Reconciling Residential Schools

The shadow that most haunts the Canadian psyche is the history of removing Indigenous children from their home communities and compelling them to attend “Indian” residential schools, which led to the destruction of Indigenous individuals, communities, and cultures.

Although education programs began much earlier (for instance day schools located in Indigenous communities), the idea of residential institutions for Indigenous children, often located far from their homes, accelerated in the second decade after Confederation. As many as 150,000 children attended some 132 schools before the system was closed in the last quarter of the 20th century.

The Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School in Ontario in 1932 (top left). Students and a teacher at the All Saints Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan in 1945 (top right). Students and staff at an Indian School in Saskatchewan in 1908 (bottom left). The Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School in Saskatchewan around 1885 (bottom right).

Run in partnership with Catholic and Protestant churches in Canada, “Indian Residential Schools” followed an industrial school model whereby the academic curriculum was limited to elementary and intermediate levels and most students worked for at least half the day—chopping wood, farming, sewing, or doing laundry.

This system was similar to ones developed for Indigenous peoples in other former English settler colonies such as Australia and New Zealand, although in these countries church-run mission schools targeted Indigenous students of mixed heritage rather than the primarily “status Indians” enveloped by the Canadian system.

In 1886, an amendment to the Indian Act made school attendance mandatory for status Indian children, although it wasn’t until Scott’s tenure as deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs that the law was comprehensively enforced by government agents and Canada’s federal police force.

An Indian Day School at Bear Island, Ontario in 1906 (top left). The dormitory of the All Saints Indian Residential School in 1945 (top right). Students and staff of an Indian Day School in Ontario (middle left). Children and nuns around 1950 at an Indian Residential School in Quebec (middle right). Female students sewing at an Indian Residential School in the Northwest Territories (bottom left). The farm at St. Luke's English Church Mission School in the Northwest Territories around 1922 (bottom right).

The schools isolated children from their parents, communities, languages, and traditions. These institutions were devised to assimilate, Christianize, and acculturate. They failed miserably in terms of delivering education beyond minimal levels for all but the most exceptional students, and hence never facilitated the widespread assimilation into mainstream Canadian society as adults.

Chronically underfunded, overcrowded, and unhealthy, they were dangerous to the students who endured them. Indian Residential Schools led to rampant abuse, rape, neglect, and the death of at least 3,200 children.

A 2012 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Canada as a nation is now confronted with the history and legacy of what is increasingly accepted and officially spoken about as cultural genocide—which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada defined as “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow a group to continue as a group” and cause them to “cease to exist as legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities.”

The term that Indigenous peoples have embraced to identify their experience is not ex-pupil or residential school alumnus, but “residential school survivor.” The effects of the schools went beyond the 80,000 living former students who directly experienced them because when they came back to their home communities they carried with them a plethora of social problems, dysfunction, and estrangement from their own Indigenous cultures and identities.

The intergenerational effect is called “residential school syndrome,” a combination of historical trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a reality of Canadian society today and understanding the history of residential schools is fundamental to any process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

The last federally run residential school closed in 1996, and it was really only in the 1990s that the full scope of residential school abuses and trauma upon generations of Indigenous peoples hit the public consciousness.

Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine in 2008 (left). Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Fontaine during Harper’s apology in 2008 (right).

These revelations of Canada’s dark past appeared when Indigenous leaders, such as Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, first spoke openly about their own horrible experiences in the schools including sexual and physical abuses; when the churches started to issue formal apologies; when lawsuits representing over 10,000 school survivors were filed; and when a $350 million healing fund intended to support community-based projects was created. Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave an official apology only in 2008.

That year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) embarked on an inquiry to document the history of the Indian Residential Schools by collecting testimonies from survivors, former school staff, and others, and by conducting historical research. These testimonies along with documentation and other historical materials are to be archived at a permanent National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The logo for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (left) and the logo for the Assembly of First Nations (right).

When the TRC presented its 94 recommendations—its Calls to Action—in June 2015, Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild told the gathered audience, “Above all, we must remember that this is a Canadian story, not an Indigenous one.”

This same message permeated the findings in the Final Report released in late December 2015. History education about residential schools, Indigenous-settler relations, and the history and legacy of Canadian “Indian” policy was especially prominent in these recommendations. The need to really know this country’s history including all the exclusions, erasures, and disturbing aspects was identified as both a problem to be addressed and the key element of meaningful reconciliation.

A 2017 Public Policy Forum conference to discuss strategies for implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s health-related Calls to Action.

Rethinking Canada’s 150th Birthday

"This intended celebration can be an opportunity for Canadians to take stock of the past, celebrating the country’s accomplishments without shirking responsibility for its failures. Fostering more inclusive public discourse about the past through a reconciliation lens would open up new and exciting possibilities for a future in which Aboriginal peoples take their rightful place in Canada’s history as founding nations who have strong and unique contributions to make to this country.” –Executive Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, (2015).

In its final report, the TRC recommended that recognizing the place of Indigenous peoples in Canada’s past and present should be the ultimate message behind Canada’s 150 commemorations. Yet birthday parties rarely dwell on the kind of negative message the country would be forced to face.

In the narrative Canadians tell themselves about their past and present, they see their country as tolerant and inclusive. It is not perfect, but when looking at gains made in the second half of the 20th century and onward, on many levels Canada has been a tolerant and inclusive country.

2017 Canada Day Celebrations in Vancouver (leftrightbottom).

It has embraced multiculturalism as a central identity, has a fairly welcoming immigration and refugee policy, has managed French and English nationalisms without separation of one from the other, and created a Charter of Rights and Freedoms to guarantee equity and equality for all.

This is why confronting the Indigenous experience that contradicts this image is so very difficult for non-Indigenous Canadians. Canadians rarely acknowledge the administrative control, appropriation of lands and resources, restriction of nearly every facet of Indigenous existence, including the right to define oneself, as a form of violence.

The reserve system, the Indian Act, and outright subjugation caused violent, severe, and lasting mental, physical, and cultural damage to Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Hiring a lawyer or actively pursuing Indigenous land claims was banned by law between 1927 and 1951. Forced sterilization programs in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, beginning in the 1930s, and continuing until the early 1970s, were disproportionately applied to certain segments of the Canadian population, including those of Indigenous descent.

A map showing the percentage of children under 14 in foster care who are First Nations, Métis, or Inuit.

By the 1960s, although only 4% of the population, Indigenous children made up between 30 and 40% of legal wards of the state, and thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their parents and adopted by non-Indigenous families. In the half-century since, these numbers seem to have only increased. According to Statistics Canada’s data, in 2016, half of all the children under the age of four in foster care in Canada are Indigenous, more than ever attended the residential schools.

Willful neglect by the Canadian government also accounts for present-day negligence in terms of water quality on reserves, overcrowded housing, or substandard health care. Indigenous peoples continue to be overrepresented in Canada’s criminal justice system.

Health outcomes are no better. Today’s tuberculosis rates among status Indians are 31 times those for non-Indigenous Canadians, and among the Inuit, the risk of contracting TB is a staggering 186 times that of other Canadian-born non-Indigenous people.

When he was asked about the July 1 demonstrations last year, Trudeau said, “We recognize that over the past decades, generations, and indeed centuries, Canada has failed Indigenous peoples. We have not built the kind of present, the kind of future for first peoples, for First Nations, for Inuit, for Métis people across this country. We need to be doing a much better job of hearing their stories and building a partnership for the future.”

Demonstrators in Ottawa during 150th anniversary celebrations.

Rather than a celebration of Canada’s sesquicentenary, has this acknowledgement of Canada’s failure or the TRC’s call to action been a message received by the broader public?

Through a vast array of venues, numerous Indigenous voices challenge all Canadians to question their assumptions about the history of this country, ranging from a call to “unsettle” the story of Canada through “hashtagged” discussions like #resistance150, #unsettling150, and #decolonize150, to inverting national narratives through travelling art exhibitions.

If Canadians are willing to rethink how their nation-building unfolded and the enduring influence it has had on the Indigenous-settler relationship then and now, can this move us closer to acknowledging Indigenous peoples as founding peoples, whose inclusion in Canada means confronting a troubled past of colonialism as a history that matters?

Symbolic gestures of such inclusion abound.

A commemorative bank note featuring Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Agnes Macphail, and Canada’s first indigenous senator James Gladstone.

A special “Canada 150” ten dollar bank note features the image of Canada’s first Indigenous (Kainai First Nation) senator, James Gladstone (Akay-na-muka), as a “history-maker.” It also includes the pattern of the Métis sash (an important cultural identifier) and the stone-cut and stencil print of an owl by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak.

One of the legacies of Canada’s centenary celebrations in 1967 was the creation of the Centennial Flame, a twelve-sided (to represent Canada’s then ten provinces and two territories) water fountain with a natural-gas lit flame at its center, located prominently along the walkway leading up to the Peace Tower and Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. 

The Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

A sesquicentenary project added a thirteenth side in recognition of Nunavut, a primarily Indigenous-inhabited territory in Canada’s eastern arctic that joined the country in 1999 as part of a larger Inuit land claims settlement.

Symbolic gestures are important but have more resonance when they lead to real change. And there is a worrying lack of momentum on many fronts.

Lately plagued by staff resignations, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has been harshly criticized and has had to request a two-year extension to its mandate in order to complete its work.

Furthermore, this year Canadian racial tensions have been highlighted by court cases that saw all “white” juries acquit or dismiss charges in murder trials for slain Indigenous youth Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine.

A proposal that the oath new Canadian citizens make at their swearing-in ceremony include an acknowledgement of the relevancy of treaties with Indigenous peoples as being part of the laws of Canada, still has not been enacted, although it was planned for 2018.

Indeed, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website “Beyond 94” that tracks which of the recommendations made by the TRC, says to date 44 of the 94 Calls to Action have not even been started, while only 10 have been completed.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking in front of Parliament in 2016 about missing and murdered indigenous women (left). A 2016 art installation depicting the backlog of unsolved cases with a sign proclaiming “Indigenous women cold cases. Because we do nothing” (right). A community-based art installation at Algoma University in 2016 to commemorate murdered or missing women from indigenous communities (bottom).

Certainly the moments of inclusion symbolized in the reconstructed fountain and plans for the citizenship oath mark a departure from the previous erasure of Indigenous peoples from the Canadian identity and history. There may be costs—emotional, financial, ethical—to understanding the dark side of Canada’s past—or, as many Indigenous peoples and their allies would remind us, to recognizing inequities, lack of justice, and oppression that continue to this day.

But what are the costs of not remembering and not seeing them?

A 2018 rally in Saskatchewan calling for justice for Colten Boushie.


Dr. Susan Neylan is an Associate Professor of History, at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. She acknowledges that she lives and works on the traditional territories of the Attawandaron (Neutral), Anishnawbe, and Haudenosaunee peoples. Facilitated by the Between the Lakes Purchase from the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation, she also recognizes that she is on the Haldimand Tract, land promised to Six Nations, which includes six miles on each side of the Grand River.


Read Origins and listen to History Talk for more on Native American history: Canada 150Native Sovereignty and the Dakota Access PipelineTreaties and Sovereign Performances at Standing RockFirearms and Native AmericansNative American Assimilation Policy; and the Creek Civil War.