Education was seen as a central element in this project. For their part, Indigenous people saw the value in schooling: it was at their insistence, for example, that many treaties required government to provide teachers and establish reserve schools.
The decision to invest in Residential Schools was based on a belief that the cultural and spiritual transformation the government and churches sought to bring about in Indigenous people could be most effectively accomplished in schools that broke the bonds between parent and child.
When Canada was created in 1867 the Churches were already operating a small number of boarding schools for the Aboriginal people of Ontario. In the coming years, Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries established missions and small boarding schools throughout the West. The relationship between the government and the Churches was institutionalized in 1883 when the federal government decided to establish three large residential schools in Western Canada.
By the 1930s, there were over 70 federally funded, Church-run residential schools in operation in all parts of the country. By then, approximately one-third of school-aged Indigenous children were attending Residential Schools. Eventually more than 150,000 students would pass through the system. Over approximately130 years, nearly 140 residential schools were part of the federally funded and administered system.
The assault on Indigenous identity often began the moment the child took the first step across the school’s threshold. Braided hair (which often had spiritual connotations) was cut, home-made clothing exchanged for a school uniform, Indigenous names replaced with a Euro-Canadian ones and a number, which in many cases was used instead of a name, and the unrestricted freedom of life in Indigenous community foregone for the regimen of an institution in which every activity from morning to evening was scheduled. Males and females, brothers and sisters were separated and, with some exceptions, parental visits were discouraged and controlled.
Hastily and cheaply built schools were often found to have poor or non-existent sanitation and ventilation systems. With few infirmaries in which students with contagious diseases could be isolated, epidemics could quickly spread through a school with deadly results. Because schools were funded on a per capita basis, administrators often violated health guidelines and admitted children who were infected with such deadly and contagious diseases as tuberculosis. Parents were also often not informed if their children became sick, died, or ran away.
For the first half of the twentieth century, the schools operated according to what was termed the half-day system, under which half a day was spent in the classroom and the other half in vocational training.
For the boys this was largely restricted to farming and the crafts that a farmer might have need of while the girls were trained in the domestic sciences. In reality, this was not so much training as child labour, undertaken to subsidize the ongoing operation of the schools.
The government mandated that English (or French in Quebec) be the language of instruction. And while some missionaries had learned Indigenous languages and provided religious instruction in those languages, in many schools, students were punished for speaking an Indigenous language.
For most of the system’s history the federal government had no clear policy on discipline. Students were not only strapped and humiliated, but in some schools, they were handcuffed, manacled, beaten, locked in dormitories, cellars or makeshift jails, displayed in stocks, or subjected to other extreme forms of physical discipline. Overcrowding and a high student-staff ratio meant that even those children who were not subject to physical discipline grew up in an atmosphere of emotional neglect.
From the beginning, many Indigenous people were resistant to the Residential School system. Missionaries found it difficult to convince parents to send their children to Residential Schools, and children ran away, often at great personal risk and with tragic outcome.
While the issue of sexual abuse was largely unreported during the years in which the schools were in operation, in recent years it has become clear that this was a serious problem in some schools. While a number of high-profile court cases have led to the conviction of school officials and employees, the extent of such abuse—and its legacy—requires further research.
For most of their history, Residential School wages were far below those offered to other teachers, making the recruitment and retention of teachers an ongoing issue. While many remarkable people devoted their lives to these institutions, the Churches did not require the same level of training as was expected by the Canadian public school system. It was not until after the 1950s that the schools, for example, began to provide high school education.
Some students have positive memories of their experiences of Residential Schools and speak positively of the skills they acquired, the recreational and sporting activities, and the friendships they made. Some went on to further their studies and develop distinguished careers. But for most students, academic success was elusive and they left as soon as they could. On returning to their home communities, they often felt isolated from their families and their culture. They had lost their language and not been provided with the skills to follow traditional economic pursuits. Many found that they had not been provided with the skills needed to succeed in the Euro-Canadian economy. Nor did they have any experience of family life or parenting.
By the 1940s, federal officials had concluded that the system was both expensive and ineffective. As a result, the federal government began to substantially increase the number of on-reserve day schools and, in the 1950s, to enter into agreements with provincial governments and local school boards to have Indigenous students educated in public schools. This policy of slowly winding down the Residential School system was coupled with an expansion of the system in the Canadian north from 1955 onwards. Once again children were separated from families for lengthy periods, taught by people who had no understanding of their language or culture, and housed in crowded and makeshift facilities.
The partnership with the Churches remained in place until 1969 and, while most of the schools had closed by the 1980s, the last federally supported Residential Schools remained in operation until the mid-1990s.
In the 1980s, various members of Canadian society began to undertake a reassessment of the Residential School experience. Starting in 1986, Canadian Churches began to issue apologies for attempting to impose European culture and values on Aboriginal peoples. Apologies specific to the Residential Schools were to follow in the 1990s, from the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the United Church of Canada, and two Mennonite Church Canada.
Former students began to speak out publicly about their experiences, leading to both criminal charges against sexual abusers and the launching of class-action suits against the Churches and the federal government. The cases were eventually resolved in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, which was reached in 2006 and came into effect in 2007.
That agreement provided for a Common Experience Payment to all former students who resided at federally supported Residential Schools, additional compensation through the Independent Assessment Process for those who suffered sexual or serious physical or other abuses, a contribution to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, support for commemoration projects, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), and the provision of mental health supports for all participants in Settlement Agreement initiatives.
The mandate of the TRC included a requirement that it establish a National Centre to house all of the statements, documents and other materials gathered throughout the TRC’s years of operation and, in order to foster Reconciliation and healing, to make them accessible to all Canadians.