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Canadian Residential Schools

Updated: Dec 26, 2022

So today's post was going to be about Canada Day but I decided that instead I wanted to tackle something that has hit the news and should really be something that is on everyone's radar in my opinion. However that is definitely a controversial topic especially in Canada at this moment. I am going to try and include all that I can about the residential schools as well as some resources that are available for you to look at as well. Fair warning some of the things that happened at residential schools are not for the faint of heart and this post could be graphic. I will not be including any photos in this post. This post is in no way attempting to disregard any of the victims of these horrible institutions.


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In Canada, the Indian residential school system was a network of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous peoples. The network was funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches. The school system was created to remove Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, around 150,000 children were placed in residential schools nationally. By the 1930s about 30 percent of Indigenous children were believed to be attending residential schools. The number of school-related deaths remains unknown due to incomplete records. Estimates range from 3,200 to over 30,000.

The system had its origins in laws enacted before Confederation, but it was primarily active from the passage of the Indian Act in 1876. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1894 made attendance at day schools, industrial schools, or residential schools compulsory for First Nations children. Due to the remote nature of many communities, school locations meant that for some families, residential schools were the only way to comply. The schools were intentionally located at substantial distances from Indigenous communities to minimize contact between families and their children. Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued for schools at greater distances to reduce family visits, which he thought counteracted efforts to assimilate Indigenous children. Parental visits were further restricted by the use of a pass system designed to confine Indigenous peoples to reserves. The last federally operated residential school, Gordon's Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996. Schools operated in every province and territory with the exception of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The residential school system harmed Indigenous children significantly by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, and exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse. Students were also subjected to forced enfranchisement as "assimilated" citizens that removed their legal identity as Indians. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system often graduated being unable to fit into their communities but remaining subject to racist attitudes in mainstream Canadian society. The system ultimately proved successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs across generations. The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which persist within Indigenous communities today.

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


History Of Residential Schools

Attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples were rooted in imperial colonialism centred around European worldviews and cultural practices, and a concept of land ownership based on the discovery doctrine. As explained in the executive summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's (TRC) final report: "Underlying these arguments was the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves ... a belief of racial and cultural superiority."

Assimilation efforts began as early as the 17th century with the arrival of French missionaries in New France. They were resisted by Indigenous communities who were unwilling to leave their children for extended periods. 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. An increase in orphaned and foundling colonial children limited church resources, and colonists benefited from favourable relations with Indigenous peoples in both the fur trade and military pursuits.

Educational programs were not widely attempted again by religious officials until the 1820s, prior to the introduction of state-sanctioned operations. Included among them was a school established by John West, an Anglican missionary, at the Red River Colony in what is today Manitoba. Protestant missionaries also opened residential schools in what is now the province of Ontario, spreading Christianity and working to encourage Indigenous peoples to adopt subsistence agriculture as a way to ensure they would not return to their original, nomadic ways of life upon graduation.

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

The renewed interest in residential schools in the early 1800s can be linked to the decline in military hostility faced by the settlers, particularly after the War of 1812. With the threat of invasion by American forces minimized, Indigenous communities were no longer viewed as allies but as barriers to permanent settlement. This change was also associated with the transfer of responsibility for interactions 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.

Beginning in the late 1800s, the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) officially encouraged the growth of the residential school system as a valuable component in a wider policy of integrating Indigenous people into European-Canadian society. The TRC found that the schools, and the removal of children from their families, amounted to cultural genocide, a conclusion that echoed the words of historian John S. Milloy, who argued that the system's aim was to "kill the Indian in the child." Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, around 150,000 children were placed in residential schools nationally. As the system was designed as an immersion program, Indigenous children were in many schools prohibited from, and sometimes punished for, speaking their own languages or practising their own faiths. The primary stated goal was to convert Indigenous children to Christianity and acculturate them.

Many of the government-funded residential schools were run by churches of various denominations. Between 1867 and 1939, the number of schools operating at one time peaked at 80 in 1931. Of those schools, 44 were operated by 16 dioceses and about three dozen Catholic communities; 21 were operated by the Church of England / Anglican Church of Canada; 13 were operated by the United Church of Canada, and 2 were operated by Presbyterians. The approach of using established school facilities set up by missionaries was employed by the federal government for economic expedience: the government provided facilities and maintenance, while the churches provided teachers and their own lesson-planning. As a result, the number of schools per denomination was less a reflection of their presence in the general population, but rather their legacy of missionary work.

Government Involvement

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

The report commissioned by Governor General Charles Bagot, titled "Report on the affairs of the Indians in Canada" and referred to as the Bagot Report, is seen as the foundational document for the federal residential school system. 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.

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

The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Gradual Enfranchisement Act of 1869 formed the foundations for this system prior to Confederation. These acts assumed the inherent superiority of French and British ways, and the need for Indigenous peoples to become French or English speakers, Christians, and farmers. At the time, many Indigenous leaders argued to have these acts overturned. 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 peoples could eventually become assimilated into the general population. Individual allotments of farmland would require changes in the communal reserve system, something fiercely opposed by First Nations governments.

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

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

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

By the 1930s it was recognised by government officials that the residential school system was financially unsustainable and failing to meet the intended goal of training and assimilating Indigenous children into European-Canadian society. Robert Hoey, Superintendent of Welfare and Training in the Indian Affairs Branch of the federal Department of Mines and Resources, 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." He proposed the expansion of day schools, an approach to educating Indigenous children that he would continue to pursue after being promoted to director of the welfare and training branch in 1945. The proposal was resisted by the United Church, the Anglican Church, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who believed that the solution to the system's failure was not restructuring but intensification.

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

Despite the shift in policy from educational assimilation to integration, the removal of Indigenous children from their families by state officials continued through much of the 1960s and 70s. 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. With no requirement for specialized training regarding the traditions or lifestyles of the communities they entered, provincial officials assessed the welfare of Indigenous children based on Euro-Canadian values that, for example, deemed traditional diets of game, fish and berries insufficient and grounds for taking children into custody. This period resulted in the widespread removal of Indigenous children from their traditional communities, first termed the Sixties Scoop by Patrick Johnston, the author of the 1983 report Native Children and the Child Welfare System. Often taken without the consent of their parents or community elders, some children were placed in state-run child welfare facilities, increasingly operated in former residential schools, while others were fostered or placed up for adoption by predominantly non-Indigenous families throughout Canada and the United States. While the Indian and Northern Affairs estimates that 11,132 children were adopted between 1960 and 1990, the actual number may be as high as 20,000.

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

Parental Resistance and Compulsory Attendance

The parents and families of Indigenous children resisted the residential school system throughout its existence. Children were kept from schools and, in some cases, hidden from government officials tasked with rounding up children on reserves. 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.

In 1894, amendments to the Indian Act made school attendance compulsory for Indigenous children between 7 and 16 years of age. The changes included a series of exemptions regarding school location, the health of the children and their prior completion of school examinations. It was changed to children between 6 and 15 years of age in 1908. 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.

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



Students in the residential school system were faced with a multitude of abuses by teachers and administrators, including sexual and physical assault. They suffered from malnourishment and harsh discipline that would not have been tolerated in any other Canadian school system. Corporal punishment was often justified by a belief that it was the only way to save souls or punish and deter runaways – whose injuries or death sustained in their efforts to return home would become the legal responsibility of the school. 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 percent. Federal policies that tied funding to enrollment numbers led to sick children being enrolled to boost numbers, thus introducing and spreading disease. The problem of unhealthy children was further exacerbated by the conditions of the schools themselves – overcrowding and poor ventilation, water quality and sewage systems.

Until the late 1950s, when the federal government shifted to a day school integration model, residential schools were severely underfunded and often relied on the forced labour of their students to maintain their facilities, although it was presented as training for artisanal 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. During this period, Canadian government scientists performed nutritional tests on students and kept some students undernourished as the control sample.

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

After the government closed 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.

Family visitation

Parents and family members regularly travelled to the schools, often camping outside to be closer to their children. So many parents made the trip that Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued that the schools should be moved farther from the reserves to make visiting more difficult. He also objected to allowing children to return home during school breaks and holidays because he believed the trips interrupted their assimilation. Reed said in 1894 that the problem with day schools was that students returned home each night, where they were influenced by life on the reserve, whereas "in the boarding or industrial schools the pupils are removed for a long period from the leadings of this uncivilized life and receive constant care and attention".

Visitation, for those who could make the journey, was strictly controlled by school officials in a manner similar to the procedures enforced in the prison system. In some cases schools denied parents access to their children altogether. Others required families to meet with them in the presence of school officials and speak only in English; parents who could not speak in English were unable to talk to their children. 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 pass system restricted and closely monitored the movement of Indigenous peoples off reserves. Launched in 1885 as a response to the North-West Rebellion, and later replaced by permits, the system was designed to prevent Indigenous people from leaving reserves without a pass issued by a local Indian agent.

Instruction style and outcomes

Instruction provided to students was rooted in an institutional and European approach to education. It differed dramatically from child rearing in traditional knowledge systems based on 'look, listen, and learn' models. Corporal punishment and loss of privileges characterized the residential school system, while traditional Indigenous approaches to education favour positive guidance toward desired behaviour through game-based play, story-telling, and formal ritualized ceremonies. While at school, many children had no contact with their families for up to 10 months at a time, 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.

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


Both academic research and the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee relay evidence that students were included in several scientific research experiments without their knowledge, their consent or the consent of their parents. These experiments include nutrition experiments which involved intentional malnourishment of children, vaccine trials for the BCG vaccine, as well as studies on extrasensory perception, vitamin D diet supplements, amebicides, isoniazid, hemoglobin, bedwetting, and dermatoglyphics.


Mortality Rates

Residential school deaths were common and have been linked to poorly constructed and maintained facilities. 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. Research by the TRC revealed that at least 3,201 students had died, mostly from disease. TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair has suggested that the number of deaths may exceed 6,000.

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". 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.

In 1907, Bryce reported on the conditions of Manitoba and North-West residential schools stating:

...we have created a situation so dangerous to health that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse than they have been shown statistically to be.

In 1909, Bryce reported that, between 1894 and 1908, mortality rates at some residential schools in western Canada ranged from 30 to 60 per cent over five years (that is, five years after entry, 30 to 60 per cent of students had died, or 6 to 12 per cent per annum). 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.At the time, no antibiotic had been identified to treat the disease, and this exacerbated the impact of the illness. Streptomycin, the first effective treatment, was not introduced until 1943.

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

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


Self-governance and school closure

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

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

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

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

Few other former residential schools have converted to 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 designed by architect Roland Guerney Orr. From 1929 to 1971 the building housed Old Sun residential school, first run by the Anglicans and taken over by the federal government in 1969. It was converted to adult learning and stood as a campus of Mount Royal College from 1971 to 1978, at which point the Siksika Nation took over operations. In 1988, the Old Sun College Act was passed in the Alberta Legislature recognizing Old Sun Community College as a First Nations College.


Lasting Effects

Survivors of residential schools and their families have been found to suffer from historical trauma with a lasting and adverse effect on the transmission of Indigenous culture between generations. A 2010 study led by Gwen Reimer explained historic trauma, passed on intergenerationally, as the process through which "cumulative stress and grief experienced by Aboriginal communities is translated into a collective experience of cultural disruption and a collective memory of powerlessness and loss". This trauma 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.

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

Loss of language and culture

Although some schools permitted students to speak their Indigenous languages, suppressing their languages and culture was a key tactic used to assimilate Indigenous children. Many students spoke the language of their families fluently when they first entered residential schools. The schools strictly prohibited the use of these languages even though many students spoke little to no English or French. 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. The inability to communicate was further affected by their families' inabilities to speak English or French. Upon leaving residential school some survivors felt ashamed for being Indigenous as they were made to view their traditional identities as ugly and dirty.

The stigma the residential school system created against elders passing Indigenous culture on to younger generations has been linked to the over-representation of Indigenous languages on the list of endangered languages in Canada. The TRC noted that most of the 90 Indigenous languages that still exist are "under serious threat of extinction", with great-grandparents as the only speakers of many such languages. It concluded that a failure of governments and Indigenous communities to prioritize the teaching and preservation of traditional languages ensured that despite the closure of residential schools, the eradication of Indigenous culture desired by government officials and administrators would inevitably be fulfilled "through a process of systematic neglect". In addition to the forceful eradication of elements of Indigenous culture, the schools trained students in patriarchal dichotomies useful to state institutions, such as the domesticization of female students through imbuing 'stay-at-home' values and the militarization of male students through soldier-like regimentation.


Missing Children & Unmarked Graves

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

The fourth volume of the TRC's final report, dedicated to missing children and unmarked burials, was developed after the original TRC members realized, in 2007, that the issue required its own working group. In 2009, the TRC requested $1.5 million in extra funding from the federal government to complete this work, but was denied. 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".

In May 2021, the remains of 215 children were found buried on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, on the lands of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. The remains were located with the assistance of a ground-penetrating radar specialist and Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir wrote that the deaths were believed to have been undocumented and that work was underway to determine if related records were held at the Royal British Columbia Museum. In a statement released by the First Nations Health Authority, CEO Richard Jock said: "That this situation exists is sadly not a surprise and illustrates the damaging and lasting impacts that the residential school system continues to have on First Nations people, their families and communities."

In June 2021, 751 unmarked graves were found buried on the site of Marieval Indian Residential School in Marieval, Saskatchewan, on the lands of Cowessess First Nation. The bodies were not part of a mass grave; rather, headstones had been removed by members of the Catholic Church in the 1960s.


For me this is something that really needs to be talked about. In my experience Residential Schools are just not really talked about in elementary school or even high school. This is something that everyone needs to learn about and shouldn't be something that we try and hide from our history. We need to learn from our mistakes and help each other grow from it.


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