1 Indian Residential School System

Introduction to the Indian Residential School System

Thomas Moore, as he appeared when admitted to the Regina Industrial School. Department of Indian Affairs Annual Report for the year ended 30th June 1896.
Thomas Moore, after tuition at the Regina Industrial School. Department of Indian Affairs Annual Report for the year ended 30th June 1896.

The Indian Residential School (IRS) system was established by the Canadian government to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their communities and families for the purpose of assimilating them to mainstream culture and Eurocentric beliefs and values. The system included industrial schools, day schools, and residential schools. The first residential school, the Mohawk Institute, opened in Canada in 1831, but most were established after 1880. In 1892 the government sanctioned the churches to run the schools.

The whole part of the residential school was a part of a bigger scheme of colonization. There was intent; the schools were there with the intent to change people, to make them like others and to make them not fit. And today, you know, we have to learn to decolonize. 
-Shirley Flowers (quoted in TRC, 2015)

Upon arrival at residential schools, many children were separated from their siblings, numbered, and had their hair cut; some were scrubbed to remove what was perceived to be dirty skin. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, IRS survivors testified to the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse they experienced while at these schools. These traumas, along with the unhealthy living conditions, left them with feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, desperation, and fear. Many children, seeing no other option, ran away. Often they were found and forcefully returned to the schools; however, many died or disappeared. Work continues to locate their remains and unmarked graves on former school grounds.

The last residential school officially closed in 1996 and the children were transitioned into regular elementary and secondary schools, but the effects of this physical and cultural genocide live on.

Interactive 1.1 Historica Canada: Residential schools

Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. Although the first residential facilities were established in New France, the term usually refers to the custodial schools established after 1880.

Setting the Stage

Indian Residential Schools

No single person, paper, or piece of legislation created the Indian Residential School system in Canada. Rather its development was the result of a series of laws and policies advocated by a number of people who believed that the success of the colonial project in Canada depended on the assimilation of Indigenous Peoples. To understand the history of residential schools in Canada, it is necessary to understand the prevailing attitudes and assumptions of European settlers that led to its creation.

Gallery 1.1 Lord Elgin and Rev. Ryerson

By the mid-nineteenth century, Britain had established imperial governments around the world and believed that one of its colonial missions was to “civilize” native populations. This mantle was taken up by the Government of Canada when it was formed in 1867. In fact, John A. Macdonald advocated that a primary and critical objective to securing the establishment of the Dominion of Canada was to eradicate any tribal system and ensure the assimilation of all First Nations (Milloy, 1999, p. 6). Alexander Morris, responsible for negotiating many agreements between the Canadian government and First Nations, noted:

Let us have Christianity and civilization among the Indian tribes; let us have a wise and paternal Government … doing its utmost to help and elevate the Indian population … and Canada will be enabled to feel, that in a truly patriotic spirit our country has done its duty by the red men. (as cited in Milloy, 1999, p. 6)

However, the history of residential schools begins prior to Macdonald and the creation of what is now Canada in 1867.

Early Attempts at Assimilation

The history of residential schools begins in the late 1700s with French settlers in New France. Near what is now Quebec City, and was then a French trading post, Catholic missionaries established Canada’s first boarding school for First Nations children (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada [TRC], 2015d, p. 24). There, Jesuits attempted to indoctrinate First Nations children through teachings in religion, reading, writing, and the French language. However, these early efforts at “Frenchification” and assimilation to Western cultural and social norms ultimately failed (Milloy, 1999, p. 14). First Nations parents were reluctant to send their children to these schools and could not be forced to; the settlers needed them as trade and military allies. The argument for boarding schools would not emerge again until the nineteenth century.

In the late 1820s the British government briefly considered disbanding the Indian Department due to concerns about funding; some people in the government felt that Indigenous populations should be left to self-govern. Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of British North America, prepared a report defending its existence, citing the need to “protect” First Nations until they abandoned their traditional ways and assimilated (Leslie, 2004, p. 28). Sir George Murray, secretary of the colonies, accepted Dalhousie’s recommendations and supported the idea that First Nations assimilation was best for the colony and that this would be achieved through religious and agricultural education (Leslie, 2004, p. 29). However, under the 1763 Proclamation, Murray had to persuade band council leaders to consent to any new policy affecting First Nations (Milloy, 1999, p. 12). Initially, negotiations went well, and an early education system was piloted.

The Bagot Commission

The British government created two commissions to review these early efforts to assimilate First Nations populations through education: the Bagot Commission in 1842, under the leadership of Governor Sir Charles Bagot, and an 1856 commission under the leadership of Governor Sir Edmund Walker Head. Both reports concluded that Murray’s efforts had not been successful and that communities were either “half-civilized” or nowhere close to being assimilated (Milloy, 1999, p. 12).

Charles Bagot

The Bagot Report was a significant catalyst for what became the Indian Residential School system. Its recommendations called for First Nations children to be sent to boarding schools to receive educational training in agriculture and religion away from their communities. This proposal was supported by two individuals, Lord Elgin and Reverend Egerton Ryerson, the superintendent of education for Upper Canada (Milloy, 1999, p. 13). The report also recommended that persons could only have one legal status, either Indian or British; this would ensure disenfranchisement of First Nations Peoples who wished to maintain connections with their communities (Rheault, 2011, p. 1). Following the Bagot Report, the government fully adopted a policy of First Nation assimilation.

Front page of The Bagot Report, 1844.

Successful assimilation of First Nation communities was dependent on their adoption of British economic structures, in particular, the notion of subdividing land for personal financial gain. But this was something the Nations would not easily accept; their governments and cultural traditions were based on a world view incompatible with Western philosophies of land ownership (Milloy, 1999, p. 16). Furthermore, some Nations and Métis made their living in the fur trade and were not interested in establishing farmlands (Miller, 2009, p. 124). Nevertheless, Lord Elgin was successful in convincing bands to set aside treaty funds to establish two schools (Milloy, 1999, pp. 16-17). In a joint initiative established by Ryerson, the government covered tuition costs and the Methodist missionaries supplied teachers (Leslie, 2004, pp. 105-106). While initially politicians were hopeful that these schools would shift First Nations’ resolve to not section off land, it did not. Those who graduated returned to their communities and cultures and were viewed by the government as “cultural backsliders” (Milloy, 1999, p. 19).

Enfranchisement and Education

Frustrated by First Nations’ refusal to accept Western notions of land ownership, the government passed the Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in the Province in 1857 (Leslie, 2004, p. 141). Under this Act, First Nations males over 21 of good character, who could read and write in English and had no debt, could be enfranchised (Rheault, 2011, p. 1). They would receive 50 acres of land and become full members of colonial society in exchange for relinquishing any tribal affiliations and forfeiting any claims to tribal lands and rights (Milloy, 1999, p. 18).

Cover page of the British North American Act, 1867.

Indian Affairs anticipated that this offer would result in “profound civilization” as increased numbers of graduates abandoned their communities to become enfranchised. Instead, First Nations leaders immediately condemned the Act, recognizing the threat it posed to their communities (Milloy, 1999, p. 19). Nations protested by petitioning the Prince of Wales (who was visiting), removing children and funds from schools, refusing to sell land, and blocking the annual census (Milloy, 1999, p. 19). The chiefs described the Act as an attempt “to break them to pieces” (Leslie, 2004, p. 142).

In 1860 the Department of Indian Affairs was transferred from the British government to the soon-to-be Government of Canada. During negotiations regarding Confederation, First Nations self-government and sovereignty were viewed as significant roadblocks. When the British North American Act (BNA Act) was passed in 1867 granting Canada independence, section 91:24 was included to grant Canada power over Indians and their property (Milloy, 1999, p. 20). Macdonald viewed this clause as confirming the government’s paternalist responsibility to “civilize” First Nations.

A series of acts would follow the BNA Act; in 1869 the Act for the Gradual Enfranchisement of Indians, the Better Management of Indian Affairs repeated many of the previous enfranchisement provisions of the Act of 1857 (Milloy, 1999, p. 20). The Indian Acts of 1876 and 1880, along with the Indian Advancement Act of 1884, granted the Government of Canada control of First Nations’ lands, governments, and public and private lives (Milloy, 1999, p. 20). While these Acts specifically reference Status Indians, they were undoubtedly designed to ensure the forced assimilation of all Indigenous Peoples of Canada and laid the groundwork for the Indian Residential School system.

The Davin Report (Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds)

In 1879 Prime Minister Macdonald commissioned Nicholas Flood Davin, a Toronto-based journalist and lawyer, to investigate and report back on the Indian boarding school system in the United States (Milloy, 1999, p. 7). Macdonald was interested in the viability of Canada implementing a similar model in the North-West Territories (Nishnwabe Aski Nation, 2005c).

Nicholas Flood Davin

Davin visited American schools and met with principals, teachers, and students. He also met with Cherokee leaders who confirmed their experience with day schools to be favourable; however, Davin viewed the schools as a failure. Students were provided an education but were not successfully assimilated as they returned to their communities daily (Milloy, 1999, p. 8). In White Earth (Minnesota), Davin was presented with a new initiative where students were taken from their communities at a younger age to learn manual labour training at industrial boarding schools; the idea being that if taken at a younger age and removed for a longer period of time, student would forget any attachments they had to their community or culture and assimilate with ease (TRC, 2012).

Following his trip to the US, Davin met with notable figures like Bishop Taché, Father Lacombe, and James McKay in Winnipeg to devise a plan to implement such boarding schools in Canada (Milloy, 1999, p. 8). The report proposed a formal partnership between the Government of Canada and churches for two reasons: First, Davin believed it imperative to separate Indigenous children from their culture to ensure enfranchisement; however, he believed it immoral to “destroy their faith without supplying a better one” (TRC, 2012). Second, Davin was concerned about economic pressure if the Government took sole responsibility; he estimated there were 28,000 Treaty Indians and 12,000 Métis (TRC, 2012).

While the Davin Report provided Macdonald the documentation to move forward with the assimilation agenda, four schools of this nature already existed in Ontario: the Mohawk Institute, Wikwemikong, Mount Elgin, and Shingwauk – initially all manual labour schools (Milloy, 1999, p. 8).

Gallery 1.2 Carlisle Indian Industrial School

In 1879 Davin submitted his Report on the Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds to the Government of Canada. The report was “anchored to the fundamental belief that to educate Aboriginal children effectively they had to be separate from their families – that the parenting process in Aboriginal communities had to be disrupted” (Milloy, 1999, p. 23). Canadian officials held extremely colonial and racist views of First Nations adults, viewing their resistance to assimilation as an inability to assimilate. This further empowered their belief that Indigenous children could only be brought into colonial social norms through forced removal and education.

To Kill the Indian in the Child

The schools established to ensure the forced assimilation of Indigenous Peoples of Canada have had many designs and names: religious schools, manual labour schools, industrial schools, day schools, residential schools. But they shared a common purpose: ensuring the destruction of Indigenous cultures and the apprehension of Indigenous lands. Under both British and Canadian governments, legislation was passed and policies were implemented to separate Indigenous children from their families with the direct goal of “killing the Indian in the child.” With the passing of the Indian Act, and subsequent amendments, Canada sought to define who qualified as an Indian and develop a strategy to erase those individuals.

In 1920 an amendment to the Indian Act allowed for the enfranchisement of First Nations persons without their consent and required all school-aged children to attend residential schools (TRC, 2012). The intention behind this amendment was to ensure all Treaty Indians attended residential schools, and upon graduation, lost their status and were forced to assimilate. Duncan Campbell Scott, the deputy minister of Indian Affairs at the time, said, “[The government] would 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” (TRC, 2012). 

Interactive 1.2 Heritage Minutes: Chanie Wenjack

The story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack, whose death sparked the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools. The 84th Heritage Minute in Historica Canada’s collection.

Residential Schools and Day Schools

Residential Schools

During the pre-Confederation period in Canada, education for Indigenous Peoples was negotiated through early treaties (see Numbered Treaties 1-11). Indigenous Peoples negotiated for education that would leave them rooted in their culture while providing their children with an opportunity to survive economically in a rapidly shifting political and economic landscape (TRC, 2015a). Colonial governments had a different interpretation of the role and value of education for Indigenous Peoples. They viewed education as a vehicle to gain control over Indigenous Peoples, to occupy their lands, to indoctrinate them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living, and to assimilate them into mainstream society. After Confederation, the Canadian government formally instituted the residential school system, cloaked as education but actually a means to achieve these colonial objectives.

Residential schools were run by the federal government and operated in partnership with the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, among other religious denominations in Canada.

Seven generations of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis were subjected to the residential school system. The federal government was financially responsible for most residential schools throughout their duration, although some were funded strictly by churches and others by provinces (TRC, 2015a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2013). Children between the ages of 4 and 16 attended, although stories from communities speak of children as young as six months being taken away and sent to residential schools (TRC, 2015a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2013).

The schools operated in all provinces and territories except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island (TRC, 2015a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2013). In Labrador and Newfoundland, residential schools were established by the Moravian Church and the International Grenfell Association. These schools were provincially operated and attended by Inuit, Innu, and NunatuKavut (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, 2018). Newfoundland did not enter Confederation until 1949; however, Canada participated in the administration of the schools in Newfoundland and Labrador by providing funding specifically for the education of Indigenous youth (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, 2018).

The federal government estimates that over 150,000 Indigenous youth were placed in residential schools in Canada (TRC, 2015a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2013; Miller, 2012). However, this number does not account for the youth who attended residential schools that were not included in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement so the actual number is likely much higher (TRC, 2015a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2013; Miller, 2012). The last Indian Residential School in Canada closed in 1996; however, their effects are still being felt. Residential schools became the colonizer’s primary tool of assimilation, directed towards Indigenous youth and designed to eradicate their language, culture, family ties, and spiritual views (TRC, 2015a).

Day Schools

Day schools or seminaries were the first type of residential school in Canada and existed as early as the 1620s. However, these early day schools proved unsuccessful; Indigenous parents were resistant to sending their children and to missionaries’ efforts to coerce their families into accepting French and Christian ways of living and learning (TRC, 2012). The idea was not officially revived until after the 1763 British conquest of Canada. Under British rule, one of the first “official” day schools was established for the Mohawks by the Anglican Church at the Bay of Quinte in 1784 (TRC, 2015a). This would set the groundwork for the introduction of day schools for Indigenous youth across Canada in 1874 when the government began to implement a larger public education system (TRC, 2015a).

Indian Day School (first view), Manitoulin Island Indian Reserve, Ontario, circa summer 1938.

These schools were smaller than the later industrial residential schools. They were generally administered by the Catholic or Protestant churches often with funding and support from provincial or territorial governments (Justice for Day Scholars, n.d.). Indigenous youth only attended a day school if their community was in walking distance, they were accepted under the school’s religious denomination, and their family consented (Justice for Day Scholars, n.d.). Children who attended would arrive in the morning and leave in the evenings to return to their families. In some instances, youth could attend from a distance if they were able to stay with a local family, at a hostel, or with a billet (Justice for Day Scholars, n.d.).

It was not uncommon for students to complain about the menial tasks they were required to perform at day schools; some refused to attend for this reason. Some had a distaste for the rigid structure of the foreign education system introduced (TRC, 2015a). Indigenous families quickly recognized the failures and threat of these schools. They had negotiated for education in early treaty agreements, but they came to withdraw their support for or interest in Western education, noting that it damaged their culture and failed to deliver economic benefits for Indigenous Peoples (TRC, 2015a).

The term “day scholars” has been introduced to identify Indigenous Peoples who attended federally run and recognized residential schools but returned home in the evenings to their families (Justice for Day Scholars, n.d.). Many of these individuals experienced different, but similarly difficult and abusive experiences as those who attended the industrial residential schools identified in the Truth and Reconciliation report. Day scholars were not included in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, but currently, there is a class action lawsuit reviewing their inclusion (Justice for Day Scholars, n.d.).

Residential Boarding Schools

In 1845 Dr. Egerton Ryerson, the chief superintendent of education for Upper Canada (Ontario), issued a report to the legislative assembly that suggested the adoption of an alternative boarding school system for the education of Indigenous youth (Nishnawbe Aski Nation, 2005b; TRC, 2015a). Ryerson recommended religious-based, government-funded industrial boarding schools as a means to more efficiently assimilate and convert Indigenous youth (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2018). Shortly after the publication of Ryerson’s report, two industrial residential boarding schools were established in present-day Ontario: at Alderville in 1848 and at Muncey in 1851 (Nishnawbe Aski Nation, 2005b). Canada would go on to develop policies that proposed to protect Indigenous Peoples, but in actuality attempted to assimilate, marginalize, and segregate Indigenous Peoples in an effort to gain control of their lands (TRC, 2015a).

Front cover of Dr. Egerton Ryerson’s report on Indian Schools submitted to the legislative assembly.

After Confederation in 1867, Indigenous Peoples became the responsibility of the new Canadian government. This responsibility included honouring previous treaty agreements to provide education, which had been given in exchange for the ceding of Indigenous land (Peters & White, 2009). The treaties typically referred to day school systems on reserves. However, attendance and retention at these schools were low, and the government sought an alternative solution that would also help their enfranchisement and assimilation aims (Peters & White, 2009). The industrial residential schools outlined by Ryerson became the popular alternative (TRC, 2015a). These industrial schools were designed to be located far away from reserves and were intended to complement or replace the smaller church-run boarding schools (TRC, 2012). Industrial schools were seen as preferable to day schools because they provided a precise and long-term way to separate Indigenous children from their parents, making it easier to indoctrinate and assimilate them into Euro-Canadian society (TRC, 2012).

By 1884 the introduction of the industrial residential school system in Canada was steadily progressing. Amendments to the 1876 Indian Act allowed for the introduction of more day schools and industrial boarding schools across Canada (Justice for Day Scholars, n.d.). Missionaries from the churches volunteered to operate these schools, believing it was their “mission” to convert and civilize Indigenous Peoples (TRC, 2015a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2013). With church support, the federal government increased its funding and regulated schools for Indigenous youth nationally (TRC, 2015a).

Gallery 1.3 Brandon Indian Residential School

In 1920, under the Indian Act, attendance at residential school was made mandatory for all Indigenous youth ages 6 to 16 (TRC, 2015a; Union of Ontario Indians, 2013). The year 1930 is widely considered to be the height of the residential school era in Canada. During this period, there were over 80 schools in operation across the country (Miller, 2012; TRC, 2015a). Compulsory attendance would not be abandoned until 1951 when the government acknowledged that removing children from their parents was detrimental to their identity, health, and self-esteem (TRC, 2015a).

Church-Run Residential Schools

Roman Catholic Church

After Pope Francis decided not to issue an apology for the Indian Residential School system, Sen. Murray Sinclair made the above statement on Facebook.

As early as 1629 the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order), on behalf of the Catholic Church, took up the work of evangelization and education of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in New France (Mathieu, 2013; TRC, 2015a). The early teaching methodologies employed conflicted dramatically with Indigenous world view and proved unsuccessful (Miller, 1996; Mathieu, 2013; TRC, 2015a). 

Attempts at educating Indigenous youth would be abandoned until 1836 when the Jesuits established a day school for boys at Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island (TRC, 2012). Their lead was followed in 1841 by the Roman Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who established a missionary presence in Montreal specifically to take on the task of evangelizing and educating Indigenous populations in the region (Hanrahan, 2006; Sylvain, 2008). While the Jesuits would only establish two residential schools in Canada (the other, a boys’ industrial school, opened in 1878), the Oblates soon established 14 day and boarding schools aimed at assimilating Indigenous youth (TRC, 2015a). The Oblates would spread across Quebec and into the prairies and northern regions of Central and Eastern Canada, and ultimately towards the West Coast of Canada (TRC, 2015c).  As a result of their expansion and commitment to the residential school system, the Oblates of Mary would come to manage the majority of church-run residential schools in Canada (TRC, 2012). Their work was supported by the Grey Nuns, the Sisters of Providence, the Sisters of St. Ann, and in the twentieth century, the Oblate Sisters of Mary Immaculate (TRC, 2012; TRC, 2015a). These female orders of the Catholic Church provided a large number of school teachers and nurses for the residential schools.

Interactive 1.3 Susie Jones, residential school survivor

Residential school survivor Susie Jones, from Wapole Island, shares her story.

The number of residential schools in operation at any one time in Canada varied. However, approximately 16 of the 70 Catholic dioceses in Canada along with approximately 36 Catholic communities or congregations participated in the residential school system, running nearly 60 percent of the residential schools across the country (Archdiocese of Ottawa, n.d.; Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018; TRC, 2012). To date the Pope has not offered an official apology on behalf of the Catholic Church or the Canadian Catholic Churches for the role played in residential schools. This rationale for this lack of apology is that each Catholic diocese and religious community was legally responsible for their own actions as well as the decision to participate in the residential schools; thus, the larger body of the Catholic Church should not be held responsible (Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018). The Jesuits and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate have issued individual apologies for their role in the residential school system. A number of other dioceses have offered expressions of reconciliation (Archdiocese of Ottawa, n.d.).

Interactive 1.4 Susan Enberg, Director and Co-Producer of the film ‘In Jesus Name’

Susan Enberg, Director and Co-Producer of a 2017 documentary film about St. Anne’s Residential School, Fort Albany, Ontario. The film is titled ‘In Jesus’ Name’ and is available to Centennial College students through the college library.


On April 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI made a statement to a delegation at the Assembly of First Nations; Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Belgrade was in attendance. The Pope expressed “sorrow” at the horrific treatment Indigenous Peoples suffered in the residential school system in Canada, but it was made clear that the event was not an official apology (CBC, 2009, para. 1). The current Pope and the Catholic Church still face significant criticism for not offering a formal apology for the involvement of their dioceses and religious communities in the residential school system in Canada.

Anglican Church

From 1820 to 1969 the Anglican Church of Canada oversaw 36 residential schools, which were built and financially supported by the Canadian government to force the assimilation of Indigenous children into Canadian culture through education. Many of these residential schools were located in northern regions.

Gallery 1.4 Images from Indian Residential School system institutions run by the Anglican Church of Canada


The Anglican Church provided basic education in European and Christian traditions with a strong focus on vocational skills, such as farming and cooking, to young Indigenous children. Graduating from these schools required completing grade 8. After World War ll, the government mandated that the Anglican Church also offer secondary education. Over time, many of these primary and secondary residential schools became dormitories for Indigenous children who attended day schools in local communities (Anglican Church of Canada, 2018a).

In early 1960s the Anglican Church determined that the residential school system had been a failure and returned responsibility for its schools to the government, which closed its last residential school in 1996. The Anglican Church identified what had happened as a cultural genocide and took full responsibility for its role in the residential school system by providing funding for several healing initiatives. On August 6, 1993, Archbishop Michael Peers formally apologized to Indigenous Peoples, and today the church continues to work towards reconciliation (Anglican Church of Canada, 2018b).

United Church

Between 1849 and 1969 the United Church operated a total of 15 residential schools. Out of the 80,000 residential school survivors still alive today, approximately 6.7 percent attended United Church schools (The United Church of Canada, 2018). Some of these schools were day schools; however, many were permanent residential schools where children stayed for a prolonged period of time. These schools were funded by the government and enforced measures to remove existing cultural and spiritual beliefs and values from the “Indian” child so that they could become part of the “White man’s world” (The United Church of Canada, 2008). This national policy of assimilation was never questioned by the United Churches, and they became agents for promoting these schools during the residential school era. 

Gallery 1.5 Images from Indian Residential School system institutions run by the United Church of Canada

Later, survivors brought legal action against the different bodies responsible for the schools and the physical, emotional, sexual, and psychological trauma they endured while at the United Church residential schools. In response to these lawsuits, the General Council of the United Church provided an apology to the Native congregation in 1986. In 1998 the United Church offered a formal apology to all its former students and their families and communities. Since 2008 the church has been actively involved in reconciliation. Steps taken include “the church’s healing fund, its participation in the claims settlement processes, advocacy for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, collaboration in the historic Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, archival research and increased resources for reconciliation and right relations work” (The United Church of Canada, 2008).

Presbyterian Church

In 1994 the Presbyterian Church of Canada presented a formal confession for its role in the residential school system to its membership in Winnipeg. According to the church’s records, it ran five day schools, eight Indian Residential Schools, and one industrial school from 1884 to 1969. The majority of these schools were located in the prairie provinces; two were in British Columbia, and one (the Cecilia Jeffrey School) was near Kenora, Ontario. Here is an excerpt from the Presbyterian Church’s confession:

It is with deep humility and deep sorrow that we come before God and our Aboriginal brothers and sisters with our confession… We acknowledge that the roots of the harm we have done are found in the attitudes and values of western European colonialism, and the assumption that what was not yet molded in our image was to be discovered and exploited… We confess that, with the encouragement and assistance of the Government of Canada, The Presbyterian Church in Canada agreed to take the children of Aboriginal peoples from their own homes and place them in Residential Schools. In these schools, children were deprived of their traditional ways, which were replaced with Euro-Canadian customs… The Presbyterian Church used disciplinary practices that were foreign to Aboriginal peoples, and open to exploitation in physical and psychological punishment beyond any Christian maxim of acre and discipline. In a setting of obedience and acquiescence there was opportunity for sexual abuse, and some were so abused… We ask, also, for forgiveness from Aboriginal peoples. (Vais, Cowper, Gemmell, & Corbett, 1994)

St. Anne’s Residential School, Fort Albany First Nation Ontario

Written by Susan G. Enberg

Surviving St. Anne’s Residential School

Residential schools funded by the Canadian federal government operated in the Cree community of Fort Albany First Nation, Ontario, from 1906 to 1976. Up to 1968 St. Anne’s was wholly operated by the Roman Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of Charity Ottawa (Government of Canada, 2014). Priests, Indian agents, and police removed Indigenous children from their families and communities from all over the western James Bay region to attend St. Anne’s (Enberg, 2017d). Communities most greatly affected by the removal of children included Fort Albany, Attawapiskat, and Weenusk/Peawanuck and to some extent Kashechewan (Enberg, 2017a). Although the Canadian government began to install lay teachers at St. Anne’s in 1968, priests remained at the school and in the community for years afterward to teach and preach Catholicism (Government of Canada, 2014). By 1970 the Canadian federal government had assumed full control over St. Anne’s (Government of Canada, 2014).

Since the early 1990s former students of St. Anne’s Residential School have begun to speak out about cultural and familial dismemberment as well as physical, sexual, and psychological abuses suffered while at the school (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996; O’Rourke, 2017). Abuses included children being jolted in an electric chair constructed by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. At times, audiences were present to witness the children being shocked, including members of the Royal Canadian Air Force that were in the community to build and operate the Mid-Canada Line radar site (Enberg, 2017e; Erasing Cultural Genocide, n.d.). Some survivors of St. Anne’s have testified that they were forced to eat their own vomit (Roman, 2013). Many of the children were sexually assaulted by Father Arthur Lavoie who, in 2015, was acknowledged by the court as a serial sexual abuser of children (Fontaine v. Canada, 2015). Some survivors of St. Anne’s, such as Louis Knapaysweet, testified that priests beat them with a metal-studded whip as punishment for “their sins” (Enberg, 2017e; Barrera, 2018). One male survivor testified to being forced by Sister Anna Wesley to dress like a girl during much of his time at St. Anne’s simply for waving to a female student he liked (Enberg, 2017c). Student-on-student physical and sexual abuse also occurred at St. Anne’s (Enberg, 2017c; Enberg, 2017f), in what Edmund Metatawabin refers to as the “legacy of abuse” (Enberg, 2017d). A number of students died while at the school: some from illness, some from drowning after attempting to run away, and some potentially from injuries sustained by their “caregivers” (Government of Canada, 2014).

A major consequence of the systemic and systematic abuses against children who attended St. Anne’s has been long-lasting psychological harms that have led to low self-esteem, depression, and self-harming behaviours, including substance abuse and attempting or committing suicide (Barrera, 2018). These psychological harms have been passed down through the generations likely due to a complex post-traumatic stress disorder that has afflicted entire communities affected by the violence perpetrated against children at St. Anne’s (Herman, 1992). Although many residential school survivors have begun to travel their healing journeys, according to Edmund Metatawabin it will take seven generations before Indigenous communities in Canada can truly begin to heal (Enberg, 2015).

For many St. Anne’s survivors, embarking on a healing journey includes speaking out about horrific child abuses they suffered at the school, as well as advocating for other St. Anne’s survivors. While Edmund Metatawabin has been advocating for St. Anne’s survivors for decades, Evelyn Korkmaz has only recently begun to publicly challenge Pope Francis’ unwillingness to personally apologize to Canada’s residential school survivors; she has also been active in challenging policies of the Catholic Church that are designed to protect pedophile members of the clergy (Martens, 2018; Korkmaz, 2018). In June 2018 Korkmaz participated in a conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, with Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA), a worldwide organization of human rights activists and survivors of clergy sexual abuse. ECA’s international focus is primarily sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and nuns, and the structures of Catholic institutions that protect those abusers from criminal prosecution (Swissinfo.ch, 2018; McElwee, 2018). She is also one of seven St. Anne’s survivors in a poignant documentary film produced by Edmund Metatawabin and Susan G. Enberg, In Jesus’ Name: Shattering the Silence of St. Anne’s Residential School (2017) (Enberg, 2017f).

The Continuing Politics of Indigenous Survival

In 2007 a quasi-judicial “non-adversarial” process known as the Independent Assessment Process (IAP) began as one pillar of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (2006) (Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat, n.d.). It was meant to compensate residential school survivors for egregious harms perpetrated against them at the schools. Survivors were to share their testimonials, and based on those testimonials, to be compensated for varying levels of abuse suffered. However, the process for many has been highly adversarial, and some survivors’ claims have been denied due to lack of corroborating evidence. In the case of St. Anne’s survivors, it was discovered in 2013 by Edmund Metatawabin and lawyer Fay Brunning that documents generated through criminal court proceedings in the 1990s – documents that the Canadian federal government had obtained through court order in 2003 – had not been provided to IAP adjudicators (Angela Shisheeh et al v. Her Majesty, 2013). In total, the Canadian federal government had 40,000 pages of evidentiary materials in its possession that it failed to provide to adjudicators of the IAP (MacCharles , 2014). In June 2014 Justice Paul Perell ordered the federal government to hand those documents over to IAP adjudicators (The Canadian Press, 2014). It did so but had redacted the documents so heavily that no one could make any sense of them (Enberg, 2017b; MacCharles, 2014). According to the Chief Adjudicator’s Office for the IAP, only in late 2015 did adjudicators receive those documents in un-redacted form (Tansey, 2016). During a case conference in February 2017, lawyers for the federal government admitted to having additional legal documents that might support IAP claims for St. Anne’s Residential School survivors. These, however, are not accessible to lawyers for the St. Anne’s survivors or IAP adjudicators due to a ruling by the Ontario Superior Court that deems the documents protected by settlement privilege (Fontaine v. Canada, 2017).

In Jesus’ Name: Shattering the Silence of St. Anne’s Residential School (2017) is a powerful and revealing documentary film produced by Edmund Metatawabin and Susan G. Enberg. Centennial College students can access and view the film through the college library.


  1. Fort Albany First Nation, Ontario (FAFN), is a small reserve community known as Albany Reserve #67; the population is about 2000 people with a large off-reserve diaspora. It is approximately 363 square kilometres and is located alongside the banks of the Albany River in the western James Bay region. As part of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, its tribal council is the Mushkegowuk Council. Regarding land rights, the reserve falls under Treaty No. 9, a treaty signed by representatives of the Canadian federal government and Indigenous representatives on November 6, 1905 (“Fort Albany First Nation,” 2018). See Archives of Ontario, n.d., for an image of the treaty.
  2. The Sisters of Charity Ottawa are also known as the Grey Nuns of the Cross.
  3. Edmund Metatawabin is a former chief of Fort Albany First Nation, a survivor of St. Anne’s Residential School, an advocate for other St. Anne’s survivors, and author of Up Ghost River: A chief’s journey through the turbulent waters of native history.
  4. See, for example, the case of H-15019. This person’s identity is being protected due to attempted suicide after not being believed by Independent Assessment Process adjudicators (Fontaine v. Canada, 2018).
  5. There were five criminal convictions of former staff as a result of those hearings with sentencing ranging from house arrest to eighteen months in jail. Two former nuns were convicted; however, no priests or bishops were convicted as most had died before or during the trials (Barrera, 2018).


Angela Shisheeh et al v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of the Dominion of Canada. Court File No: 10883/00, “Order to Release O.P.P. Criminal Court Documents,” Honorable Justice R.G. Trainor. (2003, August 1).

Archives of Ontario. (n.d.). The James Bay Treaty (Treaty No. 9) [p. 2]. Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/explore/online/james_bay_treaty/big/p02_james_bay_treaty.aspx

Barrera, J. (2018, March 29). The horrors of St. Anne’s: Ontario Provincial Police files obtained by CBC News reveal the history of abuse at the notorious school that built its own electric chair. CBC News. Retrieved from https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/st-anne-residential-school-opp-documents

Enberg, S. G. (2015, August). Interview with Edmund Metatawabin. Fort Albany First Nation, Ontario.

Enberg, S. G. (2017a). In Jesus’ name (Unpublished master’s thesis). Ryerson University, Toronto. p. 45.

Enberg, S. G. (2017b, March 24). Interview with St. Anne’s survivors’ lawyer, Fay Brunning. Toronto Council Fire, Toronto, Ontario.

Enberg, S. G. (2017c, July 4). Interview with Alphonse Tourville. Toronto, Ontario.

Enberg, S. G. (Director). (2017d). Interview with Edmund Metatawabin. In In Jesus’ name: Shattering the silence of St. Anne’s Residential School [Motion picture]. Canada: Susan G. Enberg Productions Inc.

Enberg, S. G. (Director). (2017e). Interview with Elder Louis Knapaysweet. In In Jesus’ name: Shattering the silence of St. Anne’s Residential School [Motion picture]. Canada: Susan G. Enberg Productions Inc.

Enberg, S. G. (Director). (2017f). Interview with Evelyn Korkmaz. In In Jesus’ name: Shattering the silence of St. Anne’s Residential School [Motion picture]. Canada: Susan G. Enberg Productions Inc.

Erasing Cultural Genocide. (n.d.). Mid-Canada Line Radar Sites Western James Bay. Retrieved from https://www.erasingculturalgenocide.ca/mid-canada-line-radar-sites-western-james-bay.html

Fontaine v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 ONSC 4061. Court File No: 00-CV-192059, Justice Paul Perell, Reasons for Decision. (2015, June 23). p. 12.

Fontaine v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 ONSC 1149. Court File No: 00-CV-192059. (2017, February 17). Retrieved from https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2017/2017onsc1149/2017onsc1149.html?searchUrlHash=AAAAAQA0U3QuIEFubmUncyBSZXNpZGVudGlhbCBTY2hvb2wgKyBzZXR0bGVtZW50IHByaXZpbGVnZQAAAAAB&resultIndex=3

Fontaine v. Canada (Attorney General), 2018 ONSC 103. Court File No: 00-CV-192059. (2018, January 4). Retrieved from https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2018/2018onsc103/2018onsc103.html?searchUrlHash=AAAAAQAHSC0xNTAxOQAAAAAB&resultIndex=5

Fort Albany First Nation. (2018, April 18). 211 Ontario North. Retrieved from http://search.211north.ca/record/COC0018

Government of Canada. (2014, August 1). St. Anne’s (Fort Albany) Residential School IAP School Narrative. National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Retrieved from https://nctr.ca/School%20narratives/EAST/ON/ST%20ANNE.pdf

Herman, J. L. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome of survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 5(3).

Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat. (n.d.). Independent Assessment Process (IAP) fact sheets. Retrieved from http://www.iap-pei.ca/pub-eng.php?act=factsheets/irsas-pamplet-eng.php

Korkmaz, E. (2018, May to June 9). Personal communications.

MacCharles, T. (2014, September 4). Heavily-edited residential school documents an ‘obstruction’ of justice, NDP says. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/09/04/heavilyedited_residential_schools_documents_an_obstruction_of_justice_ndp_says.html

Martens, K. (2018, April 18). Catholic bishops news conference only adds confusion around Pope’s apology to residential school survivors. APTN News. Retrieved from http://aptnnews.ca/2018/04/18/catholic-bishops-news-conference-only-adds-confusion-around-popes-apology-to-residential-school-survivors/

McElwee, J. J. (2018, June 6). New group fighting Catholic clergy abuse launches in Geneva. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org/news/accountability/new-group-fighting-catholic-clergy-abuse-launches-geneva

Metatawabin, E. (2015, June 1). KAIROS lecture. Carleton University, Ottawa.

Metatawabin, E., & Shimo, A. (2014). Up Ghost River: A chief’s turbulent journey through the waters of native history. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 91-92.

O’Rourke, D. (2017, June 29). Canada 150: Sesqui-Centennial or Sesqui-Colonial? NOW Magazine. Retrieved from https://nowtoronto.com/news/canada150-residential-schools/

Roman, K. (2013, December 18). St. Anne’s Residential School: One survivor’s story. CBC News/Politics. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/st-anne-s-residentialschool-one-survivor-s-story-1.2467924

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1996). Part two: False assumptions and a failed relationship. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: Looking forward, looking back [Vol. 1]. Ottawa: The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. p. 359. [Original source: INAC file E6575-18-2, Volume 4, to the Honourable Tom Siddon from Chief Ed Metatawabin (1990, November 15).]

Swissinfo.ch. (2018, June 7). Victims launch organization to fight abuse in Catholic Church. Retrieved from https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/accountability_victims-launch-organisation-to-fight-abuse-in-catholic-church/44175342

Tansey, M. (Senior Communications Consultant, Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat). (2016, October 31).  Email communication.

The Canadian Press. (2014, January 14). Feds to produce residential school documents after survivors claim coverup. CTV News. Retrieved from https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/feds-to-produce-residential-school-documents-after-survivors-claim-coverup-1.1639243

The Métis and the Residential School System

The Métis youth in Canada who attended residential schools experienced similar conditions to First Nations youth: limited education, mediocre food, intense labour, menial tasks, neglect, loss of culture, and abuse (TRC, 2012; TRC, 2015c). However, many Métis children did not attend residential schools or any schools at all. Métis experienced a unique set of challenges related to access to education due to their mixed-race identity (TRC, 2012; TRC, 2015c). Seen as only half-Indigenous, they were typically believed to be “sufficiently civilized” due to their ancestry (TRC, 2012; TRC, 2015c), thus, their assimilation was not considered a priority for the federal government. This meant the government had less interest in educating them except for in particular instances when it believed a Métis family was “too Indian”; then it would consider sending their children to residential school if a bed was available and not needed for a First Nations youth (TRC, 2012; TRC, 2015c).

During the residential school era, Métis found themselves in an increasingly untenable position. As more Euro-Canadian immigrants settled in the West, their communities became increasingly ostracized (TRC, 2012), and they experienced a lack of acceptance among the growing non-Indigenous population. Meanwhile the government would not take any financial responsibility for their communities. Public schools refused to admit Métis, and Métis communities lacked funding to build their own schools in their communities (TRC, 2012; TRC, 2015c). Métis families struggled to secure education in any form for their children. Some paid a significant sum (i.e., $155 in 1912) to the federal government to have their children considered for acceptance to a residential boarding school (TRC, 2012). By 1936 in Alberta more than 80 percent of Métis children were without access to education (TRC, 2012).

Early in the history of residential schools, church-operated Indian Residential Schools were much more willing and interested in accepting Métis youth in hopes of converting them to Christianity. Anglican and Catholic missionaries were the main religious groups to establish residential schools primarily for Métis located at Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan; Lebret, Saskatchewan; St Paul des Métis, Alberta; and Dawson City, Yukon (Chartrand, Daniels, & Logan, 2006; TRC, 2012).

It was also generally expected that the religious denomination of Métis youth and their families match the denomination of the educational institution (TRC, 2012). In some cases, church-run schools demonstrated a willingness to accept Métis regardless of their denomination in place of First Nations whom they were having trouble converting. However, in 1913, the federal government declared that spaces in church-run schools should be given to First Nations with Indian status, demanding the schools refuse to admit Métis without status under the Indian Act (TRC, 2012).

The federal government would continue to tighten and then loosen its admission policy around residential schools for the next 20 years. However, in 1934, the federal government decided unanimously that no Métis should be allowed to enter a federally funded residential school. Church-run schools were expected to follow the new policy, with the exception of a few “extreme” cases (Métis youth/family deemed in desperate need of conversion and civilizing) (TRC, 2012).

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation have identified the need for more thorough research on the Métis experience at residential schools. Various Métis organizations are currently collecting and reviewing oral histories from survivors, missionary records, and archival reports (Chartrand, Daniels, & Logan, 2006; TRC, 2012; TRC, 2015c). Further consultation initiatives with Métis will help generate a more thorough understanding of the impacts, challenges, and unique circumstances they experienced both within and outside of Canada’s residential school system. 

Interactive 1.5 Legacy of Hope Foundation


Resistance During the Residential School Period (1880s to 1990s)

There is a rich archive of stories from residential school survivors in Canada that show the bravery, determination, and creativity of Indigenous children and adults as they found ways to slow down, sabotage, escape, or prevent the horrible abuses they experienced because of residential schools. As a whole, Indigenous Peoples were never complicit in the policies and practices put in place to subjugate them, and yet many Canadians who have learned about residential schools are left with the impression that people didn’t resist. This reflects how much we have yet to learn about the full history of residential schools, not a lack of resistance in Indigenous communities.

Gallery 1.6 Resistance to residential schools

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report details many stories of resistance. There were everyday forms of resistance, like continuing to keep Indigenous languages, stories, and other traditions alive by practicing them in secret, and stealing or hoarding food or other resources. The TRC’s final report also details more overt forms of resistance, like how some parents refused to sign their children up to go to residential schools, how they protected students who ran away, or how they stopped sending children back to the schools after summer holidays or other school breaks. Also, the TRC chronicles how several residential schools were closed because enrollment declined so far as to make it untenable to keep them open. These schools included several in the prairie provinces such as the Battleford school in Saskatchewan, closed in 1917; a school in St. Boniface, Manitoba, closed in 1907; and a school in Red Deer, Alberta, closed in 1919 (TRC, 2015d, p. 115). In another example, the TRC report reads: “Two weeks after the start of the 1940 school year, fifty-four students had yet to return to the Fraser Lake, British Columbia, school. The police were called in, and by October 2, twenty-five of the students had been returned. This form of parental action was common throughout the 1940s” (TRC, 2015d, p. 116).

Two clear forms of resistance that occurred often were children running away and schools being burnt down. There are over 50 fires documented in residential schools. Some of these schools were then reopened as day schools. Parents and other community members also made formal complaints. For example, the TRC documents letters of complaints from parents to Ottawa as early as 1889, and also chronicles how the community of Six Nations hired inspectors to investigate the curriculum being taught at the Mohawk Institute in the early 1900s. There are many other examples of resistance, and these may have inspired the 1920 amendment to the Indian Act, which made attendance at day schools or Indian Residential Schools mandatory until 1951.

Interactive 1.6 CBC The National: Hidden children

Some Indigenous parents saved their children from residential schools by sending them into hiding. Now grown, one woman has been reunited with the family that took her in.

Daily Life at Residential Schools

Many accounts of daily life at residential schools have been published. They report that the schools had very regimented daily schedules that included a lot of religious instruction. Teachers were often poorly qualified and almost always under-resourced, and instruction was designed with the primary goal of assimilating Indigenous children into European-Canadian Christian culture. In one account, the daily schedule of the Mount Elgin School (1951) is listed as follows:

5 a.m. Bell rings, students rise, wash, and dress

5:30 a.m. Breakfast, then prayers

6-9 a.m. Boys work on farm and girls in house

9 a.m.-12 p.m. School

12-1 p.m. Lunch and recreation

1-3:30 p.m. School

3:30-6 p.m. Work on farm

6 p.m. Dinner and prayers

Evening In winter, boys in evening school, girls

learn needlework

9 p.m. Bedtime

(MacLean, 2005, p. 115)

Professor Celia Haig-Brown wrote one of the first books that exposed the miseries of life at residential school. Her book is about the Kamloops Indian Residential School, and to write it, she conducted interviews in 1985-1986 with Secwepemc survivors of this IRS (Haig-Brown, 2013). Daily life at this school and others like it consisted of early mornings, strict routines, and swift physical punishment for any deviation from the mandatory activities of the day. As one former student describes, morning routines needed to be completed without any talking with other children, and each day started with at least an hour-long church service before the classroom part of the day began (Haig-Brown, 2013). When class started, the first hour was also devoted to religious instruction.

Beyond the classroom, the skills that students were required to learn were gender normative: Girls were expected to learn skills related to keeping a household (a European household), such as sewing, cooking, and cleaning. Boys were taught the skills related to subsistence farming and keeping animals, always under the guise of assimilation into the dominant European and Christian culture. But, as Haig-Brown notes, “the assimilation was to take place under conditions which would cause no threat to the surrounding business and farming community” (p. 73). Thus, boys were trained to become part of the labour pool, but not to run their own farming business. Part of the motivation for this type of curriculum was to make the schools self-sustaining, or at the very least, to reduce costs so that the schools could take in more students (MacLean, 2005).

Health Issues in Residential Schools

Many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in residential schools died due to poor living conditions, inadequate food, lack of medical care, tuberculosis, small pox, influenza, pneumonia, and lung disease. The Canadian government was aware of these deaths but never established any health and safety standards to address these issues. In fact, many of the children were denied professional medical care and were left to die. The Truth and Reconciliation report stated, “Government, church, and school officials were well aware of these failures and their impact on student health” (Kennedy, 2015).

For a number of decades, starting in 1910, tuberculosis (TB) was one of the leading causes of death in residential schools. For every 100,000 children, 4000 died of TB (Young, 2015). The spread of this disease was exacerbated by poor living conditions along with malnutrition and lack of medical attention: “The schools were a particular breeding ground for tuberculosis … dormitories were incubation wards” (The Canadian Press, 2013). Children were often neglected and left to take care of themselves. As a result, many died.

Gallery 1.7 Health Issues in residential schools

Malnutrition and severe hunger in residential schools also contributed to higher death rates and long-term health issues. The Canadian government did not provide adequate funding to residential schools to purchase food; consequently, food deprivation was an ongoing issue. One of the survivors recalled in an interview with the Toronto Star “eating six orders of bacon and eggs in a restaurant one time after he got out of the residential school, much to the restaurant owner’s disbelief. ‘I would take so much food. I always thought in the back of my mind that there wasn’t going to be enough’” (Hudes, 2017). Today many survivors continue to suffer from long-term health effects due to the food deprivation and malnourishment they experienced in residential schools.

Between 1942 and 1952 children in residential schools were subjected to unethical medical research, mostly (but not exclusively) on the effects of malnutrition on children. These experiments were not only cruel, but parents were neither informed nor could they consent to their children’s participation, and many children suffered negative effects to their health and well-being for the rest of their lives (MacDonald, Stanwick, & Lynk, 2014). (As these experiments were taking place, Canadian forces were oversees fighting to defeat the horrors of a Nazi regime that also conducted unethical research but on concentration camp populations, an example of the incongruities common in Canadian history when it comes to treatment of Indigenous Peoples.)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called on the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) to support and facilitate the call-to-action recommendations related to health. The CMA has committed to adopt and work towards the recommendations, acknowledging “the importance of recognizing and not forgetting the terrible impact that the residential school system has had and, as a consequence of ongoing intergenerational trauma, continues to have on the health of many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people of Canada. Some will ask if this is the role of the CMA, and indeed it is” (HealthCareCAN, 2018, p. 3).

Deaths at Residential Schools

We hear from survivors and family members how important it is that they know what happened to their loved ones and to know where their remains are located. (Leung, 2015b)

About 150,000 Indigenous children were in the residential school system from 1870 to 1996 (The Canadian Press, 2013). The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that more than 3200 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children died in these church-run schools, far surpassing the death rate in any Canadian public school system (Ibbitson, 2017). Many of the children who went to these schools simply never returned home, and their parents still to this day have not been informed of their deaths. The primary causes of death for these children were disease (see the section on Health Issues), malnutrition, poor living conditions, fire, and physical abuse.

Gallery 1.8 Deaths at residential schools

Dr. Peter Bryce was an advocate for First Nations child health. In 1907 he issued a report known as “The Bryce Report,” which was based on his visit to 35 Indian Residential Schools in Western Canada. He reported unsanitary conditions, poor ventilation, overcrowdedness, and the spread of tuberculosis and other diseases. Dr. Bryce highlighted the high death rates of children at the schools and blamed the churches and Canadian government for these deaths. He noted that “we have created a situation so dangerous to heal that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse than they have been shown statistically to be” (First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, 2016, p. 1).

The TRC report also identified fire as one of the contributors to the death rates in residential schools. These schools were described as “death traps” because school officials locked the dormitory doors at night so that the children were unable to escape. “Many schools refused to spend money on fire escapes. Instead, they built poles outside of windows for children to slide down. But the windows were locked, and children were unable to reach the poles” (Leung, 2015b). As a result, many died when fires broke out in the schools.

Physical abuse was also quite common in residential schools. Many survivors have shared stories of being strapped and beaten. Some of these children endured corporal punishment and died as a result (Young, 2015). One of the survivors described being “slapped on the side of the head … one teacher struck him in the face and broke his nose” (Brodbeck, 2015).

Children who died were buried in school or mission cemeteries, usually far away from their families. The school administrators often did not bother to inform their parents or to record the cause of death. In fact, they stopped recording the buried children after the 1920s as the children were dying exponentially. Some graves were marked and others were unmarked. And when the schools closed, these cemeteries were abandoned: “In other words, neither the schools nor the government really gave a damn. Because these kids weren’t treated like human beings. They were treated like animals” (Brodbeck, 2015). The TRC report stated that 32 percent of these deaths were never recorded, and the majority of the deaths took place before the 1940s. It also emphasized that families will never know how their loved ones died or where they are buried (CTV News, 2015a).


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Logan, T. (2017). Métis experience at residential schools. Circles for Reconciliation. Retrieved from http://circlesforreconciliation.ca/2017/09/29/gathering-theme-metis-experience-at-residential- schools/

MacDonald, N. E., Stanwick, R., & Lynk, A. (2014). Canada’s shameful history of nutrition research on residential school children: The need for strong medical ethics in Aboriginal health research. Paediatr Child Health, (19), 2.

MacLean, H. (2005). Ojibwa participation in Methodist residential schools in Upper Canada. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, XXV(1), 93-137. Retrieved from http://www3.brandonu.ca/cjns/25.1/cjnsv25no1_pg93-137.pdf

Marsh, J. (2012). Stadacona. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/stadacona/

Mathieu, J. (2013). New France. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/new-france/

Miller, J. R. (1996). Shingwauk’s vision: A history of native residential schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Miller, J. R. (2012). Residential schools. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools/

Milloy, J. S. (1999). A national crime: The Canadian government and the residential school system, 1879 to 1986. Winnipeg, MB: University of Manitoba Press.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation. (2002). Section 3: Pockets of resistance and punishment. Healing the generations residential school: 2002 curriculum update. Retrieved from http://rschools.nan.on.ca/upload/documents/section-3/pockets-of-resistance.pdf

Nishnawbe Aski Nation. (2005a). Early church efforts. Retrieved from http://rschools.nan.on.ca/article/early-church-efforts-1118.asp

Nishnawbe Aski Nation. (2005b). The Ryerson experiment. Retrieved from  http://rschools.nan.on.ca/article/the-ryerson-experiment-1119.asp

Nishnawbe Aski Nation. (2005c). The Davin Report, 1879. Retrieved from http://rschools.nan.on.ca/article/the-davin-report-1879-1120.asp

Resistance. (n.d.). In Stolen lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools. Retrieved from https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/chapter-4/resistance

Rheault, D. (2011). Solving the “Indian Problem” Assimilation Laws, Practices & Indian Residential Schools. Retrieved from https://www.omfrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/specialedition8.pdf

Schwartz, D. (2015, June 3). Residential school students had same odds of dying as soldiers in WW II. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-by-the-numbers-1.3096185

Sylvain, P. (2008). Ignace Bourget. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/ignace-bourget/

The Canadian Press. (2013, February 18). At least 3,000 died in residential schools, research shows. CBC. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/at-least-3-000-died-in-residential-schools-research-shows-1.1310894

The residential school system. (2009). In Indigenous Foundations. University of British Columbia. Retrieved from http://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_residential_school_system/

The United Church of Canada Archives. (2018). United Church Residential Schools Archives Project. Retrieved from https://www.united-church.ca/leadership/church-administration/united-church-canada-archives

The United Church of Canada. (2008). Remembering the children: An Aboriginal and church leaders’ tour to prepare for Truth and Reconciliation. Retrieved from http://www.rememberingthechildren.ca/

The United Church of Canada. (2018). The apologies. Retrieved from http://www.united-church.ca/social-action/justice-initiatives/apologies

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2012). They came for the children; Canada, aboriginal peoples, and the residential schools. Ottawa, ON: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015a). The history, Part 1 Origins to 1939: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Vol. 1). Winnipeg, MB: Montreal, Kingston, London, Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press. pp. 1-1025.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015b). The history, Part 2 1939 to 2000: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Vol. 1). Montreal, Kingston, London, Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press. pp. 1-859.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015c). Canada’s residential schools: The Métis experience: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Vol. 1). Montreal, Kingston, London, Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015d). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Volume one: Summary. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company.

Union of Ontario Indians. (2013). An overview of the Indian Residential School system. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwi817uXlrDbAhUl_4MKHQV0C6AQFggpMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.anishinabek.ca%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2016%2F07%2FAn-Overview-of-the-IRS-System-Booklet.pdf&usg=AOvVaw3CUnLh-mlY-SmyVUKqomzV

University of Victoria Centre for Youth and Society. (n.d.). Resistance to residential schools digital stories [Video files]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL92498D8B595F2473

Vais, G., Cowper, K., Gemmell, T., & Corbett, T. (1994, June 9). The Confession of the Presbyterian Church as Adopted by the General Assembly, June 9th, 1994. Retrieved from http://presbyterianarchives.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/RS-Confession.pdf

White, J. P., & Peters, J. (2009). A short history of Aboriginal education in Canada. Aboriginal Policy Research Consortium International (APRCi). Retrieved from http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/aprci/23

Young, L. (2015, December 15). Residential schools subjected students to disease, abuse, experiments: TRC report. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/2402492/residential-schools-subjected-students-to-disease-abuse-experiments-trc-report/

Media (in order of appearance)

Thomas Moore before and after admission to Regina Indian Industrial School [photograph]. (c. 1896-1897). R-A8223 (1)-(2). Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, Regina, SK. Retrieved from http://sab.minisisinc.com/sabmin/scripts/mwimain.dll/581/1/1?RECLIST&DATABASE=ORPHANS_ADV#order

Doane, T.C. [photographer] (1848). James Bruce, The Earl of Elgin and Kincardine. [photograph]. MIKAN 3644739. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-15T16%3A24%3A23Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3644739&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Rev. Egerton Ryerson [etching]. (n.d.). MIKAN 3029964. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-15T16%3A26%3A16Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3029964&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng Image taken from page 153 of ‘Histoire des Canadiens-Français. 1608-1880. Ouvrage orné de portraits et de plans’ [digital image]. (1882). British Library, London, UK. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11151396464

Canada (Senate). (n.d.). British North America Act, 1867 [cover image]. Retrieved from https://sencanada.ca/en/about/brochure/parliamentary-treasures/history-canada-e

Topley, W.J. [photographer] (1880s). Nicholas Flood Davin, M.P. [photograph]. MIKAN
3630240. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-07T13%3A46%3A36Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3630240&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Pupils at Carlisle Indian school, Pennsylvania. [photograph]. (c. 1900). Retrieved from http://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/forts/images/carlisle.html

Chiricahua Apaches as they arrived at Carlisle from Fort Marion, Florida [photograph]. (1886, November). Retrieved from http://www.californiaindianeducation.org/indian_boarding_schools/pictures/Chiricahua_Apaches_Arrival.jpg

Chiricahua Apaches Four Months After Arriving at Carlisle [photograph]. (c. 1880s). Call # WA MSS S-1174 . Richard Henry Pratt papers, 1862-1956, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. Retrieved from https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3519398

Three Lakota Boys, Carlisle Indian Industrial School [photograph]. (c. 1900). Retrieved from http://www.californiaindianeducation.org/indian_boarding_schools/pictures/Three_Lakota_Boys_Carlisle.jpg

Educating the Indian Race: Graduating Class of Carlisle, Pa. [photograph]. (c. 1890s). Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1890s_Carlisle_Boarding_School_Graduates_PA.jpg

Indian Day School (first view), Manitoulin Island Indian Reserve, Ontario, circa summer 1938. [photograph]. (c. 1938). MIKAN 4673850. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-07T13%3A37%3A35Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=4673850&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Christie’s Bookstore [photographer] (c. 1920). Brandon Indian Residential School, Manitoba, ca. 1920 [photograph]. MIKAN
3336559. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A37%3A54Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3336559&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Canada. Dept. of the Interior. [photographer] (c. 1920s-30s). General view of barns, Indian Industrial School [photograph]. MIKAN 3303937. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A39%3A22Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3303937&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

National Film Board of Canada [photographer] (c. 1935-40).
Staff outside the entrance of the Brandon Indian Industrial School.  [photograph]. MIKAN 3194037. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A40%3A48Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3194037&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

National Film Board of Canada [photographer] (n.d.). Good type of barn, Industrial School, Brandon, Man. [photograph]. MIKAN 3643463. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A42%3A09Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3643463&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Albertype Company [photographer] (c. 1900-25.). Dominion Experimental Farm, showing the Brandon Indian Residential School on the left, Brandon, Manitoba, ca. 1900-1925 [photograph]. MIKAN 3334782. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A43%3A43Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3334782&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Centennial College. (2018). Susie Jones, residential school survivor [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/JeBOkh6Zots

Centennial College. (2018). Susan Enberg, Director and Co-Producer of the film ‘In Jesus Name’ [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/KXug2T-pJ5I

Glunz, B. [photographer] (1945, March).Cree students at their desks with their teacher in a classroom, All Saints Indian Residential School, Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, March 1945   [photograph]. MIKAN 3191693. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-07T13%3A44%3A51Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3191693&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Chooutla School, Carcross, Yukon – destroyed by fire, April 1939 [photograph]. (c. 1920s). P7538-892 . Anglican Church of Canada General Synod Archives, Toronto, ON. Retrieved from http://archives.anglican.ca/en/permalink/graphics3197

Group of students eating in the dining tent with school personnel, Coppermine (Kugluktuk) school (Tent Hostel), Nunavut [photograph]. (c. 1958). MIKAN 3614181 . Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A14%3A38Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3614181&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Canada. Dept. of the Interior. [photographer] (n.d.).
Aboriginal girls in dormitory at Shingwauk Indian Residential School. [photograph]. MIKAN
3378416Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayEcopies&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3378416&rec_nbr_list=3378416,4113888,4113867,4113886,4112394,4113887,3455599,3354522,3354525,3354524&title=Aboriginal+girls+in+dormitory+at+Shingwauk+Indian+Residential+School.+%5BL-R%3A+Possibly+Daisy+Longchap+or+Helen+Pine%2C+possibly+Eva+Sagnasha%2C+unidentified+girl%2C+unidentified+girl%2C+possibly+Minnie+Kitchen.%5D++&ecopy=a185528-v8

Canada. Dept. of the Interior. [photographer] (n.d.).
St. Michael%27s Indian Residential School entrance, with two students on the driveway, Alert Bay, British Columbia, CA. [photograph]. MIKAN
3378417. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayEcopies&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3378417&rec_nbr_list=4674051,4674050,3378417,3361108,3575733,2036314,2051429,2049639,2047305,4487525&title=St.+Michael%27s+Indian+Residential+School+entrance%2C+with+two+students+on+the+driveway%2C+Alert+Bay%2C+British+Columbia%2C+ca.+1970++&ecopy=a185533-v8

Crosby Home Close Up [digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://thechildrenremembered.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/crosby-home-original-close-up.jpg

Coleman, J. [photographer] (1942). Alberni [B.C., Indian Residential] School, June 1942. [photograph].  MIKAN
3381493. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A36%3A03Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3381493&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Flag pole base, Norway House Indian Residential School. Day school block at left. [photograph]. (c. 1954). UCCA, 86.158P/65. United Church Archives, Toronto, ON. Retrieved from http://thechildrenremembered.ca/photos/?id=1655&school=Norway%20House

Morley Indian Residential School, students playing on swings, Morely, Alberta, ca. 1900 [photograph]. (c. 1900). MIKAN 3455590. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A45%3A43Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3455590&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School choir, circa 1967 [photograph]. (c. 1967). UCCA, 93.049P/1756. United Church Archives, Toronto, ON. Retrieved from http://thechildrenremembered.ca/photos/?id=1364&school=Portage%20La%20Prairie

Mgr. Martin Lajeunesse O.M.IL, R.P. Antonio Giard O.M.I. [photograph]. (1952, November 4). Fond 0484, Ref. N3637. Centre du patrimoine, La Société historique de Saint-Boniface, Saint-Boniface, MB. Retrieved from http://archivesshsb.mb.ca/en/permalink/archives114994

Norway House IRS in flames [photograph]. (1913). UCCA, 93.049P/1262N. United Church Archives, Toronto, ON. Retrieved from http://thechildrenremembered.ca/school-locations/norway-house/

Students at the Kitamaat, British Columbia residential school [photograph]. (n.d.). UCCA, 93.049P1835. United Church Archives, Toronto, ON. Retrieved from http://web-trc.ca/#resistance-i-am-the-father-of-this-child

St. Anne’s School on Fire [photograph]. (c. 2002). Retrieved from https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/st-anne-residential-school-opp-documents

Student and nurse, Edmonton Indian Residential School, circa 1930 [photograph]. (c. 1930). UCCA, 93.049P/870N. United Church Archives, Toronto, ON. Retrieved from http://thechildrenremembered.ca/photos/?id=1110

Residential school students at the Roman Catholic cemetery in Fort George, Québec [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf

Canada. Dept. of the Interior. [photographer] (n.d.).
Mohawk Institute, Brantford, Ont. [photograph]. MIKAN
3309645. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, ON. Retrieved from http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2018-06-12T16%3A24%3A03Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=3309645&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng

Boys cutting wood at the Williams Lake, British Columbia, school [photograph]. (c. 1900). Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin, Williams Lake, BC. Retrieved from http://web-trc.ca/



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