The residential school system was a powerful mechanism of colonization in Canada implemented from 1874 to 1996 as part of a national assimilation strategy by the federal government in partnership with various religious denominations which included the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United churches. It is estimated that over 150,000 Indigenous children, between the ages of 4 and 16 years old, were forcibly removed from their families and placed in residential schools where every aspect of the children’s lives was regulated. While some children lived at the residential school year-round, some attended residential schools for the duration of a 10-month academic year. The students’ time was divided between academic learning, religious prayer, and chores. They were forced to abandon their culture, language, and way of life, and were ordered to adopt the European languages of English or French.
Without the influence of their parents and Elders, children in residential schools were stripped of their Indigenous identity and torn from the traditions of their families. The widespread cases of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and deaths in residential schools only compounded the trauma of the survivors. Many died while trying to escape to return home, or from severe illness. Some residential schools had a death rate as high as 50%.
Residential Schools Timeline
The first residential school, Mohawk Indian Residential School, opens in Brantford, Ontario.
Dr. Adolphus Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister and educational reformer, commissioned by Assistant Superintendent General of Indian Affairs to study Native education, proposes a model on which the Indian Residential School system was built.
The Indian Act is enacted to control and assimilate Indigenous peoples and their communities.
Sir John A. Macdonald authorizes the creation of residential schools in the Canadian West. Sir Hector Langevin, Secretary of State for the Provinces tells Parliament: “In order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say this is hard, but if we want to civilize them we must do that.”
Attendance in residential schools becomes mandatory for status Indians until they turn 16. Children are forcibly removed and separated from their families and are not allowed to practice their culture or speak their own language.
Through an amendment to the Indian Act, Indigenous peoples are prohibited from conducting their traditional Indian ceremonies such as the potlatch. A pass system is also created and Indigenous peoples are restricted from leaving their reserve without permission.
Medical Inspector for Indian Affairs, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, reports that health conditions in residential schools are a “national crime.”
Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, makes residential school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of 7 and 15. Duncan Campbell Scott has been quoted on the record saying, “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 objective 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.”
Mandatory attendance is removed from the Indian Act.
Indian Affairs regional inspectors recommend the abolition of residential schools.
The federal government takes over sole management of residential schools from the churches.
Residential school survivors began launching legal campaigns.
The United Church, the Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church all issue formal apologies for their participation in the residential school system.
The Final Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples is released. It calls for a public investigation into the widespread abuses at residential schools. The last residential school, located in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.
The federal government issues a Statement of Reconciliation, acknowledging the abuses suffered by students. With a $350 million endowment, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was established.
The alternative dispute process is launched, providing an out-of-court process for determining compensation and support for survivors.
Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, negotiated and approved by parties, and courts in nine jurisdictions, is implemented. The Settlement Agreement includes five main components: (1) Common Experience Payment (CEP) to be paid to all former students who attended a recognized residential school; (2) Independent Assessment Process (IAP) which is an out-of-court process to resolve claims of sexual assault, physical assaults, serious psychological abuse, and any other wrongful acts; (3) Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which established to contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation; (4) Commemoration Activities; and (5) the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to provide health and health services.
Pope Benedict expresses “sorrow” and “sympathy and prayerful solidarity” for the abuse that students endured at Catholic-run residential schools, but does not apologize to the delegation from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins to hosts events across the country to listen to survivors who want to share their stories.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission releases its final report which declared the residential schools as “cultural genocide”. It also includes 94 calls to action, including reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous children and youth in care, finding and documenting burial sites of missing residential school children, and fully adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Canada endorses the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as the key to advancing reconciliation in Canada.
Through ground-penetrating radar, the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Tk’emlups te Secwepemc territory, near Kamloops. Several unmarked graves were also discovered at former residential school sites across Canada.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) receives Royal Assent and immediately comes into force. It is a historic milestone that ensures “the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.” A new federal statutory holiday – National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – was created through legislative amendments made by the Parliament.
September 30, 2021
Canada marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation which honours the survivors, families and communities impacted by the residential school system. Both the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day take place on September 30.
Williams Lake First Nation releases its preliminary findings that revealed 93 potential unmarked graves at the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, British Columbia. Williams Lake First Nation is still conducting a full investigation of the site. Searches with ground-penetrating radar are also underway at other former residential school sites. To date, more than 1,800 confirmed or suspected unmarked graves have been identified.
Intergenerational trauma is the transmission of trauma from one generation of trauma survivors to the next. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart defined it as a “collective emotional and psychological injury over the lifespan and across generations”. It often refers to untreated trauma passed down in families where a child grows up with trauma and it becomes a cycle until it is broken.
The term intergenerational trauma was originally introduced to describe the enduring trauma among Holocaust survivors and their families following World II. It is also referred to as transgenerational trauma or historical trauma and has since been applied to Indigenous Peoples who have experienced extensive trauma due to colonization.
Gray Smith, M. (2017). Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation. Orca Book Publishers.
The Indian Act. (n.d.). Welcome to Indigenous Foundations. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_indian_act/
Indian status. (n.d.). Welcome to Indigenous Foundations. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/indian_status/
Residential school history. (n.d.). NCTR. https://nctr.ca/education/teaching-resources/residential-school-history/
The residential school system. (n.d.). Welcome to Indigenous Foundations. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_residential_school_system/
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