Today, the Canadian government prides itself on its policies that promote inclusivity, multiculturalism, and diversity. However, the 18th-20th centuries suggest that the same government has displayed xenophobic and racist attitudes towards certain groups they deemed to be inferior to their own. As a part of the colonization process, the European-Canadian government-sponsored religious schools that had the objective of assimilating Indigenous children into the dominant society. Beginning in 1831, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their culture, families, and communities and placed in over 130 residential schools for varying periods until 1996.
As the European authorities considered Indigenous children to be the prime subjects of civilization with the potential to be good Christian wives, mothers, economic contributors, and frontier workers, it was also believed that they were subservient and exploitable for the developing nation’s social, economic, and political interests. The British North America Act established the distribution of responsibilities for each level of government in the Dominion of Canada. Under Section 91, the act placed “all responsibility for Indians and lands reserved for Indians” to the federal government. By 1876,amendments made to the Indian Act meant that the newly formed Canadian Government assumed all responsibility of Indigenous identity, political structures, governance, cultural practices, and education. Although the first residential school was established in 1831, the Canadian government put significant effort into enrolling Indigenous students into the residential school system by the 1880s. By 1920, all Indigenous parents were required to send their children to residential or industrial schools.
It is important to note that the purpose of residential schools, as said by the Superintendent of Indian Education, Duncan Campbell Scott, was to “absorb Indians into the body of Canada.” While individual experiences and historical resources reveal that the operation of residential schools varied throughout the nation, many residential school survivors and their parents have recounted the traumatic experiences associated with the residential school system. As school operations were run primarily by missionaries, the government did not play much of a role in the process of assimilation. Immediately upon arrival at residential school, children were stripped characteristics that made them visibly different from the dominant Canadian culture. Most significantly, hair was cut, and clothing was replaced. Also, as the federal government had no clear policy on disciplinary measures in residential schools, many children strapped, humiliated, beat, sexually assaulted, and were locked up. For many children, fear dominated their psyches at school and had detrimental impacts on overall behavioural and social development. Additionally, the location and poor physical structure of residential schools themselves meant that students were in many cases malnourished and susceptible to harmful diseases.
Language instruction(English or French) was the main tool of assimilation. Several accounts reveal that students were punished severely for speaking their original languages. Moreover,many children eventually lost their native languages, which meant that once they returned home, they felt isolated and alienated from their families and cultures. Further, many teachers were under qualified, meaning that many children did not receive an equal education compared to non-Indigenous students that went to provincial schools. Today, many historians of the subject argue that the inadequate education programs in residential schools were strategically developed to educate Indigenous to be in equal and underqualified so that they could not hold leadership or political positions later in life.
By the middle of the 20th century, major social and political shifts revealed that Canadians, both the general public and the government, no longer prioritized the assimilation of Indigenous peoples to the degree that it had during the Confederation era. Significant efforts were made to change the residential school system. In the early 1970s, there was a movement which was dedicated to achieving local control of school facilities. This inspired the National Indian Brotherhood policy’s statement, Indian Control of Indian Education. The statement outlined provisions and addressed the concerns of Aboriginal parents who wanted their children to succeed academically but also adhere to their own cultures, values, and traditions.
As the last residential school closed in 1996, the experiences of survivors and their families reveal that many people continue to be haunted by the residential school system. Learning about historical atrocities that occurred throughout the nation’s history is important as we navigate ourselves through the 21st century. From 2008-2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established to ensure that the legacy of residential schools is not forgotten.Since then, numerous reports, exhibitions, educational resources, and testimony accounts have been collected and developed which are made available and accessible for all people to learn more.