Canada’s Legacy: Residential Schools

By A.B. Thomas

The global image of Canada is one of being the peacekeeper, defender of those who must be defended against those that would abuse their power.   Canada fought against Hitler in WWII, championed the capture of those SS officers who sought to hide from their accountability for their actions.  Recently Canada has even chided China for human rights violations; yet for all the Canadian federal government’s  shined armour visage, there is a darkness that dwells within that rivals Hitler’s own “final solution”: the placement of native, Inuit and Métis children into residential schools.

Why did residential schools come into being?

The rationale for the residential school system was simple: aggressive assimilation.  It was the belief that for the aboriginal population to succeed in the ‘new world’, they would need to learn English, adopt Christianity and Canadian customs.   Through role modeling by parents, the children would pass the new lifestyle onto their children and the traditions of the native population would be greatly diminished or wither away within a couple of generations. The federal government had arrived at a solution for the native populations in the form of what is known as the Gradual Civilization Act that passed in 1857. This was a resolution for an act passed in 1839 that was meant to protect the Indian population.  In essence, in the Canadian government’s eyes, this meant that any male native over the age of 21 would be “able to speak, read and write either English or the French language readily and well, and is sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and is of good moral character and free from debt.” This process, known as enfranchisement, would ‘elevate’ that man from being deemed an Indian to that of a regular British subject. To further the ‘Britishization’, each man would choose a surname (that had to be approved by appointed commissioners) and after a three year probationary term, they would have the legal rights of any British subject. In return, the man would be given a piece of land ‘not more than fifty acres’ , reserved through his original tribe, and a yearly supplement; though it would also mean he would have no future say in the dealings with or about his former tribe.

To accomplish the task of replacing the traditions of the native culture with that of the European, the federal government believed that the best course of action was to create boarding schools, run by the church, funded by the government – the residential school. When the program of assimilation began initially, about 1,100 students attended the 69 schools set across Canada. This action was made mandatory; agents of the government were sent out to retrieve the children of the native population.  It is estimated that 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families to be placed into the residential schools.  There were a total of 130 residential schools located in every province and territory with the exception of Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and New Brunswick.

The results of the residential school system

The residential school life was not an easy one for the native children.  Residential schools operated ten months out of the year, the children were often forced to live far from their families, and even those who came from near where the residential school was located were not allowed visitations. Many had never been exposed to the English or French language, yet if the children were caught speaking their language or practicing native traditions they were severely punished.  Any correspondence with their families was to be written in English, which many of their parents would not have been able to read. The living conditions, for the most part, were substandard with even the bond between brother and sister broken as the schools were segregated by gender.  There are a multitude of sexual abuse allegations lodged by those who attended these residential schools.

Life would not be better for the two months that the children would return to their families; after ten months of being told that their culture was not to be tolerated, they would feel ashamed to be natives, or embarrassed that they no longer could remember the traditions of their parents.  It would result in a large segment of native children losing the ability to communicate in their own language. For all the ‘teaching’ that went on in the residential schools, the children would find it difficult to function in urban areas as the teaching was often substandard to that of their non-native peers.

A Globe and Mail (a Canadian Newspaper) examination of documents in the National Archives uncovered that even as early as 1907 the federal government of Canada had been warned that overcrowding, poor sanitation and a lack of medical care were creating a toxic breeding ground for the rapid spread of Tuberculosis. The paper reported that Peter Bryce, chief medical officer for the Department of Indian affairs, in that year visited 15 Western Canadian residential schools and found that at least 24% of the students had died of tuberculosis over a 14 year period, though it noted that in one school the percentage  of death was 69%. It would be two years later that Bryce would urge the government to take control of the residential schools from the churches after receiving a report from the Duck Lake, Saskatchewan agent stated, “The department should realize that under the present circumstances about one-half of the children who are sent to the Duck Lake boarding school die before the age of 18, or very shortly afterward.”

Another document found by the Globe and Mail published in 1914 that Senior Indian Affairs Official Duncan Campbell Scott wrote, stated,  “It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.”  In the end the Department of Indian Affairs would reject the urge to sever the relationship with the churches – the government did not want to upset those churches.

The result? It can be summed up in a  statement  on the ‘Facebook’ page, “Mass Graves of Residential School children identified –where’s the media?”

Press Statement: April 10, 2008
Mass Graves of Residential School Children Identified – Independent Inquiry Launched

We are gathered today to publicly disclose the location of twenty eight mass graves of children who died in Indian Residential Schools across Canada , and to announce the formation of an independent, non-governmental inquiry into the death and disappearance of children in these schools.

We estimate that there are hundreds, and possibly thousands, of children buried in these grave sites alone.

The Catholic, Anglican and United Church , and the government of Canada, operated the schools and hospitals where these mass graves are located. We therefore hold these institutions and their officers legally responsible and liable for the deaths of these children.

We have no confidence that the very institutions of church and state that are responsible for these deaths can conduct any kind of impartial or real inquiry into them. Accordingly, as of April 15, 2008, we are establishing an independent, non-governmental inquiry into the death and disappearance of Indian residential school children across Canada .

Residential schools, set up to create ‘successful’ British subjects out of the native populations have instead spawned the opposite of success, according to Statistics Canada.

Residential school time line

It may be reasonable to assume that 19th century biases would be blamed for the residential schools, surely the in ‘enlightened’ 20th century this would have not been allowed to take place. It would not be until 1996 that the last residential school would close, after more than a century of the system being in place.  On their website, the Assembly of First nations has a timeline of the legacy of residential schools in Canada:

1857 – Gradual Civilization Act passed to assimilate

1870-1910 – Period of assimilation where the
clear objective of both missionaries and government was to assimilate Aboriginal children into the lower fringes of mainstream society

1920 – Compulsory attendance for all children
ages 7-15 years. Children were forcibly taken from their families by priests, Indian agents and police officers.

1931 – There were 80 residential schools operating in Canada.

1948 – There were 72 residential schools with
9,368 students.

1979 – There were 12 residential schools with
1,899 students.

1980’s – Residential School students began disclosing sexual and other forms of abuse at residential schools.

1996 – The last federally run residential school, the Gordon Residential School, closes in Saskatchewan.


Accountability for Residential schools

The United Church of Canada would formally apologize for their role in the residential schools in 1986, then would restate this apology in 1998 for the abuse that occurred.  In 1993 Archbishop Peers of the Anglican Church of Canada stated, “I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were a part of a system which took you and your children from home and family”.  In 1994, four leaders of the Presbyterian Church signed a statement of apology.  In June of 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper would issue the government’s official apology to the people who suffered in the residential school system. It would not be until 2009 that the Catholic Church would hint that the church held any responsibility in the Canadian residential school system, though the church oversaw three-quarters of these schools. The Vatican Holy See Press Office issued a communiqué on April 29th, 2009 that read:

“At the end of the General Audience, the Holy Father met with Mr Phil Fontaine, the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, and the Most Reverend James Weisgerber, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, together with those accompanying them, and he listened to their stories and concerns.

His Holiness recalled that 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, offering 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.

Two years after a compensation package was announced in 2005, the Canadian federal government formalized the 1.9 billion deal.  The Compensation, called the Common Experience Payments, has been made available to all  former residential students  who were alive as of May 30, 2005, as well as part of the money  allotted for foundations that support the learning needs of aboriginal students. The catch to the compensation package is that by accepting the payment, it releases the federal government and churches from any further legal actions against them except in cases of sexual abuse and serious incidents of physical abuse. According to a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as of March 31, 2008, 61,473 cases amounting to 1.19 billion dollars had been settled.

Though the federal government gives the appearance of accepting its role in the residential school system, there is one issue that cannot be ignored: did the Canadian federal government pursue the genocide of the aboriginal peoples in its dominion?  Resolution 260 (III) of the United Nations General Assembly, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, was adopted on December 9th, 1948.  Article 2 of this resolution defines genocide as:

i) Killing members of the group;

ii) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

iii) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

iv)  Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

v) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article 3 states that the following acts shall be punishable:

a) Genocide;

b) Conspiracy to commit genocide

c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

d) Attempt to commit genocide;

e) Complicity in genocide.

Article 4 states:

Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3 shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.

Article 5 states:

The Contracting Parties undertake to enact, in accordance with their respective Constitutions, the necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the present Convention and, in particular, to provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3.

From the definition of genocide, native groups have argued that Canada did attempt to commit genocide upon their population, but the courts have refused to hear their claims. Why would Canadian courts find the actions taken by Canada and the churches in the events of the residential schools as a non-issue?

Though Canada had promised the United Nations that they would sign Resolution 260 (III), it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the Canadian federal government adopted a limited definition of the United Nations declaration; accepting four of the five parameters of genocide save for the fifth referring to the forced transfer of children. Because of the slowness in the adoption of this declaration the native attempts to hold the government responsible has been overturned as there was no law banning genocide while the residential schools were running.

It should be noted that while the government and church involvement in the abuses that occurred in the residential school system have been recognized, there has been a lack of scrutiny in the direction of the educational system itself.  In some estimates there were at least 40% of the ‘teaching staff’ who were not qualified as teachers – this would infer that 60% were ‘professionals’.  In Alberta, the Alberta Teacher’s Alliance;  the forerunner of the Alberta Teacher’s Association (which it became under the Teaching Professional Act of 1936) assembled in 1918,  had knowledge of the undertakings in the schools.  It is mandatory that every certified teacher working as a teacher in the pubic, separate or francophone school must be a member of this association. What role did the ATA have in Alberta residential schools, if any? If not, why were not standards , which were set as part of a monopoly on education, applied to the residential schools?

Aboriginals today

Has the atmosphere in Canada improved since the government’s compensation and the churches apologies for the treatment of the aboriginal population in the residential school system? Data taken from “Indigenous Children’s Health report”, released in 2009 and available for download at, From St. Michaels hospital reports that over a third of children classified as aboriginal, Inuit and Metis, live below the poverty line in substandard housing, poor water quality and crowding.  These children, compared to their non-aboriginal counterparts have shown disparities in almost all areas of health including: First Nations Infant mortality twice the rate of the rest of Canada, while Inuit infant mortality as high as four times. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome occurrences are three to twelve times higher in First Nation families.  While there are no significant studies done on the percentage of First Nations children born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, it is generally believed that because of the abuse of drugs and alcohol that is proportionately high in these families; consequently the prevalence is to higher as well.

From Statistics Canada, it was reported that about 24% the people identified as Indian, Métis or Inuit in 2001 had enough knowledge of an aboriginal language to carry on a conversation. The percentage of Native Canadians with ‘higher’ education is far below the average percentile of non-native peoples, the result of students’ father and mothers, grand parents and great grand parents mistrust of the educational system due to their experiences in the residential school system.

What of the general population of Canada? Would have there been an outcry of protest if the residential school proposal had been widely promoted by the federal government and the churches?  Perhaps an indication that Canada has not yet come as far as the apologies would like the world to suppose is the ad that was posted last month on the website (though it was removed within a short period of time).  The ad, titled, “Native Extraction Service”, with a picture of three teenaged native boys, and accompanied by the text, “have you ever had the experience of getting home to find those pesky little buggers hanging outside your home, in the back alley or on the corner???

Well fear no more, with my service I will simply do a harmless relocation.  With one phone call I will arrive and net the pest, load them in the containment unit (pick up truck) and then relocate them to their habitat.

It doesn’t matter if they need to be dropped off on Salter (Street) or the rez, I will go the extra mile.

My service is free because I want to live in the same city you do, a clean one.”

One could suppose that if the timing would have been better, the familiar cry that rips one into the nightmarish yesteryear could have been, “Sieg heil, eh”. Words, money, these do not heal, actions that show commitment slow the pain.  Residential schools are more than a gaping wound in Canadian culture; it is a sharp edge that is walked upon where it could be either calling it history or experiment phase one.