Residential Schools

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Residential Schools

Residential schools in Canada were based on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School model founded in 1879 by Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The aim of such a schooling system was the forced assimilation of aboriginal people into the colonial society. This was to be achieved by wiping out their past ethnic and cultural associations and replacing them with European ones. Driven by a kind of missionary zeal, Pratt believed it was important to remove all aspects of being aboriginal from the child and to immerse that child, as a kind of baptism, into white socialization. The duty to "civilize" lay on the shoulders of the white man. This was rationalized as a viable alternative to war and the slaughter of people. In spite of this rationalization, however, economic considerations were their actual driving force. Trade with the aboriginal peoples in the United States had begun to diminish, and was replaced with a scramble by white settlers to lay claim to aboriginal lands. To facilitate this, aborigines were herded onto reservations, enabling the white settler community to claim the "new" territories. It was thought that residential schools would assist this process, because assimilation would make the taking of lands easier, at little or no financial cost to the settler communities.

The Rationale

In the nineteenth century, Canada adopted a policy of assimilation of all aborigines into the Christian culture of the white settlers. Church organizations were enlisted in the effort, and became enthusiastic and active participants in this system. Children were taken from their homes on the reservations and compelled to attend residential schools because "the influence of the wigwam was stronger than that of the [day] school," in the words of the Davin Report of 1879 which is contained in the report to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People in 1991.

As was true in the United States, the Canadian plan was actually motivated by economic considerations, specifically, by the prospect of creating a hard-working labor force. Aborigines were often stereotyped as lazy drunkards. The residential schools were to be cure these deficiencies by teaching aboriginal children industrial or domestic skills. Boys were taught such subjects as agriculture, carpentry, shoemaking, printing, blacksmithing, and tinsmithing. Girls were taught general household chores such as sewing, shirt making, knitting, cooking, laundry, ironing, as well as dairy farming. In addition, students were expected to engage in practical work in many of these areas of instruction, providing yet another source of free labor.


In order to ensure that there were sufficient numbers enrolled in all the residential schools, the Minister for Indian Affairs determined which school each student would attend. However, the children of Protestant and Roman Catholic parents could insist that their children attend a school run by representatives of their own faith.

Upon entering the schools, children were stripped of all aspects of their traditional way of life. For instance, their long hair was cut to conform to European styles, and their traditional dress was replaced by European-style clothing. They were taught to view the world through the prism of European values and beliefs. They were expected to abandon their native language and speak only in English (or French, in the schools established in Quebec). All of this was considered essential to the "civilizing" process, by which aboriginal children would ultimately be assimilated into Canadian society.

The Results

After education was completed, the plan called for the integration of residential school graduates into the broader Canadian society, so as to prevent any return to the reservation and further backsliding. Most attempts at placing the graduates of this system were a failure, however, because the system made no effort to eradicate the widespread anti-aboriginal prejudice of white Canadians. Unwelcome among white Canadians, most of the aboriginal graduates of the residential schools did return to the reserves, only to find that their European-style education had rendered them misfits in that society, too.

The industrial school model was eventually replaced by a new type of boarding school, the model for which attempted to overcome the problem of student placement in society after graduation. Graduates were sent to model settlements where they were supplied with land, farming equipment, and housing materials, and were expected to create a new community for themselves. That scheme was soon abandoned as a failure, however, and the failure was blamed on allegations that the graduates lacked sufficient motivation. The model settlements were replaced by a new scheme which granted residential school graduates a loan and limited agricultural materials for individual use.

By the time residential schools were finally abandoned, it was apparent that this type of social engineering was unlikely to succeed. At its peak in 1931, the residential system had grown to 80 residential schools, located throughout Canada. While it is unclear how many children passed through the residential school system, one estimate suggests that one-third of all aboriginal children between the ages of six and fifteen were in residential schools during the 1930s. Other estimates place the figure closer to fifty percent.

The Royal Commission Report

In 1991 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was assigned the task of examining the social, economic, and cultural situation of the aboriginal peoples of Canada. This included a full examination of residential schools through oral testimonies from inmates and employees, as well as archival research.

The findings of the Royal Commission were published in 1996. The report documented widespread physical, sexual, and emotional abuse within the residential school system. It also reported that the schools routinely disparaged the traditional culture of their students, and that children were punished for speaking their own language or for practicing their own religion and culture. The Royal Commission's report went on to confirm that the system's goal of forced assimilation had "an inherent element of savagery," at its core, expressed in such phrases as "kill the Indian in the child."

The Royal Commission's report dealt with the traumatic effects that the residential schools had on the children, their communities, and on succeeding generations. Aboriginal people and professional consultants alike testified that the schools bred social maladjustment, family breakdowns, suicide, alcoholism, domestic violence, and the loss of parenting skills. This last item is significant, for without parenting skills, the schools' graduates had severe difficulty in raising their own children. In the residential schools, children learned that adults often exerted power and control through physical abuse. When they became parents they had no other parenting model to fall back upon, and so inflicted abuse on their own children. This ultimately set up a vicious cycle, which continued in succeeding generations.

The Canadian Government's Response

The Royal Commission further demonstrated that the churches and the Canadian government had been aware of some of the documented abuses for some time. Many reports from school inspectors corroborated the pattern of abuse. The Commission went so far as to find the department guilty of neglecting the children and breaching its duty of care. It noted that, although church organizations assumed responsibility for actual instruction, the department of Indian Affairs was charged with administering the schools and funding their construction and maintenance. However, the residential schools were always under-funded and badly administered. Because each school's funding was determined by the number of students enrolled, there was a strong incentive to take in more students than the school could properly hold. This resulted in severe overcrowding, which in turn led to high rates in death from diseases like tuberculosis.

In response to the Royal Commission Report, the Canadian government issued a Statement of Reconciliation in 1998. In it the government acknowledged that the Canadian residential school system separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their own heritage and cultures. The government further accepted the key role it had played in the development and administration of the schools. Children who were the victims of sexual and physical abuse were singled out for special mention. The statement included the Canadian government's explicit apology to all the victims of the residential school system. In addition, the Minister of Indian Affairs announced the availability of $350 million for community-based healing, earmarked for those who suffered the effects of physical and sexual abuse.

No monetary compensation was offered for individual victims, however. In reaction, victims of the residential school system turned to the Canadian courts. By June 1998, approximately 1,000 lawsuits were filed. It is estimated that by early 2004, more than 5,000 people may have entered into litigation for damages against the Canadian government. It has also been reported that by March 1999, some $20 million had been spent by the Canadian government in settling residential school claims. It is not clear how the state is likely to deal with these cases in the future, however. It may opt for out-of-court settlements in order to avoid setting legal precedent for the concept of monetary reparations.

Residential Schools and the Crime of Genocide

Although the term genocide was raised during the hearings of the Royal Commission, the remark was dismissed as a "rhetorical flourish," It can be argued, however, that this dismissal was at least premature. Article III of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide to include the causing of serious bodily or mental harm to members of a national, racial, or religious group, and the deliberate infliction on the group of conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

Using this definition, most of the criteria can be substantiated from the testimony presented before the Royal Commission. The difficulty lies in establishing the element of intent. It can be argued that residential schools were not calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the aboriginal people, but might instead have been a well-intentioned plan for the good of the people that went awry through inept administration and implementation. The Royal Commission appears to lean to this view. Nonetheless, the Commission's report does call for further public inquiry, the establishment of a university for aboriginal peoples that would be dedicated to researching and documenting the residential schools, and compensation for communitybased healing programs. These recommendations appear to aim at arriving at some kind of truth surrounding the residential schools with a view to implementing a program of action.

Some, however, charge that the Royal Commission's recommendations are dilatory tactics intended to frustrate those who seek to resolve the damage done by the residential schools. In this view, the aims and objectives of the residential school plan were clearly calculated to destroy the cultural and physical life of Canada's aboriginal peoples and to replace the traditional way of life with a new set of values that were more acceptable to the white people. As a direct consequence of this policy, the residential schools brought about the physical destruction of most of Canada's aboriginal peoples, and, according to this perspective, the actions of the Canadian government did, in fact, constitute genocide.

The Australian Experience:

In her article "Squaring the Circle: How Canada is Dealing with the Legacy if its Indian Residential Schools Experiment," Pamela O'Connor draws attention to the striking similarity between the Australian aboriginal "stolen children" experience with Canada's residential school system. The assimilation of indigenous children in Australia was undertaken under child welfare laws supposedly to protect aborigines. It called for the permanent separation of aboriginal children from their families and communities, placing them in the care of foster homes, church missions, state- or church-run children's homes, boarding schools, and workplaces. Many of the children who were removed were brought up in complete ignorance of their aboriginal identity, parentage, or community affiliations.

In 1995 the Australian government asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission to conduct a national inquiry into this situation. After conducting hearings around the country, the Commission reported in 1997 that the policy of assimilation through the forced removal of aboriginal children had given rise to gross violations of human rights law. The Commission's recommendations included reparations through a government cash-compensation scheme and an apology to Australia's aboriginal peoples.

The Australian government, however, has refused to apologize or to pay compensation. Instead, it proposed to spend $63 million on the preservation of records, language and cultural maintenance programs, family reunification services, counselling, therapy, and vocational training for victims of its policy of forced removal. It is thought that the refusal to pay reparation may be based on the fear of opening a torrent of claims against the state. The Australian response, like that of the Canadian government, is defensive and appears to be aimed at minimizing future claims of liability. Neither government, however, has effectively denied the legitimacy of the complaints of their respective aboriginal victims.

SEE ALSO Canada; Indigenous Peoples


Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (2002). "Looking Forward Looking Back, Part Two: False Assumptions and a Failed Relationship." Available from

O'Connor, Pamela (2000). "Squaring the Circle: How Canada Is Dealing with the Legacy of Its Indian Residential Schools Experiment." International Journal of Legal Information 28:232–265.

Schabas, William. A (2000). Genocide in International Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vinodh Jaichand