The residential schools system ran for over a hundred years in Canada, starting in formally in the 1870’s and lasting until 1996. Mission schools, industrial homes and hostels dated back even further into the 1830’s. It is estimated that 150,000 indigenous children from different nations, including the Inuit and Métis, went through the residential schools system. These schools were administered and run by religious orders in Canada with monetary sponsorship from the Canadian government. Legislation put in place ensured that it was a legal requirement for all indigenous children to attend these schools; consequences of refusal ranged from a loss of First Nations Status, heavy fines, or even jail time.
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”- John A. Macdonald
The goals of this system were primarily concerned with culture and language, students would be required to speak English or French while at residential schools and the punishments for speaking their indigenous languages would have been severe. On their arrival to the school students would be first split by gender, forcibly washed, have their hair cut, have any personal items removed, receive a new uniform and sometimes t a new name if theirs was not in English. Student’s connection to their home community was severed through the long distances between communities and the schools, through the removal of cultural possessions, the removal of language, and through forced separation from siblings they had at the institution.
“I am confident that the Industrial School now about to be established will be a principal feature in the civilization of the Indian mind. The utility of Industrial Schools has long been acknowledged by our neighbours across the line [in the United States], who have had much to do with the Indian. In that country, as in this, it is found difficult to make day schools on reserves a success, because the influence of home associations is stronger than that of the schools, and so long as such a state of things exists I fear that the inherited aversion to labour can never be successfully met. By the children being separated from their parents and properly and regularly instructed not only in the rudiments of the English language, but also in trades and agriculture, so that what is taught may not be readily forgotten, I can but assure myself that a great end will be attained for the permanent and lasting benefit of the Indian.”- E. Dewdney, Indian Commissioner. Dominion of Canada. Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs for the year ended 31st December 1883. p. 104.
Students were required to perform custodial duties around the school, as the funding provided did not allow for extra staff. This half-day system lasted until the 1960’s and was meant to be job training. This meant that in addition to the lower standard of education, residential school students also spent less time in the classroom. Although some had good intentions, the quality of instructors and teachers at residential schools was inadequate; many had no experience working with children or it was their first time teaching. Unprepared for the demands of the job and how little it paid, staff were driven to burnout and would often become impatient and abusive with their pupils.
By the 1960’s changes were being made to residential schools and Indian Act policies, many schools no longer required students to perform a half day of labour and were being enrolled at public schools, using the residential school as a dormitory. This period of time also saw control of indigenous education shift from religious to government controlled. Children were still being removed from their homes with the introduction of the ‘60’s Scoop’, a children’s aid policy that declared most Indigenous family homes as ‘unfit’. This system saw the removal and re-homing of indigenous children with non-indigenous families; adopting them out across Canada and the United States.
Slowly control of education was handed to indigenous communities through the 1980’s, with the last Band-operated residential school closing in 1996. However many Indigenous people still have to travel great distances without their families to access education.