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From the Legacy of Hope Foundation.

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First Nation Industrial Schools run by the Roman Catholic Church

First Nation Industrial Schools run by the Roman Catholic Church

Since their first arrival in the “new world” of North America, a number of religious entities began the project of converting Aboriginal Peoples to Christianity. This undertaking grew in structure and purpose, especially between 1831 and 1969, when the governing officials of early Canada joined with Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian churches to create and operate the residential school system. This partnership came to an end when the federal government took over sole management of the schools, and then began transferring the control of First Nations education to Indian bands. The last federally-run residential school, Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.

One common objective defined this period: the aggressive assimilation of Aboriginal peoples.


Aboriginal education had long been a priority for both Aboriginal and British (and later Canadian) leaders and governments. However, the political and economic changes brought about by events in the nineteenth century soon made it a critical one. Astutely realizing the long-term impact of these changes on their traditional lives and cultures, a number of Aboriginal leaders engaged in negotiations with religious orders and government officials to create an equitable education system for all.

First Nations leaders in Upper Canada like Ojibwa Leaders Peter Jones and John Sunday, for example, worked with Methodist missionaries and churches to enable Aboriginal people to succeed in a changing world: together, they raised funds to build schools and to hire Euro-Canadian teachers who would provide formal education, as well as training in farming and skilled trades for Aboriginal children. Both sides were to profit from this partnership: First Nations communities would have access to an education that they believed would give their children a chance to participate in mainstream society on equal terms. And the schools would give the missionaries a means to teach Christian doctrine.

Jones and Sunday were not alone. Anishnaabe Leader Chief Shingwauk, also advocated for education of Aboriginal children, but an education that combined both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachings. In collaboration with the government and the Anglican Church, Shingwauk implemented “teaching wigwams.” With the help of his sons, who were hereditary chiefs, these schools continued to operate after his death in 1854, and into the early twentieth century.

However, there were some individuals who studied the issue of Aboriginal education and proposed much different models of instruction and learning than Chief Shingwauk, Jones, and Sunday. The men who served on the Bagot Commission (1842-44), for example, proposed that the separation of children from their parents would be the best way to achieve assimilation, and in his Report on Native Education (1847), Egerton Ryerson, Superintendent for Education, reiterated this idea, and also recommended that Aboriginal education focus on religious instruction and on agricultural training.

Confederation, in 1867, further complicated the matter. The promise of a sea-to-sea Dominion of Canada depended, in part, on the settlement of the west. However, this would prove to be a difficult goal to achieve: the United States was already looking at the prairies with annexation in mind. Besides, the west was already occupied. Unlike the Aboriginal people in the east who were in the process of being assimilated into mainstream culture to varying degrees, the western tribal groups maintained their autonomous ways of life.

Clearly, the Dominion’s new government had much work to do. Politicians immediately got busy drafting the necessary legislation, and in the early decades of Confederation, they passed the following two acts: the Act for the Gradual Civilization of the Indian (1869), which called for “All Indians to be civilized,” and the Indian Act (1876), which legally established the federal government’s right to create laws that would apply to Aboriginal peoples. With such legislative groundwork established, a case was soon after made to develop an educational strategy that would completely assimilate Aboriginal children.

Politicians also determined that a transcontinental railroad would help to bring settlers to the west, and to fortify the western and southern boundaries of the Dominion. However, the Homestead Act required that title to the land needed to be secured before the building could start, which set in motion a treaty-making process with western Aboriginal leaders. The project of settling the prairies began in earnest.


As railway lines and settlers began the slow-but-steady incursion westward, they displaced and destroyed the vast buffalo herds that sustained many tribal groups. This signaled an end to traditional lifestyles, and Western Aboriginal leaders realized that the survival of their people would, in part, depend on the acquisition of new skills. Specialized education and training now became a critical issue in treaty negotiations. Large tracts of ancestral lands were subsequently ceded to the Dominion government in exchange for the promise of a good education for Aboriginal children, among other stipulations.

As treaties were signed, Aboriginal people found themselves forced to move to reserve lands. Momentum began to build for an education program that would fulfill treaty obligations, and at the same time, work to civilize, Christianize, and assimilate Aboriginal children into the Canadian mainstream. Politicians and educators continued to debate how this could best be accomplished.

Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald wondered if the American policy of “aggressive civilization” might prove helpful and, in 1879, he sent Nicholas Flood Davin to meet with officials from the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs, and Native American leaders from Oklahoma. Davin submitted his findings in the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-breeds, also known as the Davin Report, which included a number of recommendations on how the American policy on Aboriginal education could be emulated in Canada. Davin had also been persuaded by the American government’s argument that “the day-school did not work, because the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school,” even though day schools had been operating in Canada since the 1840s.

By the time the Davin Report was released, the idea of separating children from their parents as an effective education – and assimilation – strategy had already taken root. The visually persuasive example of what could be achieved through a “boarding school” model like the Carlisle Industrial Boarding School in Pennsylvania generated fervour to implement a boarding school system in Canada.

By the year 1880, eleven schools were operating in the Dominion of Canada.

“I am confident that the Industrial School now about to be established will be a principal feature in the civilization of the Indian mind. The utility of Industrial Schools has long been acknowledged by our neighbours across the line [in the United States], who have had much to do with the Indian.

In that country, as in this, it is found difficult to make day schools on reserves a success, because the influence of home associations is stronger than that of the schools, and so long as such a state of things exists I fear that the inherited aversion to labour can never be successfully met. By the children being separated from their parents and properly and regularly instructed not only in the rudiments of the English language, but also in trades and agriculture, so that what is taught may not be readily forgotten, I can but assure myself that a great end will be attained for the permanent and lasting benefit of the Indian.” Dominion of Canada. Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the year ended 31st December 1883. p. 104.

“I feel certain that this school will be a great success, and that it will be a chief means of civilizing the Indian; but to obtain this result, accommodation must be made to take in more pupils, as now we can only take in but one out of each reserve. A school for Indian girls would be of great importance, and I may say, would be absolutely necessary to effect the civilization of the next generation of Indians[;] if the women were educated it would almost be a guarantee that their children would be educated also and brought up Christians, with no danger of their following the awful existence that many of them ignorantly live now. It will be nearly futile to educate the boys and leave the girls uneducated.”

Dominion of Canada. Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the Year Ended 31st December, 1885. p. 138. J. Hugonnard, Principal Qu’Appelle Industrial School.

Lessons, however, did not just revolve around farming and housekeeping. In fact, some proved to be quite political. As part of their education at the Regina Industrial School, for example, Aboriginal students were taken to see the execution of Louis Riel. That day, children learned that the people who voiced support for Aboriginal rights put themselves in grave danger. The children would have to find acceptable heroes and role models from white culture.

“The girls are being taught housework, sewing, knitting, and some of them are especially clever at fancy work. The Rev. Father would like a building put up expressly for girls, and also that he be permitted to take in a few white boys. The introduction of the latter has been allowed by the Department; and the erection of a building for girls, is under consideration. I noticed that when the Indian boys were playing, they generally spoke in the Cree language; and, no doubt, the introduction of some white boys, say one to every ten, would help greatly to make them speak in English, and thus become familiar with the language. With reference to the school for girls, I think this a necessity. The success with the few girls already under instruction is a guarantee of the success of the undertaking; and it is plain that to educate boys only, they would soon go back to old habits, if the girls are not taught to co-operate in house work. I do not think it possible that the girls I saw at the school, with their neat dresses, and tidy way of doing house work, could ever go back to the old habits of the Indian. These will be the future mothers; and it is most important to have them properly trained and educated.” Dominion of Canada. Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the year ended 31st December, 1886. P. 146. Alex McGibbon, Inspector of Indian Agencies and Reserves.

“This branch of the Indian service has ever been recognized as one of the most, if not perhaps the most, important feature of the extensive system which is operating towards the civilization of our native races, having its beginning in small things—the first step being the establishment of reserve day-schools of limited scope and influence, the first forward step was the founding of boarding-schools both on and off the reserves. The beneficent effect of these becoming at once apparent, an impetus was thus given to the movement in the direction of industrial training, which was at once entered upon the establishment of our earlier industrial institutions … until today the Dominion has had at its command a system which provides for its Indian wards a practical course of industrial training, fitting for useful citizenship the youth of a people who one generation past were practically unrestrained savages.” Dominion of Canada. Annual Report for the Department f Indian Affairs for the year ended 31st December 1896. p. 291. A.E. Forget, Indian Commissioner.
In the second photograph, Moore looks slightly older. He now wears a military style uniform, and has short hair. To the right of him is a potted plant, and to his left we can see his cap resting on an ornate railing. Once again, he looks directly into the camera, although this time he appears much more confident.
A side-by-side comparison of the two photographs reveals a similar pose: in each portrait, Moore’s left arm and hand forms the same shape. However, in the first photo, one hand touches his braid, while the other hand touches the pistol; in the second, Moore leans against a railing, which allows him to place his right arm on his hip while his left hand hangs relaxed, and empty. The two photographs offer two different readings of the Aboriginal body: the first represents an uncivilized and potentially dangerous Indian. The second represents a civilized, unarmed, and therefore unthreatening Indian. In fact, “Scott admitted frankly that the provision of education to Indian Communities was indispensable, for without it and “with neglect” they “would produce an undesirable and often dangerous element in society.” (Dominion of Canada Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the year ended March 31 1910. p. 273)
Official opinions about Aboriginal education, the Davin Report, and the Carlisle boarding school model, all helped to convince many Canadians about the kind of Industrial School System they were willing to support. In this environment, the Regina Industrial School first made its appearance, and Thomas Moore was promoted as its model student.
In the first of the two photographs, Moore wears tribal style clothing: cloth leggings, a shirt decorated with metal tacks, a long necklace, a breechcloth with a beaded floral design, and moccasins. His long hair is wrapped in fur and hangs down over his chest, and he holds a pistol in his right hand. Moore looks directly into the camera with a blank expression on his face, and the diffused lighting in the background provides no hint of time or place.
Despite an aggressive campaign to increase the number of students, the government was determined to keep the operating costs of the schools at a minimum. The lack of sufficient funds resulted in poorly constructed buildings, insufficient food and clothing for the students, and inadequate programming.
The Regina Industrial School was supposed to create an environment where Indian children would be “civilized,” and where they would learn the language and the skills necessary to enter the Canadian workforce as tradespeople. Did it succeed? That depended on who you asked. Some people celebrated the school as “one of the most successful in the Canadian west.” Others, however, felt that maybe it was a little too successful.* Debates soon raged in the House of Commons, as the opposition criticized government spending on industrial schools. The Minister of the Department of Indian Affairs attempted to defend the government’s position, arguing that “It has never been the policy of the Department for the design of industrial schools to turn Indian pupils out to compete with whites.” However, continued political pressure eventually brought about a change to the schools’ original design: Industrial schools would now focus exclusively on agriculture. Aboriginal boys would become “handy all round farmers,” and Aboriginal girls would learn the skills to become “excellent housekeepers.” (Memo, Indian Affairs, 1904).
Before long, the government began to hear many serious and legitimate complaints from parents and native leaders: The teachers were under-qualified, with an emphasis on religious zeal. Religious instruction was divisive. And there were allegations of physical and sexual abuse. These concerns, however, were of no legal consequence. Under the Indian Act, all Aboriginal people were by legal definition wards of the state. School administrators were assigned guardianship, which meant they received full parental rights. The complaints continued. School administrators, teachers, Indian agents, and even some government bureaucrats started to express their concerns. All of them called for major reforms to the system.
For the most part, government and church officials managed to ignore these opposing voices. However, the health reports from the schools could not be as easily dismissed. The ongoing outbreaks of tuberculosis at the schools were taking a toll on the students’ lives. This disease spread quickly through the poorly ventilated and overcrowded school dormitories, and the malnourished and physically weakened Aboriginal students easily succumbed to the infection. Thousands of residential school children died from tuberculosis and from the many other ailments they contracted at the schools.
Unfortunately, many children would die before the government finally intervened in 1907 by sending Dr. Peter Bryce to assess the health situation at the schools. Dr. Bryce was the Medical Inspector for the Department of Indian Affairs, and he did not attempt to disguise the horror of what he found. In his official report, Bryce called the tuberculosis epidemic a “’national crime’ … [and] the consequence of inadequate government funding, poorly constructed schools, sanitary and ventilation problems, inadequate diet, clothing and medical care.” (A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986, p. 75.) He calculated mortality rates among school age children as ranging from 35% and 60%.
Not everyone welcomed Dr. Bryce’s report, or indeed, the similar such findings* of others. His requests for additional funds to address some of the basic health concerns were denied. Parts of his incriminating report were suppressed by Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who then also terminated the position of Medical Inspector. Clearly, the health of Aboriginal school children was not going to be made a priority.
Instead, Duncan Campbell Scott turned his attention to negotiating a joint agreement between the federal government and the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. This agreement established the structure and mandate for what would now be termed “Indian Residential Schools,” and the contractual obligations of the churches responsible for running them. The new “residential” schools would focus on primary education in an effort to forcefully civilize and Christianize Indian children. Although the change in name may have made for good public relations, the abusive treatment of Aboriginal children continued, and the epidemics that were killing them did not subside. Duncan Campbell Scott was determined to find a “final solution to the Indian Problem.” He explained: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department”
In 1922, after he was forced to retire from federal service, Bryce published his report in its entirety, under the title: The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921.
Métis children, initially turned away by the Canadian government, were later encouraged to fill school spaces left by Indian children. Métis students encountered racism from all sides: they were often outsiders within the student body, and were also treated as second-class citizens when they were made to work longer and harder to “earn” their education. They were not wanted in white schools, but neither would the Department of Indian Affairs recognize them as Indians. With limited options, Métis parents often had to pay for children’s education, and would place them at any school that would take them.
The journey to residential schools was often a long one, particularly for Aboriginal children who came from communities that were thousands of miles away. Some could walk to the schools, but many others arrived by wagon, train, boat, or, in later years, by bus. When they remember that long journey, many Survivors recall feeling like they were walking into a prison. When they entered the schools, they were robbed of their identities: their hair was cut and de-loused, they were stripped of their garments and possessions and clothed in uniforms, and they were called by “Christian” names or by numbers instead of their own names. For the few students who had been prepared by their parents, the schools may have initially appeared less ominous, but for those who were taken to the schools by force, the experience was all the more traumatic.
When ten-year-old Shirley Pheasant (Williams) entered the St. Joseph’s Boarding School at Spanish, Ontario, in 1949, she could only speak her Native language, Ojibwe. Shirley remembers what it was like when she first arrived:
“When I saw [St. Joseph’s] it was grey. A brick building when it rains is dark and grey, you know. It’s an ugly day but the feeling was … of ugliness. [T]he gate opened and the bus went in, and I think when the gate closed … something happened to me, something locked, it is like my heart locked, because it could hear that…[the clink of gates]
…the bus stopped and then the sister or the nun … she came in and she sounded very very cross, and I could just imagine what she was trying to say, because this is what my sisters told me, what she would probably say, so I had in my mind what she was trying to tell us, that we get off the bus [and] we go two by two … up the stairs … the stairs were, well it was four stories and no elevator and we had to walk up the stairs with our suitcases.
…[at the] top of the stairs . . . you were asked your name … and this [is] another thing my mother prepared me for … so I was very proud to say yes that my name was Shirley Pheasant and then they gave you a number and so you went down and they give you another bundle with your chemise … your bloomers and your stocking[s] and you went to the next person … the last one you saw [was] the nun who looked into your hair to look for bugs.”
The type of school that Aboriginal children attended depended on the time and place in which they lived. Prior to the “residential” school system, industrial schools existed both on and off-reserve, and were, for the most part, attended by children in residence. Few first-hand accounts from Survivors of this period exist, but evidence suggests that some Survivors had a positive school experience, and afterwards led successful lives in their trades. These schools emphasized religious instruction, and taught farming and skilled trades, so that their “graduates” could be productive in mainstream Canadian society to the extent possible, given the racism of the day.
Students initially learned carpentry, blacksmithing, printing, animal husbandry, and other trades. However, instruction eventually degenerated to ensure that Native people, no longer competitive in these trades, would remain in the lowest socio-economic class of farmhands (instead of farmers), general labourers (instead of skilled tradespeople), and, for young women, domestic workers. The Industrial School Era came with a high cost to Survivors: the surrender of cultural identity, and later, off-reserve, the loss of Indian status. Decades later, a modified school system was established. These schools were situated off-reserve, where children lived for the school year or in some cases all year-round. Yet this was not an improvement over the Industrial School model, and the early years of the Residential School Era were plagued by abuse and neglect.
Once again, underfunding was the source of many problems in the schools. The government had devised a per capita funding formula in 1892 to try and control operating costs: payments were based on the needs of each individual school. But the rapid development of new schools, combined with competition between church groups for funding, soon made it impossible for the formula to work properly. School administrators competed for more students, regardless of the poor condition of the school buildings. As the funding continued to dwindle, everyone within the schools suffered. It became difficult for the schools to hire qualified teachers. The appalling poverty of the schools also produced impossible working conditions. Staff worked long hours for meager wages in unsanitary and overcrowded environments. Many of them took out their frustrations on the children.
The children themselves were extremely vulnerable. Physically and psychologically compromised by the inadequate food, clothing, and shelter provided by the schools, students were susceptible to the constant outbreaks of influenza and tuberculosis. They were also subjected to corporal punishment that was sometimes so severe that they found themselves hospitalized. In addition, many children were sexually abused. Indeed, the lack of oversight combined with the low level of qualifications required to work at the schools, often attracting persons unsuited to work with children and, sadly, sexual predators.
Aboriginal children separated from parents, grandparents, and extended family – including siblings, who may have been at the same school – suffered from feelings of acute loneliness, spiritual emptiness, and a sense of abandonment by their families, a situation made worse as they struggled with the need to learn a new language, and the stress of living in an unsafe environment. The effects of abuse were profound. Some children died from severe beatings. Out of despair, others took their own lives. Still others died without ever seeing their parents again. Such were the “good living conditions” that officials claimed existed at the schools.
This was the environment that became home for generations of Aboriginal children. Many would arrive as young as four or five years old, and there they would remain for years, sometimes never returning* to their families and communities for visits or vacations. Children weighed the risk of running away against the cost of staying at the schools. Many decided the risk was worth it. While some were successful, they were usually caught by the police and returned to the schools. Others died in the attempt.
Elsie Paul, Survivor Sechelt Residential School, British Colombia
“[I remember] kids never having enough to eat. I think back on those days and I wonder was it during the Depression. Was that why there was so little food? Was it because food was rationed at that time? I guess in my own mind I’m trying to justify or make excuses why we didn’t have enough food. There was plenty of food on the table of the people who looked after us. There was butter on that table. We had fat on our bread. That’s what they put on our bread, one slice of bread per meal. The spread that was on there was beef fat or pork fat. When you do your duty and go to clean up the table of the caregivers and you see a beautiful setting there and they have a good choice of food — . . . Mostly [at home] we lived on game, deer meat, and a lot of seafood prepared traditionally. That was all I knew, my grandmother’s cooking. We had fried bread or oven bread, jam or dried fruits, dried meat, dried fish and clams. Those were all the foods I was familiar with. And to get [to school] and to have a dish of some sort of stew put in front of me that I was not familiar with at all — It must have been pork stew. I remember the rind being in the stew with the hair on it, with fur on it, and the child next to me was saying that you have to eat that food or else you’re going to be punished if you don’t. I think I blanked it out. I don’t know if I ate it.”

Beverly Albrecht, Survivor Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario
I was 7. I was the oldest. My brother was 6. My other sister was 5. The other brother was 4, and my younger sister was 3 … The only time I remember talking to my brothers is Sunday. We have a Sunday dinner. That’s the only time I remember talking to them. The boys sat on one side and the girls on the other.
… Because they didn’t want us to get along with the other girls, they would have boxing matches to make us fight just so that we wouldn’t like the other girls, and also, too, because they thought they had so many rules, they thought if we fight with each other we’ll end up taking our anger, or whatever we have, out on the other girls.
… I remember fighting with my sister. She’s 2 years younger than me, but we never beat each other. We just did it. … You don’t do it just because you want to. They did it because they wanted us to be angry and to beat up on somebody younger.
My healing? I do journaling for myself, like I said, with my women’s circle, we make crafts such as moccasins, dream catchers, and sometimes we quilt and things like that.”
In the north, many of the residential schools or missions were considered “day” schools, although the majority of their students came from remote communities and were boarded at hostels next to the schools. The curriculum of Day Schools was adapted from the curriculum of southern schools in order to reflect the realities of life in the north. However, the effects of isolation, divisive religious teachings, and abuse were ever-present.
Abraham Ruban, Grolier Hall, Inuvik
“That first night at the Residential School I had nightmares. In the nightmares I saw the face of this Nun and I had nightmares all through the night. I woke up in the morning and I had wet my bed from just being disoriented, scared, and all the other elements. She came out and all the other kids had already gone out and gotten dressed. She came out and saw me still sleeping and realized I had wet my bed. She dragged me out and laid her first beating on me. My parents had brought me up basically to not take [abuse] from anyone. I started fighting back. She first started with slapping me in the face and dragging me out of bed and calling me a “espèce de cochon” which means dirty old pig. And she had never seen such a low life. So this was my first introduction to this woman. I fought back and the harder I fought the harder she hit. Then she started using her fists on me so I just backed off and we called it even.
That was the first of many. I realized then that this would be stock and trade for the next few years. I could see well into the future what my relationship with her would be like. And it didn’t stop. I would get the [living daylights] kicked out of me and I would just fight back.
What was being taught in the classroom? As late as 1950, according to an Indian Affairs study, over 40 per cent of the teaching staff had no professional training. Until the early 1950s, students in residential schools spent, at best, half of their school day on academic subjects and the remainder doing manual work and receiving religious instruction (Persson, 1986). In theory, academic instruction was available to the grade 9 level, but very few students ever went that far. Instead, they received vocational training, which centred on animal husbandry, homemaking, or common labour. Since many schools were chronically underfunded, however, many students soon found themselves applying these skills in ways that effectively subsidized the schools. For example, students might grow and sell produce at local markets. Or boys would be hired out as labourers under the guise of “outing” or “apprenticeship” programs, while female students were put to work in private homes.
“In school we learned many different subjects such as English, science, math, writing, geography, history and home economics. The home economics consisted of knitting, cooking and sewing. […] Every month we were assigned to new jobs. We called them ‘jobs’ and every month we changed jobs within the school. We had ‘vocational jobs’, such as sweeping the floors in the dorms, recreation, and refectory. Halls, stairs and the Sister’s dining room areas were also part of our ‘jobs’, which also include cleaning the washrooms. The heaviest jobs were the laundry, dairy and kitchen. Many times in the afternoon we would be taken out of class to go and work.”
It is a misconception that Aboriginal children arrived at the residential schools uneducated. They had received a previous education from their parents and Elders that enabled them to thrive in Aboriginal cultures. Traditionally, Aboriginal children begin their education at birth, when they learn how to be members of their communities. Traditions and ceremonies play a significant role in helping them develop the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of their identities. Contrary to the European model of corporal punishment, native education favours guidance and mentoring, an approach that respects the integrity and sanctity of the child. The three Ls of Looking, Listening, and Learning also emphasize experiential learning, and storytelling conveys cautionary messages meant to regulate bad behaviour. Aboriginal children would have felt violated by the harsh methods and rigid structure of the residential schools.
All residential school children shared one thing in common: the great loneliness they endured. Physically isolated from their homes, the children became additionally isolated from one another when siblings and relatives were separated by gender. They also became distanced from their cultures when they were forbidden to speak their own languages. The children missed their families, and being part of supportive communities. Thousands of Aboriginal children died while in the care of the schools from malnourishment, disease, overexposure to extreme weather, physical abuse, and suicide.
Before long, Aboriginal communities began to experience the full effect of the dysfunction, and indeed devastation, caused by the residential school system. Generations of Survivors have been raised, from as young as four or five years old, in a “family” made up of government and church officials, and school staff. Far short of parental role models, teachers and school administrators used harsh disciplinary methods, and neither encouraged nor showed affection. The residential school system deprived Aboriginal children of their traditions, and of a safe and supportive home in which they were cherished. It produced generations of people who lacked essential interpersonal and relationship skills.
Many Survivors were not equipped with the skills to become loving partners and parents, and had difficulty expressing parental love; many did not know how to handle conflict in a constructive way. When these Survivors became spouses or parents, they did not always interact with others appropriately. The abuse and neglect that Survivors suffered at the schools often resurfaced in their own relationships, where the abused became the abuser. This perpetuated a cycle of violence within families, and produced generations of “broken children,” many of whom also went on to attend residential schools. As parents struggled with the trauma of their own residential school experiences, they remained powerless to prevent the same from being visited upon their own children when it was their time to attend residential school.
Grant Severight, Survivor St. Philip’s Indian Residential School, Kamsack, Saskatchewan
“I was raised by my grandparents, [and] I loved my grandparents. I would have stayed in the bush with them rather than being put in a Residential School. I remember missing them and the dislocation I felt, the disconnection I felt to my family. Eventually that whole dislocation and disconnection kind of built walls in me that took me years to deconstruct again. The feeling of inferiority I felt —
All over the Reserve we were happy there but when we would go outside the perimeter we would see these White farmers who were flourishing and just wealthy. Somehow even as a young man I used to wonder why is that? Why is it we don’t have anything and why did I feel different when I went to town with my grandparents? We weren’t treated with any kind of dignity. We were more or less just tolerated by the merchants in town.
That had a lasting impression on me, that feeling of not being equal. I probably carried that into all of my other relationships later on. Somehow it fired within my spirit anger. I really felt unfair treatment. But at that time I really had nothing to compare that with. I just thought that was the way it was for us people.
We don’t have the closeness of family any more. A lot of the grandparents and a lot of the parents who went to Residential School lost that familial sense of belonging. In the course of having grown up like that you always try to emulate the people that raised you. If you were raised in coldness and detachment, you’re going to carry those same ways of raising your own children in that atmosphere.
I know men who really believe that they should break the spirit of their children, to discipline them and to control them. I remember them saying, “break their spirit, break their spirit, don’t give in to them.” That’s exactly what happened to them. The whole consequence of that is men don’t know how to feel, or they don’t know how to show their feelings. There is no nurturing any more.”
By the 1950s, it became obvious that the residential school program had failed to reach its goals: Aboriginal peoples had not been assimilated into the Canadian mainstream, and graduates were not succeeding in their vocations. The situation could no longer be ignored. A policy of integration was now proposed as the best way to proceed, and as the residential school curriculum was reformed to meet national standards, the schools were slowly replaced by day schools. These schools were deemed “the best hope of giving the Indians [and other Aboriginal Peoples] an equal chance with other Canadian citizens to improve their lot and to become fully self-respecting.” The churches, reluctant to relinquish the residential school program, shifted their focus to the care of orphans and children at risk of abuse and neglect.
During the 1960s and 1970s, parents and Aboriginal groups continued to speak out against the residential school system. However, as the church-run schools closed, the provincial and federal child welfare programs expanded. Yet many of these programs only divided Aboriginal communities even further. One such program, for example, known as the “60’s scoop,” attempted to address the lack of Aboriginal parental skills by forcibly removing thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents, instead of helping the parents learn better parenting skills. Instead, the children were made wards of a poorly monitored child welfare system, and most of them were placed into non-Aboriginal foster homes.
Gradually, the remaining residential schools closed down or were transferred to the control of Indian bands during the last decades of the twentieth century. The last band-run Indian residential school, Gordon Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.
As the civil rights movement swept through North America in the 1960s, organizations seeking to empower Aboriginal Peoples emerged. The American Indian Movement in the U.S and National Indian Brotherhood in Canada agitated for social change and, along with other developments, signaled the beginning of what is often referred to as the healing movement. Amendments to the Indian Act removed prohibitions that had forced traditional ceremonies underground. And, with the guidance of Elders, Aboriginal teachings and cultural practices reemerged in communities where these were lost or difficult to practice. Many Aboriginal people sought out knowledge holders in other communities near and far to revive traditional spirituality, and to re-introduce healing.
As these community-based healing efforts began to grow, personal growth programs also began to gain popularity. Alcoholics Anonymous made an important contribution to the healing movement by providing a structured path for individual healing. Later in the early 1970s, federally funded programs that addressed Aboriginal addiction, like the National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP), began working with Native communities. A grass root initiative, “The Four Worlds Elders Conference” of December 1982, brought together forty different tribal groups to discuss strategies to address Aboriginal addictions. And treatment centres, like the Round Lake Treatment Centre (Vernon, BC), incorporated Aboriginal concepts of healing in their addictions program. These and other initiatives brought a greater acceptance and sensitivity to the unique healing needs of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
Later in that decade, mainstream perspectives on healthcare began to change, and this led to a movement that centred on health promotion and healthy communities. The Declaration of Alma-Ata in 1978 by the World Health Organization defined health as “not only the absence of disease” but also as control over those things which led to health, a view in harmony with traditional Aboriginal concepts of healing. Holistic approaches to health, which emphasize healthy lifestyles, relationships, and communities, together with personal growth programs and traditional spirituality and healing practices have all contributed to the efforts to heal the intergenerational impacts of Residential Schools.
Percy Ballantyne, Survivor Birtle Indian Residential School
Culturally speaking, [First Nations] are a very kind People. I want people to understand that, to know that, who we really are, you know, not the way they perceive us to be. Because for too long we’ve been told what to do, how to act, when to say things, when to speak up, who you should be, you know. The time is here now to tell the truth, to really tell the truth and to tell society who we really are.
… We’re the People from the north in the medicine wheel. We sit in the north. That’s who we are. That’s the real identity part of us (speaking Native language). That’s who we are.
. . . Just keep on walking in life, like I was conditioned already with love, with care, with wise teachings from my Elders in the community. Those are the ones that really carried me through in life to be able to make the right choices in life, the right decisions.
. . . This is not our society. This is White society. This is not First Nations society. This is not our life. . . . Gang life is not our life. Wife-beating is not our life. All kinds of things that are happening, that’s not us. That’s not our life . . . So I find different ways I can work and heal, work with other people.”
Escalating social problems in Aboriginal communities, and conflict between Aboriginal groups and the federal government in the mid 1990s brought greater attention and focus to the destructive legacy of the Residential School Experience. Aboriginal leaders also helped to begin a dialogue between Survivors, the federal government, and everyday Canadians. In 1991, for example, National Chief Phil Fontaine disclosed to the public the abuses he endured while attending Residential School. In this climate of disclosure and dialogue, theRoyal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was created.
The Aboriginal children who attended and lived through the residential school system are now known as Survivors, a term that tragically acknowledges the many children who did not survive the school experience. Approximately 80,000 Survivors are still alive today. Abused children are often unable to express their feelings about the abuse because they may internalize their anger, fear, grief, and guilt.
These unresolved feelings can cause emotional trauma and lead to re-enactment or destructive behaviours, like substance abuse or addiction, self-sabotage, self-harm or harm to others, dissociation (the inability to feel), and risk-taking. Survivors may also struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which forces them to re-live the fear, helplessness, or horror of traumatic events that they either experienced or witnessed. In PTSD, sleep disturbance, hallucinations, or flashbacks are triggered by anything associated with the traumatic events (like a sight, sound, smell, or taste) and, as sufferers, re-live these events. They may also struggle with avoidance, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
“Intergenerational Survivor” refers to any individual who has been affected by the intergenerational dysfunction created by the experience of attending residential school; this includes those who have been abused by persons who are Survivors or victims of survivors and, more generally, those who inhabit dysfunctional communities whose roots lie in the fracturing of family and community wrought by the generations of children who were separated from their families. In the early 1990s, an estimated 287,350 intergenerational survivors were living across Canada, both on- and off-reserves.
Intergenerational Survivors have been indirectly affected by the residential schools because they were raised by people who had been so badly abused – physically and emotionally – and these people were, at times, unable to parent their own children. In fact, the lack of parenting skills is one of the most profound outcomes of the residential school system. It is perhaps one of the most inevitable outcomes, too, because of the extremely negative social conditioning of residential school students.
In response to RCAP’s five-volume report that revealed an overwhelming link between the social crisis in Aboriginal communities and the Residential School System, the government developed an “Agenda for Action with First Nations.” This agenda led to the creation of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) as a means to fund community-based healing initiatives over a 10-year period. In turn, the AHF created the Legacy of Hope Foundation (LHF) in 2000. The mandate of the Legacy of Hope Foundation is to educate and raise awareness and understanding of the legacy of residential schools, including the effects and intergenerational impacts on First Nation, Inuit and Metis people, and to support the ongoing healing process of Residential School Survivors. Fulfilling this mandate helps to support reconciliation between generations of Aboriginal peoples, and between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.
“Intergenerational Impacts”* refer to “the effects of physical and sexual abuse that were passed on to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Aboriginal people who attended the residential school system.”
For the past five hundred years, Aboriginal peoples have suffered historic trauma. Today, Aboriginal people are beginning to understand that many of their current social problems are deeply rooted in the trauma caused by the residential school experience. This unresolved historic trauma will continue to affect Aboriginal individuals and communities until it is fully addressed, psychologically, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Basil Ambers, Survivor St. Michaels School:
Alert Bay“I was [at the school] nine years apparently. I didn’t know. We didn’t know how long we were there. Nobody cared. We didn’t care about education. That wasn’t the point. Survival was the thing that we cared about and survival was the only thing that motivated us, all my friends. There’s only a little handful of us left. That’s all. Dozens committed suicide, drowned or drank themselves to death. Some went under with drugs.
…but you’ve got to heal. That’s number one. You’ve got to heal. And you’ve got to look at yourself. You’ve got to come to the conclusion that you’re not a bad guy or you’re not a bad woman . . . We need to get back to the roots of a lot of things.
One of the things I tried to promote in one of our [healing] meetings … was to get back the feeling of respect for our women that we were losing. We no longer respected our women. Quite often we mistreated them badly. We never got to that because of the hurt that people had.
. . .it bothers me when people come up to me and say, “You’ve got to learn how to live, man, you’ve got to learn to accept these things. It’s happened. It’s gone.” It hasn’t gone. The Residential Schools thing is the biggest factor that has shaken the Indian people down to their roots and it’s the thing that has changed our total look on history.”
As Survivors and advocate groups pressured the government to address Survivors’ concerns, a substantial number of class action lawsuits were initiated. After negotiation with key Aboriginal groups and representatives, the Government of Canada implemented the “Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement” in 2007. The agreement provided for restitution and redress through a number of financial initiatives and programs. Processes for the resolution of claims and for the reimbursement of legal expenses were established, and funds were allotted for healing and commemoration initiatives like those conducted on the “National Day of Reconciliation.” A Funding Allowance also endowed the Aboriginal Healing Foundation with $125 million for a five-year period. Programs included a “Common Experience Payment” program, a Commemoration Program, and an Advocacy and Public Information program. In addition, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) was created.
The silence has been broken, and now it is time to speak. It is time to share. Others have found solace in sharing their stories, while others are still waiting for their voices to be heard. The TRC events, statement-taking, commemoration, and historical initiatives at national archives and research centres all represent Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal means of sharing these voices and stories to all Canadians. These are the stories of those who survived the Residential School Experience, and they are an important part of the collective history of all Canadians.
Viola Papequash, Survivor Gordon’s Residential School, Punnichy, Saskatchewan
“I say the prayers with [youth] and I talk about Residential Schools with them. I don’t talk about all my experiences, but I do say that I have been to Residential School so maybe youth will understand. They are struggling with a lot of issues, the youth are, and one is identity and self-esteem and being proud of who they are. It hasn’t been passed on from their parents because of Residential School.
So I see the younger generation struggling with that, not knowing who they are and not knowing how to be in the world, you know. . . . That’s our belief as First Nations that we don’t just think about ourselves. We have to think of the next generation and the ones yet to come. I’ll end with that. We have to think about the ones yet to come. They’re not here yet, but we have to prepare for them. And preparing means we’ve got to put down that hurt and that pain we carry now. We can’t let that be our life.”
For some Survivors, the various statements of regret, condolence, sorrow and/or apology offered by the churches and governments for their involvement in the residential school system brought closure. Anglican Church Apology Presbyterian Church Apology RCMP Apology United Church Apology