Traditional education among most First Nations and Inuit peoples was accomplished using several techniques including observation and practice, family and group socialization, oral teachings, and participation in community ceremonies and institutions. With these methods children learned the values, skills and knowledge considered necessary for adult life. This style of education continues today, but its importance to many Indigenous people has been significantly reduced during the past 350 years by the introduction of a formal European-American classroom style of education.

Formal European education of Aboriginal children began in the early 1600s in New France in mission schools operated by French religious orders such as the Récollets, Jesuits and Ursulines. These schools established a pattern of church involvement in Indigenous education that dominated until after the Second World War. The major goals of these mission schools were the "civilization" and Christianization of Aboriginal peoples. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Protestant churches also became active in the education of Aboriginal children in what is now Canada. From 1763 to 1830 the imperial government dealt with "Indian Affairs" through the military, and the provision for education for Aboriginal peoples was minimal. After 1830, when administration was transferred to the secretary of state for the colonies, some money was diverted to education by means of donations to church organizations. This funding allowed the building of rudimentary schools in pre-reserve Aboriginal settlements. During this period various colonies began to provide limited resources for the education of band members within their boundaries.

From the 1830s the churches, mainly the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations, in cooperation with the colonial governments and later the federal government, began to establish residential schools for Indigenous peoples. By 1900 there were 64 residential schools in Canada. Staffed by missionary teachers who gave vocational and manual as well as religious instruction, these schools were seen by colonial and subsequently federal authorities as the ideal system for educating Aboriginal people because they removed children from the influences of traditional family and culture. They buttressed the policy of assimilating Aboriginal peoples into colonial society. Indigenous parents saw residential schools as necessary evils; necessary because many First Peoples saw Christianity as a new and positive force in their lives, or because they recognized the need for European skills; but evil because they removed children from their homes and family ties. Most Aboriginal people regarded the regime in residential schools as harsh and cruel: children were physically punished for disobedience, and most school staffs forbade the use of Aboriginal languages by students and made the children feel ashamed of their Aboriginal identity. Evidence that many Indigenous children suffered sexual abuse in residential schools became public. In 2007 the federal government established a five-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission to enable residential school survivors to share their stories in a safe environment and to educate Canadians about residential schools and their impact on Aboriginal peoples.

After 1867, education for Indigenous peoples fell into two categories: education for status Indians became a federal responsibility under the constitution and the treaties; nonstatus Indians, Inuit and Métis became a provincial or territorial responsibility. By 1900 there were some 226 federally funded day schools on reserves; the majority of teachers were missionaries and the curriculum included a large proportion of religious instruction. By the 1930s the curriculum began to be more closely patterned on that of the non-Aboriginal provincial schools.

By 1940 statistics revealed that few status Indian children were benefiting from their formal education experiences. Many children were repeating three or four grades in elementary school, and only a small percentage were graduating from elementary school and going on to high school. Following a major review of Aboriginal education in the late 1940s, the federal government, in cooperation with provincial education authorities, established a policy of education integration: federal funds were provided to enable Aboriginal students to attend provincial elementary and high schools; provincially-certified teachers replaced non-certified teachers in reserve schools; and all reserve schools adhered to the provincial curriculum. The expectation was that by removing Aboriginal students from the poorly staffed, inadequately equipped, heavily church-oriented day schools, assimilation would be accelerated and the performance of students improved. Enrolments in provincial schools rose rapidly and by 1960 there were about 10 000 Aboriginal students attending off-reserve provincial schools.

Numerous problems became evident in the program, which led to its re-evaluation by Aboriginal parents and political leaders. Although the qualifications of provincial teachers were superior to the pre-1950s teachers, these teachers lacked specialized training to teach Indigenous students effectively. Aboriginal parents criticized the removal of children to boarding homes - in many cases the distance between the students' homes and their boarding homes was several hundred kilometres - as well as the daily commuting by bus to attend provincial schools. Most Aboriginal students were not achieving success: in 1967 only 200 Aboriginal students were enrolled in Canadian universities out of a total Aboriginal student population of some 60 000.

In 1972 the National Indian Brotherhood (now known as the Assembly of First Nations) produced a policy on Aboriginal education, "Indian Control of Indian Education," subsequently adopted by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) as federal policy. It identified the importance of local community control to improve education, the need for more Aboriginal teachers, the development of relevant curricula and teaching resources in Aboriginal schools, and the importance of language instruction and Aboriginal values in Aboriginal education. Since the presentation of this policy several changes have occurred. By 1983 over 200 schools on reserves were managed entirely or in part by band councils. Reserve schools began to offer Aboriginal-language classes, and Indigenous children attending these schools received some form of Aboriginal-language instruction. Several programs to increase the number of Aboriginal teachers have been established in universities in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC, NS and NB.

In 1976 as a result of the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, the largest First Nations-controlled school board in Canada, the Cree School Board, was created. Despite the fact that the education of status Indians on reserves is under federal jurisdiction (section 91 of the Constitution Act), the Cree School Board operates under Québec education jurisdiction (section 93 of the Constitution Act). Trent University in Peterborough was the first Canadian university to establish a Native Studies program, followed since 1969 by similar programs or departments in colleges and universities across Canada. In 1976, the First Nations University of Canada, which is associated with the University of Regina, became the first Aboriginal-controlled degree-granting post-secondary education institution in Canada. In 2003 SIFC became a stand-alone chartered university, the First Nations University of Canada. There are over 20 First Nations community colleges throughout Canada, which provide an array of post-secondary education programs for Indigenous students, occasionally in conjunction with provincially chartered universities or community colleges. In 1995 there were approximately 25 000 status Indian post-secondary students.

Although some Inuit were educated in mission schools in Labrador as early as the 1790s, formal education for Inuit began on a national scale only in the 1950s with the construction of elementary and residential schools throughout major settlements in the Arctic. The decrease in residential schools in the Arctic paralleled the decrease in residential schools for Aboriginal children and led to a school-construction program by the federal government in most Inuit villages by 1970. Inuit education programs, unlike those in other schools for Aboriginal people, identify Inuktitut, the Inuit language, as the language of instruction for part or all of the primary grades. In spite of this pedagogical innovation, education for Inuit has been impeded by problems similar to those encountered by other Aboriginal students. The Kativik School Board in northern Québec was created by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement to provide elementary and secondary education within an Inuit environment for Inuit children in the 14 schools in Nunavik (northern Québec), as well as adult education and post-secondary programs. The creation of Nunavut in 1999 has led to an Inuit-controlled government that is working to achieve an education system that is more Inuit-based and Inuit-defined than the previously provincially defined education system and programs.

Statistics are not available for Métis and non-status Indian students, but studies generally indicate that, owing to poor socioeconomic conditions and the absence of any specific provincial or federal responsibility for their education, they suffer consequences similar to other Aboriginal people in their attempt to receive a formal education.

Efforts by leaders and Aboriginal educators to acquire the authority for the education of their children have contributed to federal and provincial legislation that formalizes the local jurisdiction of education for First Nations communities. The Nisga'a Treaty which came into force in 2000 in BC, the Mi'kmaq Education Act in Nova Scotia in 1997-98, and the joint federal-provincial First Nations Education Act and First Nations Jurisdiction over Education in BC Act in 2007 enabled communities that are signatories to make education laws for their schools within their jurisdiction.

Increasing the educational achievements of Indigenous people has been an ongoing challenge for more than a century. It is evident that major reforms will be required before substantive positive changes in the Aboriginal graduation rates at both the secondary and post-secondary education levels will emerge. The limited progress of federal and provincial authorities in seeking advice and direction from Aboriginal leaders and parents on key questions on the purpose and value of a formal education for Aboriginal children has contributed to the assumption that provincial education regimes and policies are not only appropriate for the education of Aboriginal children but are a significant method by which these children should be educated.

For Indigenous people to benefit from their formal education, several reforms are necessary. Suggested changes include more control of local education policies, budgeting, teacher hiring and school programs aided by cooperation between regional and provincial Aboriginal education infrastructures and authorities. Aboriginal pedagogies will require further research to be applied in the curriculum and Aboriginal school policies. A change in the focus of teaching resources and school curricula may incorporate and reinforce the culture and values that Aboriginal children acquire within the family. Provincial teacher training programs are beginning to incorporate cultural dynamics in Indigenous classrooms as a key element in the preparation of teachers for Aboriginal schools. Education policies at the local and urban levels are also expanding opportunities in technical and vocational programs. Greater consideration is being given to instructing Aboriginal children in the primary grades in the language of the home and community, particularly in areas where the Aboriginal language is in danger of becoming extinct (see Languages of Aboriginal Peoples).

It is clear from past experience that efforts to alienate Indigenous people from their culture have not promoted learning in the formal education process. Similarly, the unilateral imposition of provincial education regimes and policies in all Aboriginal schools continues to be a major obstacle impeding the successful education of Aboriginal children.