Residential Schools

Residential schools refer to a variety of institutions that include industrial schools, boarding schools and student residences. Although residential schools are usually considered part of the assimilative policies that the Canadian government directed at Aboriginal peoples from the 1880s onward, their roots lie deeper. The first residential facilities were developed in New France by Catholic missionaries to provide care and schooling. These early attempts, like a similar institution in colonial New Brunswick, failed abysmally thanks to the autonomy that First Nations still enjoyed and the Europeans' economic and military dependence on the Aboriginal population. Residential schools became an enduring phenomenon with the creation of Anglican and Methodist institutions in Upper Canada (Ontario) from the 1830s onward. These colonial experiments set the pattern for post-Confederation policies.

Both the federal government and Plains nations wanted to include schooling provisions in the treaties of the 1870s and beyond, though for different reasons. Aboriginal leaders hoped Euro-Canadian schooling would enable their young to learn the skills of the newcomer society and help them make a successful transition to a world dominated by the strangers. With the enactment of the British North America Act in 1867, and the implementation of the Indian Act, the government was required to provide Aboriginal peoples with an education and to integrate Aboriginal peoples into Canadian society. The government pursued schooling as a means of making First Nations economically self-sufficient, with its underlying objective being a lessening of Aboriginal dependency on the public purse. The government collaborated with Christian missionaries to encourage Aboriginal self-sufficiency and religious conversion through the Aboriginal educational policy developed after 1880, which relied heavily on custodial schools.

Beginning with the establishment of 3 industrial schools in the prairies in 1883, and through the next half-century, the federal government and churches developed a system of residential schools stretching from Nova Scotia to the Arctic. In 1884 the Indian Act was amended to include compulsory residential school attendance for status Indians under age 16. Most of the residential schools were in the four Western provinces and the territories, but there were also significant numbers in northwestern Ontario and, later, in northern Québec. Three of the four Atlantic provinces had no schools, apparently because government assumed that Aboriginal people there were sufficiently acculturated. At its height around 1930, the residential school system totalled 80 institutions. The Roman Catholics operated three-fifths, the Anglicans one-quarter and the Methodists and Presbyterians the remainder. (Most of the Presbyterian schools became United Church schools in 1925 with the formation of the United Church of Canada.)

From their inception until the late 1950s, Aboriginal residential schools operated on a half-day system, in which students spent half the day in the classroom and the other at work. The theory behind this was that students would learn skills that would allow them to earn a living as adults, but the reality was that work had more to do with running the school inexpensively than with providing students with vocational training. Funding was a dominant factor in the residential school system. From the 1890s until the 1950s, the government tried constantly to shift the burden of the schools onto the churches, whose members made donations, and onto the students, whose labour was a financial contribution. Only with the affluence of the later 1950s was funding increased, and the half-day system eliminated.

School days began early, usually with a bell that summoned students to dress and attend chapel. Breakfast, like all meals, was spartan, consumed hurriedly in a refectory, and followed by three hours of classes or a period of work. The late afternoon might see a short play period before supper. Evening recreation was limited, and bedtime was early. Weekends varied the routine by eliminating classes, but Sunday usually meant more time spent on religious observances. Until the 1950s, holidays for many of the students included periods of work and play at the school. Only in latter years did the schools routinely send children home for holidays.

Although some students left with happy memories and would look back with a mixture of pleasure and pain, the experiences of residential school students were more negative than positive. The food was low in quantity and poor in quality; preparation did nothing to enhance its limited appeal. Clothing was universally detested: ill-fitting, shabby and, in the case of winter clothing, not adequate protection for the season. The pedagogical program, both academic and vocational, was deficient. Students had to cope with teachers who were usually ill-prepared and curricula and materials derived from and reflected an alien culture. In the workplace, the overseers were often harsh and the supposed training purpose of the work was limited or absent. In contrast, missionary staff lavished time and attention on religious observances, often simultaneously denigrating Aboriginal spiritual traditions.

While many staff tried to be good instructors and parental surrogates, the institutional setting and the volume of work defeated the best of intentions. Impatience and correction too often gave way to excessive punishment. Almost universally, the way the schools operated prevented staff from providing the emotional support that children needed. Some of the staff were sexual predators, and often the emotional distance was made worse by the cultural denigration that missionaries inflicted on their students. Aboriginal languages were forbidden in most operations of the school, Aboriginal ways were disparaged and the Euro-Canadian manner was held out as superior.

Such a harsh regime naturally provoked resistance, both by Aboriginal students and adults. Some children refused to co-operate and sabotaged the operations of the kitchen or classroom, stole food and supplies, ran away, or, in extreme cases, burned down their schools. Their parents and Aboriginal political leaders protested the schools' harsh conditions and pedagogical shortcomings, though their objections were mostly ignored. By the 1940s it was obvious to both the government and most missionary bodies that the schools were ineffective, and Aboriginal protests helped to secure a change in policy. In 1969 the decision was taken to close the residential schools, and the last school, located in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.

Aboriginal communities, often with church support, and since 1998 with government financial assistance, have been carrying out the difficult work of supporting their members with residual issues surrounding family breakdown, violence and the aimlessness brought about by residential schools. Since the late 1990s former students pressed, often through litigation, for acknowledgment of, and compensation for, their suffering. In 2005 the federal government established a $1.9-billion compensation package for the survivors of abuse at Aboriginal residential schools, and in 2007 the federal government and the churches that had operated the schools agreed to provide financial compensation to former students under the Aboriginal residential schools settlement agreement.

On 11 June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of the Government of Canada, offered an apology to all former students of Aboriginal residential schools in Canada. The apology openly recognized that the assimilation policy on which the schools were established was "wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country." The apology recognized the profoundly damaging and lasting impact the schools had on Aboriginal culture, heritage and language and was one of the steps that the government has taken to forge a new relationship with Canada's Aboriginal peoples.

See also Aboriginal People: Education.