Residential schools are a dark spot in Canada’s history, so let’s explore some of the facts.
How they came to be.
The federal residential school system began around 1883; however, the origins of the system date back to the 1830s – long before Confederation in 1867. The Anglican Church established a residential school in Brantford, Ontario.
Residential schools operated in Canada for more than 160 years, with upwards of 150,000 children passing through their doors. The last closed in Saskatchewan in 1996. Catholic and Protestant churches provided much of the original direction on where schools would be placed and how the system would grow.
The quality of the education, and the buildings themselves was substandard through much of the history of the system. Early schools were notoriously insufficient, underfunded, and mismanaged. Accounts from survivors and staff showed that the buildings were often in a poor-state, and in some cases, even dangerous.
To further erase their identity, students had their hair cut short, they were dressed in uniforms, often given numbers, and their days were strictly controlled by timetables. Boys and girls were kept separate, and even siblings rarely interacted. The purpose was to eliminate all aspects of Indigenous culture. In addition, students were strictly forbidden to speak their languages—even though many children knew no other—nor to practice Indigenous customs or traditions. Violations of these rules were met with severe punishment and abuse.
Chief Robert Joseph, a residential school survivor, and now Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada, recalls some of his experiences. “People who were supposed to take care of us would beat us at every provocation, drag us around by the ear, strap us with every conceivable instrument they had on hand.”
Residential school abuse and its inter-generational effects have created devastating impacts on entire aboriginal communities. Much has been written about the history and experiences of people who attended these institutions. These institutions not only took children away from their families and culture, but destroyed the rest of their life as most could never reconnect with their culture again. Marcia Brown Martel, who is an Ojibwa-Algonquin Indigenous leader, has lived through residential schools. Aside from the traumatic experience, at 18, after she was released from a Residential school, she “spent the remainder of her childhood and teenage years shuffling around from foster home to foster home, eventually becoming homeless for a time. During this period of her life, Martel suffered sexual abuse. In one foster home, she remembers being washed roughly during bath time in order to, as she recalls her caregivers saying, ‘scrub the brown off’.” (Martel) There is a great cultural diversity within Aboriginal groups. With some 596 bands located on 2,284 reserves and crown land, 10 different languages and more than 58 dialects. The schools were designed “to kill the Indian in the child.” (“Background to residential schools”)
In a judgment submitted by the Supreme Court of Canada, Stephen Harper and Warren Winkler also observed that the residential school system removed children “from their families and communities to serve the purpose of carrying out a “concerted campaign to obliterate” the “habits and associations” of “Indigenous languages, traditions and beliefs,” in order to accomplish “a radical re-socialization” aimed at instilling the children instead with the values of Euro-centric civilization.” (“JW v. Canada (Attorney General) – SCC Cases”)
Despite the terrible conditions and the rampant abuse in these schools, the government and churches could not erase the culture. They were unable to break the spirit of the Indigenous people they sought to ‘civilize.’ While Indigenous people can still feel the effect of Residential Schools, their strength leaves room for hope.
In order to address the issue of healing properly, the impacts of Residential schooling must first be explored. Just as there is a great diversity among Aboriginal peoples, so too are there individual experiences in residential schools. Another complicating factor in determining the impact of residential schooling is the fact that these institutions are only one of many forms of oppressive measures that have impacted upon Aboriginal peoples. Barman (1996) states, “the high rates of impoverishment, incarceration, suicide, and alcoholism in Canadian Indigenous peoples, can be traced back to the abuse received at Residential schools.”
These lasting effects of the abuse and mistreatment in the schools have a lasting impact on the Indigenous population. Studies have shown that survivors of the schools have poorer mental and physical health. There are higher rates of suicide attempts as well as chronic illnesses such as diabetes among these individuals. There is also evidence to suggest that historical trauma has led to negative impacts of subsequent generations. (“Residential schools and the effects on Indigenous health and well-being in Canada”)
Embeded below is a map of every Residential School in Canada, their opening and closing dates, as well as their denomination.
“Background to residential schools.” The Critical Thinking Consortium, https://tc2.ca/uploads/backgroundbriefs/BBResSchools.pdf. Accessed 1 June 2022.
Cloudfront. “Research paper The Effects of Residential Schools on First Nations – APA style A residential school was an educational instit.” cloudfront.net, http://d5s5h26eyrr5q.cloudfront.net/editing-writing-services-samples/AEHelp.com-Res-Schools-no-bubbles.pdf. Accessed 16 May 2022.
“JW v. Canada (Attorney General) – SCC Cases.” Supreme Court of Canada, https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/17680/index.do. Accessed 1 June 2022.
Martel, Marcia Brown. “Marcia Brown Martel.” Gale in Context, Gale, a Cengage Company, 2021, https://go-gale-com.bc.idm.oclc.org/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=Biographies&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=SingleTab&hitCount=2&searchType=TopicSearchForm¤tPosition=1&docId=GALE%7CQWUUFF987078198&docType=Biography&sort=Relevance&contentSegment. Accessed 16 5 2022.
“Residential schools and the effects on Indigenous health and well-being in Canada.” Public Health Reviews, 2 March 2017, https://publichealthreviews.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40985-017-0055-6. Accessed 30 May 2022.
“Residential schools and the effects on Indigenous health and well-being in Canada—a scoping review – Public Health Reviews.” Public Health Reviews, 2 March 2017, https://publichealthreviews.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40985-017-0055-6. Accessed 16 May 2022.