciliation attempts[edit]

Former St. Michael's Residential School in Alert Bay. Formerly standing on the traditional territory of the 'Namgis First Nation, it was demolished in February 2015.[65]

Reconciliation attempts began in the 1980s with church apologies for what had been done to Aboriginal peoples.[7] From 1986-1994, The United Church, the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate,[66] the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church had formally apologized for participating in the residential school system.[67]

Financial compensation[edit]

In summer of 1990, the Oka crisis took place when the Mohawks of Kanesatake confronted the government about their land claims and the recognition of their territory. The government of Canada created a Royal Commission to look into the state of aboriginal peoples in Canada. In 1996, the Royal Commission presented a vision for reconciliation.[7]

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. The Foundation was provided with $350 million to fund community-based healing projects addressing the legacy of physical and sexual abuse. In its 2005 budget, the Canadian government committed an additional $40 million to support the work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

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.[67] 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.[68]

On November 23, 2005, the Canadian government announced a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former students. National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations 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."[69]

This compensation package became the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), announced on May 8, 2006 and implemented in September 2007.[70] 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).[71] Any person that could be verified as residing at a federally run Indian residential school in Canada was entitled to a CEP.[72] 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 (one night residing there to a full school year) plus $3,000 for every year residing thereafter.

The Settlement Agreement 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 the 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.[73] 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 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to apply for the IAP. Claims involving physical and sexual abuse were compensated up to $275,000.[74]

The Settlement Agreement 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 Settlement Agreement 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.[citation needed]

In 2014, the IRSSA funds left over from CEPs were offered for educational credits for survivors and their families.[75]

Reconciliation projects[edit]

The four churches of the Settlement Agreement (the United, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches)[71] 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 their trauma caused by the schools. In the 1990s the Anglican Church of Canada setup the Anglican Healing Fund to respond to the ongoing need for healing related to residential schools.[76] In 2000s the United Church established the Justice and Reconciliation Fund to support healing initiatives and the Presbyterian Church has established a Healing & Reconciliation Program.[77][78]

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 through discussing the legacy of residential schools and fostering an environment for both peoples to communicate and develop mutual understanding.[7]

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 Aboriginal people told their stories. The Commission concluded in 2015 with the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

In 2014, the federal government ceased to contribute funds to Aboriginal 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.[7]

Heritage, documentation, and education[edit]

Among the TRC'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.[79][80][81] 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.[82]

Community groups and other stakeholders have argued variously 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.[83] This decision was fought by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the federal government, but argued for by religious representatives.[83]

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 legacy of residential schools.[84] 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.”[84]


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 Aboriginal delegates, and in an address that was broadcast nationally on the CBC, for the past governments' policies of assimilation.[85] The Prime Minister apologized not only for the known excesses of the residential school system, but for the creation of the system itself.

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 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.[86] 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.[87]

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 aboriginal peoples of Alberta and the rest of Canada.[88] 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 intent to build relationships with provincial leaders of aboriginal communities, and sought to amend the provincial curriculum to include the history of indigenous culture.[89]

The Mohawk Institute, a residential school in Brantford, Ontario, circa 1932.

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.[90] 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 aboriginal people of their traditions and forcibly separated children from their parents.[91][92]

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.[93] 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 aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents in the sixties.[94] Aboriginal 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.[95]

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne issued a formal apology and acknowledgement of "one of the most shameful chapters in Canadian history" on May 30, 2016[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, lead by David Zimmer. It was further announced that the first week of November would be known as Treaties Recognition Week.[97]

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.[98] The audience was 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.[99]

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."[100]

Other apologies[edit]

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. Then, in 1998, the church apologized specifically for its role in Indian Residential Schools.[101] Since 2008, the United Church has been actively engaged in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which was created to address the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools.[citation needed]

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. Archbishop Peers said:

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.[102]

In 1994, 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.[103] The confession was presented on October 8 during a ceremony in Winnipeg.[104]

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".[105]

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.[106]

Lasting effects of residential schools[edit]

The residential school system had a lasting and adverse effect on the transmission of Aboriginal culture from one generation to the next.[7] Over 150 000 students attended residential schools, constituting approximately 30% of the population of native children in Canada.[1] The legacy of the schools on aboriginal people of today has been referred to as a “collective soul wound.”[107] A sample of 127 survivors revealed that half of these survivors 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.[108]

Many survivors of the residential schools also suffer from historic trauma. It is the idea that the “military, economic, and cultural conquest of people aboriginal to the American continents was a form of genocide,” and that, much like in the inter-generational trauma caused by the Holocaust, the Aboriginal people of Canada are suffering across more than just one generation. Historic trauma refers to the way in which even those not directly related to the residential school experience suffer from it. Like psychological baggage it gets passed on from generation to generation, and spans across many lifetimes through transmission to younger generations.[108]:10–11[109]

Some native people feel that no amount of time would be enough to heal this wound, such as the thousands of families of missing children. Some children attended residential school in the late sixties disappeared from them never to be heard from again. Their families are unable to move on from this because the missing children’s fate is still a mystery. The families feel that without finding out what happened to their missing members, they will not receive the closure they need to move on and no amount of compensation from the government will be enough to repair the damage.[110]

Some survivors that were sexually abused kept their suffering a secret for decades after their time in the residential schools. One survivor has been quoted saying “you can’t forget everything in five years, in ten years,”[110] and many aboriginals feel that though the Canadian government has made a start in reconciliation, it will be a long process, because they cannot instantly feel better.[111]

The lasting impact that the schools have had is also manifested in the rate of drug and alcohol abuse among survivors. As an attempt to hide from the memories and the pain many aboriginal people found themselves turning to substance abuse,[111] which means that the suffering continues as they and those around them are forced to deal with addiction on a daily basis. It is both because the residential schools continue to cause harm, and because the hardships they created in the past continue to haunt survivors, that the aboriginal people are simply unable to be consoled at present time.

Survivors of the residential schools have difficulty receiving compensation because they must prove that they attended the schools. This is difficult and sometimes impossible to do because the schools kept little to no records.[112]

Many students were fluent in their Aboriginal languages when they first entered residential schools. Teachers strictly prohibited the use of these languages despite many students having little or no understanding of English or French. Traditional activities and spiritual practices, such as the Sun Dance were also banned. Many survivors recalled being strapped for speaking Aboriginal languages while some students were forced to eat soap because native languages were viewed as dirty and evil. Although encouragement to keep Aboriginal languages alive was given by some schools, many students could no longer speak their languages when they left schools due to years of forbiddance. Some survivors even felt ashamed for being Aboriginal as their identities were considered as ugly and dirty.[71]


The healing process is a long and difficult one. Many Aboriginals find it difficult to talk about their experiences, but when they do, healing slowly begins. 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.[110]

Portrayals in media[edit]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]