Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate Aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian culture. Although the first residential facilities were established in New France, the term usually refers to the custodial schools established after 1880. Originally conceived by Christian churches and the Canadian government as an attempt to both educate and convert Aboriginal youth and to integrate them into Canadian society, residential schools disrupted lives and communities, causing long-term problems among Aboriginal peoples. Since the last residential school closed in 1996, former students have pressed for recognition and restitution, resulting in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007 and a formal public apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. In total, an estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools.

Early Residential Schools in New France and Upper Canada

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; as First Nations people were largely autonomous and Europeans depended on them economically and militarily, the colonial administration was unable to compel Aboriginal peoples to participate in the schools. However, residential schools became an enduring phenomenon with the creation of Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic institutions in Upper Canada (Ontario) from the 1830s onward. These colonial experiments set the pattern for post-Confederation policies.

The Establishment of Residential Schools After 1880

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 passage of the British North America Act in 1867, and the implementation of the Indian Act (1876), the government was required to provide Aboriginal youth with an education and to integrate them 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 economic self-sufficiency and religious conversion through educational policy developed after 1880, which relied heavily on custodial schools. These were not the schools Aboriginal leaders had envisioned.

Beginning with the establishment of three 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 across much of the country. Most of the residential schools were in the four Western provinces and the territories, but there were also significant numbers in northwestern Ontario and in northern Québec. Three of the four Atlantic provinces (Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) had no schools, apparently because the government assumed that Aboriginal people there were sufficiently acculturated.

At its height around 1930, the residential school system totalled 80 institutions. The Roman Catholic Church operated three-fifths, the Anglican Church one-quarter and the United and Presbyterian Churches the remainder. (Before 1925, the Methodist Church also operated residential schools; however, when the United Church of Canada was formed in 1925, most of the Presbyterian and all the Methodist schools became United Church schools.)

Life at Residential Schools

From their inception until the late 1950s, 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 pressing concern 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 and onto the students, whose labour was a financial contribution. By the 1940s, it was clear to many that the half-day system had failed to provide residential students with adequate education and training. However, it was only with the affluence of the later 1950s that funding was 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 from the 1960s on did the schools routinely send children home for holidays.

Isolation, Denigration and Abuse

Although some students left with happy memories, the general experience of residential school students was 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 reflecting an alien culture. Lessons were taught in English or French, languages which many of the children did not speak. 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.

Students were isolated, their culture disparaged — removed from their homes and parents, separated from some of their siblings (the schools were segregated according to gender) and in some cases forbidden to speak their first language, even in letters home to their parents. While some staff tried to be good instructors and parental surrogates, the institutional setting and the volume of work defeated even the best of intentions. Impatience and correction too often gave way to excessive punishment, including physical abuse. Some of the staff were sexual predators, and many students were sexually abused.

Health, Death and Disease

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least 4,000 Aboriginal children died in the overcrowded residential schools. Underfed and malnourished, the students were particularly vulnerable to diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza (including the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918–19).

In 2013, research by food historian Ian Mosby revealed that students at some residential schools in the 1940s and 1950s were subjected to nutritional experiments without their consent or the consent of their parents. These studies, approved by various federal government departments and conducted by leading nutrition experts, included restricting some students’ access to essential nutrients and dental care in order to assess the effect of improvements to diet for other students. Overall, the experiments do not seem to have resulted in any long-term benefits.

Resistance and Closure

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 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 system was taken over by the Department of Indian Affairs, ending church involvement. The government decided to phase out the schools, but this met with resistance from the Catholic Church, which felt that segregated education was the best approach for Aboriginal children. Some Aboriginal communities also resisted closure of the schools, arguing either that denominational schools should remain open or that the schools should be transferred to their own control. By 1986, most schools had either been closed or turned over to local bands. Ten years later, Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, SK, finally closed its doors.

Recovery, Reparations, and Reconciliation

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 the family breakdowns, violence and aimlessness brought about by residential schools. Beginning in 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 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 Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

See also Education of Aboriginal People.