Chapter 11. First Nations from Indian Act to Idle No More

11.11 Residential Schools

Girls and boys sit at long desks, heads bent over their schoolwork.
Figure 11.18 Study period at the Roman Catholic Indian Residential School, at Fort Resolution, NWT, n.d.

The goals of the Residential School system (described in Section 11.5) were explicitly assimilationist. The program existed precisely to replace Aboriginal economic practices with those of the mainstream colonial economy, substitute English and French for indigenous languages, erase indigenous belief systems with some kind of Christianity, and interrupt the transmission of social practices (including fundamental familial relationships) by capturing children and keeping them away from their parents, siblings, and other relations. This needs to be underlined: there was nothing accidental about the way the residential schools turned out; these were clearly stated goals and tactics.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as plans advanced to end the program, the consequences of a century of residential schools were everywhere visible. Traumatized children became traumatized adults. Social workers drawn from the colonizing society were sent to reserves — often with RCMP and other police supports — to “rescue” children from dysfunctional environments in which colonialism itself was heavily implicated. In the decade after 1955, as a study by Christopher Walmsley points out, “Aboriginal children in the care of the Province of British Columbia jumped from less than 1% to 34.2%, and this pattern was repeated in other parts of Canada during the same time.”[1] Just as residential schools were being closed, the Federal Government’s monopoly over the management of Aboriginal communities on-reserve began to fray, and provincial responsibilities increased:

The principal response of provincial child welfare authorities during the 1960s was the apprehension and removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities. Known as the “sixties scoop,” social workers explained their actions by arguing that they were in the best interests of the children.[2]

Citing poverty, health concerns, and even malnutrition, the secular authorities perpetuated the alienation of children from their communities that had begun by missionaries and residential schools. Aboriginal children in care were placed with non-Aboriginal families, and some were exported to the United States. In almost every case, the link between child and ancestral culture was severed. Whether in care or in residential schools, the same outcomes prevailed: practices — especially, but not exclusively, those censured by the anti-potlatch and sun dance laws — were inadequately passed from one generation to the next; the skills taught at woefully underfunded schools prepared students for 19th century field labour but not 20th century factories or offices, let alone professions. Substance abuse on reserves, particularly alcohol, was extensive as generations self-medicated to deal with everything from a personal sense of diminished self-worth to cultural alienation to systemic poverty and — from generation to generation to the loss of children. Whereas the reserve system and pass system were designed to keep Aboriginal people physically in check, the residential school system and the intervention of colonialist social workers and police authorities were intended to keep them culturally in check.

The enormous educational, social, and moral failures of the residential school system are now widely known. The system contained a single ineluctable contradiction: it proceeded from an explicitly racist assumption that indigenous cultures were inferior and proceeded to strip away those features with an eye to assimilating native people into “mainstream” society, but neglected to address the inherent racist and discriminatory perspectives of Euro-Canadians who would not hire, marry, work with, drink with, study with, lend money to, extend the franchise to, or vote for Aboriginal people, regardless of whether they were “schooled” or not. “Assimilation” was entirely about change, and not about inclusion. It could hardly be otherwise under the circumstances.

At the peak in the 1930s, there were roughly 80 residential schools in Canada. They were in seven of the nine provinces; there were none in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, nor were in the Dominion (later, the province) of Newfoundland. Most of the schools were located far from urban centres. As institutions go, the large brick or stone structures were universally imposing. At Kamloops (Tk’emlúps), for example, the Indian Residential School, opened in 1893, was the largest brick structure in the Thompson Valleys and, indeed, between the Lower Mainland and the CPR hotels of the Rocky Mountain national parks. An entire brickworks was established to enable its construction. On Kuper Island, at Alert Bay, and in town after town across the Prairies, two- and three-storey buildings were erected to enable the warehousing and transformation of generations of Native children.

The involvement of the nation’s Christian churches from the outset was viewed by officials as a good way to transmit Euro-Canadian cultural values, morals, and discipline. It was, as well, cheap, because missionary groups would effectively work for free. Over half of the schools were run by the Catholic Church, most of the rest by the Anglicans, and the remainder by the United Church and the Presbyterians. Conditions varied from place to place, but few were adequately funded; by the second quarter of the 20th century, child labour was an essential component of the residential school business model. Through most of their history, the general practice at residential schools was to provide only half-day schooling; the rest of the day was dedicated to labour in the fields and workshops, and mopping the floors to keep the children busy and reduce operating costs. The schooling the students received was light on the humanities, lighter still on sciences and math, and heavy on religion and theology. Generally speaking, girls were taught domestic skills like cooking and sewing, while boys were taught basic agricultural skills and some crafts.

Children were housed in dormitory rooms. Rows of beds allowed for little privacy. Boys and girls were separated and kept separate: stories abound of brothers and sisters who were allowed no contact despite being kept in the same building. Showers and baths were spartan. Meals were Dickensian, and children suffered from malnutrition. Complaints of cold facilities are sustained by a terrible record of mortalities from illnesses, including tuberculosis (which claimed as many as 60% of the student population). Every residential school has its own sad little graveyard, and some of them aren’t that little. As Mary-Ellen Kelm has pointed out, some schools kept their mortality statistics low by shipping fatally ill children home to their families, which consequently inflated mortality rates on reserves. Kelm also has noted that the transformation of Aboriginal diets to Euro-Canadian foods was part of an attempt to colonize not only the mind but the Aboriginal body as well.[3] Doing so could be lethal: only recently, it has become known that nutritional experiments conducted on children under Ottawa’s auspices resulted in deaths.

If the colonizing society wasn’t intervening in education or abducting children from what authorities judged as poor environments, it was managing some of the health crises in which it was — once again — complicit. “Indian hospitals,” separate from non-Aboriginal facilities, were established to deal with the specific illnesses (mostly tuberculosis) that afflicted Aboriginal populations. On the whole, these Indian hospitals functioned as another element in the government’s management of Aboriginal lives.

Sainty Morris

In the mid-1940s, perhaps a little later, Sainty Morris — still a very young child — contracted tuberculosis from his older brother, with whom he shared a bed in his parents’ home on the reserve near Duncan on Vancouver Island. Soon thereafter, he was sent by medical authorities to the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, more than 60 km north. He passed along this account — from which I quote at some length — to a historian of healthcare Laurie Meijer Drees. One would have to have a very flinty heart indeed to read this and not be moved; more than that, however, it serves to show the severe disempowerment of Aboriginal people and the complicity of far more than a handful of officials and professionals in the business of controlling Aboriginal children.

In the hospital the food was good. At the time we were used to our native ice cream [made from berries and fish grease whipped together…] and other food that we were raise[d] on. At that time, my family had little money, and we lived mainly off the land and the beaches. When I was in hospital, I wished I had clams, duck, and all that food from home that I could not have.

The nurses when I first got in there were funny. They were mean and there was one nurse who used the strap on us. I remember a particular time. It was when I first got to the hospital. They had what you called a rest period. It was set for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. I was new there and could not force myself to sleep so I picked myself up a book, a comic book. As I was lying there reading, I remember how suddenly the book was smashed out of my hand. I got strapped! The nurse took my comic book away and strapped my hand with leather.

On the other hand, there was another nurse who was very friendly. […]I thought she was a very wonderful friend as opposed to the other one. I wasn’t the only one that was strapped. She strapped a lot of other children.

I was there off and on for, I can’t remember, years, months, days. I was in there for a year and a half when they sent me to Kuper Island Indian Residential School. After being there for a while, I was sent back to the Nanaimo Indian Hospital.

[…]One day the head nurse came to see me, and she told me I was going home. I was so happy! She said, “We are going to measure you for clothing and are ordering your clothes from Vancouver. Then you are going home.” A few weeks later, the nurses came and brought me to change into my new clothes. I got a bath and changed clothes, and then I asked if I could visit my friends and relatives [in the hospital]. I was allowed to visit, and they said, “We’ll find you when the nurse is ready.” Miss Fletcher finally showed up, and we got into her car and starting heading south, towards where my family lived.

We started going towards Chemainus [a town between Nanaimo and Duncan]. I thought we were going to a store there, but when we got to the wharf, she told me to get out. I thought, “What is going on?” She told me, “You are going to Kuper Island Residential School.” I told her, “No, they told me I was going home.” That’s when the nurse told me, “No, I’ve got strict orders not to leave you until you get onto that boat.” So I got onto the boat, and they brought me there….

An imposing building with three stories and a cross protruding from the middle tower.
Figure 11.19 Kuper Island Residential School.

This school was another awful place. They [the hospital staff] didn’t tell my parents they were shipping me to Kuper Island! My parents didn’t know where I was! My … sister-in-law, Therese [another TB case at the Indian Hospital], she phoned my parents to ask how I was doing, and that’s when it turned out they didn’t know where I was. I finally wrote a letter to let them know I was at the school. When I asked the principal why they sent me to Kuper Island, he said that I was here for a rest. Some rest that was. I tell you, I did not know why they did that!

As soon as I got there, they had me scrubbing things on my hands and knees and washing everything by hand. After I finished one place, I had to wax. I had to do every room in that school, both the boy and girl sides. The other kids were in school, and I went to class part of the time. One day they told me to go to the top dormitory and to wash the outside of the building and to be careful not to fall down. There was no rope, no safety, and if there was a streak I would have to go back and clean it. Eventually I got sick again, and I was sent back to the hospital in Nanaimo.[4]

Whether First Nations leaders found the concept of the industrial and then residential schools helpful to their people or not, the reality fell very far short. Parents often resisted sending their children away, and it was one of the functions of the RCMP and units like the BC Provincial Police to assist the clergy with annual roundups of students. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that the educational curriculum improved, nor was it until then that children were allowed to visit with family over the holidays. The record suggests that a great many parents discovered that their child had died at school only when the summer holidays began.

These are the elements of the systemic weaknesses and shortcomings of the residential schools. Underfunding alone would have produced many of these negative outcomes. Tales of physical and sexual abuse operate at a different level. The principle Christian denominations were viewed by Euro-Canadian society as moral guardians; as a result, Canadians found it difficult to accept tales of abuse. Evidence began to accumulate and patterns began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990 the leader of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Phil Fontaine (b. 1944), publicly disclosed the sexual abuse he suffered as a child in residential schools, along with his reckoning that every boy in his class was similarly mistreated. This disclosure led to others and, in 1991, a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was convened. Seven years later, the Minister of Indian Affairs issued a formal apology to victims of sexual abuse in the schools, and a multi-million dollar fund for healing was established. While this process uncovered some very grim tales, it did not speak to the psychological, physical (in addition to sexual), and emotional abuse experienced routinely in the schools. Priests and nuns alike, as well as secular workers at the schools, were named, some charged, and some  convicted of a wide range of sadistic practices. One survivor of St. Anne’s Residential School at Fort Albany, ON went on record to describe the kind of abuse meted out by one nun:

I remember being in the dining room having a meal. I got sick and threw up on the floor. Sister Mary Immaculate [Anna Wesley] slapped me many times and made me eat my own vomit. So I did, I ate all of it. And then I threw up again … Sister Mary Immaculate slapped me and told me again to eat my vomit. … I was sick for a few days after that.[5]

Beginning in the 1950s, Aboriginal children were permitted to attend public schools for the first time, and as day-students. Family connections were rebuilt, but the residential schools remained in place for most of the youngest First Nations children in the country. In 1969 the D.I.A. took over the operation of the schools from the churches, which coincided with the Red Paper and the rise of Aboriginal political organizations. However, this is not to say that there was unanimity among First Nations as to what should happen next. Gradually, the responsibility for the schools’ operations shifted to local band councils. By 1986 all of the schools were in the hands of Aboriginal managers, and many had been closed down entirely. It is reckoned that 150,000 children passed through the system from the end of the 19th century to the mid-1980s.

Some of the structures are still standing: St. Eugene near Cranbrook has been converted into a luxury resort/casino and now generates revenue for the Ktunaxa First Nation; the Kamloops Indian Residential School houses offices and a museum for the highly entrepreneurial Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc. Other schools are no more: the Penelakut/Kuper Island school was demolished in the 1980s, as was St. Michael’s at Alert Bay very recently — in both cases, the prohibitive costs of repair and rehabilitation were a factor, as was an unwillingness to tolerate the gloomy presence of the buildings any longer.

In 1988 Ottawa issued the first of two official apologies for the residential school experiment. Lawsuits followed and, by 2005, Ottawa had accepted a measure of culpability and set aside $1.8 billion in a compensation fund for survivors of residential schools. In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a fulsome apology in the House of Commons; in an unprecedented move, the leaders of Canada’s various Aboriginal political organizations attended. Although the apology was a landmark in that it involved culpability and knowledge that children placed in the care of the state were harmed, it did not accept liability. While some Aboriginal people were pleased with the apology, for many it was insufficient. When Stephen Harper announced to the G-20 in 2009 that Canada has “no history of colonialism,” questions were asked with respect to the sincerity and intelligence of his apology. Aspects of the apology and the political movements arising from it are considered in the next section.

Key Points

  • The residential schools were a project devised to replace aboriginal culture with a version of Euro-Canadian, Christian culture, and part of a larger concerted effort to interrupt the reproduction of cultural traditions in Aboriginal communities.
  • Education and training did little to prepare Aboriginal pupils for the Canadian economy.
  • The 80 residential schools located in every territory and province other than New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland were operated by Christian clergy.
  • Conditions were very poor, resulting in malnutrition, vulnerability to disease, and high levels of mortality.
  • There were extraordinarily high levels of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse in the schools, principally by the clergy.
  • The schools began closing in the 1980s; all have now been closed, demolished, or repurposed.

Media Attributions

  1. Christopher Walmsley, Protecting Aboriginal Children (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2005), 2.
  2. Ibid., 13-15.
  3. Mary-Ellen Kelm, Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 1900-50 (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1998).
  4. Sainty Morris, interviewed in Laurie Meijer Drees, Healing Histories: Stories from Canada’s Indian Hospitals (Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2013), xviii-xxx.
  5. Jesse Staniforth, “Cover up of residential school crimes a national shame”,, August 25, 2015, accessed January 31, 2016,


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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