The Avocado

History Thread: Intro to Residential Schools in Canada

A Brief Overview of the Indian Residential School system in Canada

Hello friends 🙂 I’m not an expert in First Nations Studies nor History nor Theology, but I am a Canadian citizen, a person living in Canada, and an Anglican, so I have in a multiple ways a vested interest – and responsibility – in learning and sharing this part of the Canadian and Anglican past and present. This is my understanding from taking several university courses in First Nations Studies; following the news about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (primarily via; various workshops I’ve taken; and the “Challenging Racist British Columbia: 150 Years and Counting” document.

For the first two hundred or so years post-contact with Europeans (1600-1840), there was a relatively equitable relationship, based on the fur trade, between the Indigenous peoples of what is now called Canada, and the French (east coast), Spanish (west coast), and English (east, west, and north coast). The Indigenous peoples of Canada fall into three main groups – Inuit nations (in the north), the many First Nations (in the south), and the Métis nation (largely in the Red River Valley in the province of Manitoba). [The Métis nation formed from intermarriage of francophone (French-speaking) settlers and First Nations. It is a distinct nation with a unique language and culture.]

What is now Canada was in 1867 several British colonies, and also a vast area of land chartered to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which primarily engaged in the fur trade. Upon Confederation in 1867, the newly-formed Dominion of Canada began exploring the possibility of a trans-continental railroad. Under the Proclamation of 1763 issued by King George III, treaties were required to be signed with any Indigenous nation whose territory the railroad would pass through. However, in 1876, the Indian Act was passed. This law – still in effect today (with some changes) marked a unilateral and comprehensive change in the relationship between the Crown and First Nations [Inuit and Metis were not included in the populations addressed by / subject to the Indian Act; however, the policies directed at these populations/nations were equally colonial and racist].

The Indian Act: declared all First Nations people wards of the state; established the reservation system; replaced traditional governance structures of Nations with band councils; forbid the participation of women in band councils (until 1951); forbid traditional expressions of culture, spirituality, and religion, including the potlatch ceremony (more on that in a future History Thread perhaps?); and also was subsequently amended to mandate attendance in Indian Residential Schools (and for some people Indian Day Schools).

One or (many) more Indian Residential Schools were in operation in Canada between 1880 and 1996. Children were forced to attend, often from aged 6-16, and generally were placed in schools far from their Territories and families. At these schools, English (or French) were the only acceptable languages, and european styles of dress and appearance were the only ones deemed acceptable. The project was originally framed as being assistive to Indigenous peoples by providing them with skills in demand in the settler economies. However, in practice, in most instances, very little industrial or academic instruction was provided. Many of the Residential Schools were operated, as least for part of their existence, by religious institutions, namely the Roman Catholic, Anglican [equivalent of the Episcopalian in the US), United, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. Some schools were in operation since the 1830s, however, attendance wasn’t mandatory (and enforced by Indian Agents) until later in the 19th century.

The Indian Residential Schools were a genocidal project. Article II of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states: “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: […] e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Children, for generation upon generation, were kidnapped from their families, homes, and cultural and ethnic groups; and forced to attend schools which explicitly forbid the expression of the students’ culture, language, and relation/spirituality. This included cutting children’s braids, burning their clothes, and forbidding the use of their language. Physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse was rampant at these “schools”. They were chronically underfunded, which led to in some cases severe malnutrition and undernutrition; as well as treatable ailments going untreated.

Thousands of kidnapped children died in these institutions. For those that survived, the intergenerational impacts of this forcible removal of children was profound. People, having been robbed of their own childhood, and dealing simultaneously with the trauma cause by that, and a potential lack of role/possibility models for healthy parenting and childhood experience, faced and face significant difficulties in providing safe environments for their own children. There are many Residential School survivors whose parents and grandparents were also forced to attend these wretched institutions. The cumulative impact of the abduction and abuse of these children cannot be overstated.

For more information: my first recommendation is this article:

The following resources provide a more general overview: