Canadian Indian residential school system

In Canada, the Indian residential school system[nb 1] was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples.[nb 2] The network was funded by the Canadian government's Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches. The school system was created to isolate Indigenous children from the influence of their own native culture and religion in order to assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture.[3][4][5]:42[6] Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, around 150,000 children were placed in residential schools nationally.[7]:2–3 By the 1930s, about 30 percent of Indigenous children were attending residential schools.[8] The number of school-related deaths remains unknown due to incomplete records. Estimates range from 3,200 to over 30,000, mostly from disease.[9][10][11][12]

The Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School in Lebret, Assiniboia, North-West Territories, c.1885
Study period at a Roman Catholic Indian Residential School in Fort Resolution, NWT

The system had its origins in laws enacted before Confederation, but it was primarily active from the passage of the Indian Act in 1876, under Prime Minister Alexander MacKenzie. Under Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, the government adopted the residential industrial school system of the United States, a partnership between the government and various church organizations. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1894, under Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell, made attendance at day schools, industrial schools, or residential schools compulsory for First Nations children. Due to the remote nature of many communities, school locations meant that for some families, residential schools were the only way to comply. The schools were intentionally located at substantial distances from Indigenous communities to minimize contact between families and their children. Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued for schools at greater distances to reduce family visits, which he thought counteracted efforts to assimilate Indigenous children. Parental visits were further restricted by the use of a pass system designed to confine Indigenous peoples to reserves. The last federally-funded residential school, Kivalliq Hall in Rankin Inlet, closed in 1997. Schools operated in every province and territory with the exception of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The residential school system harmed Indigenous children significantly by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, and exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse. Conditions in the schools led to student malnutrition, starvation, and disease.[13][14] Students were also subjected to forced enfranchisement as "assimilated" citizens that removed their legal identity as Indians. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students often graduated being unable to fit into their communities but remaining subject to racist attitudes in mainstream Canadian society. The system ultimately proved successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs across generations. The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide, and intergenerational trauma which persist within Indigenous communities today.[15]

Starting in the late 2000s, the Canadian government and religious communities have begun to recognize, and issue apologies for, their respective roles in the residential school system. Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology on his behalf and that of the other federal political party leaders. On June 1, 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to uncover the truth about the schools. The commission gathered about 7,000 statements from residential school survivors[nb 3] through various local, regional and national events across Canada. In 2015, the TRC concluded with the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and released a report that concluded that the school system amounted to cultural genocide. Ongoing efforts since 2021 have identified thousands of probable unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools, though no human remains have been exhumed. During a penitential pilgrimage to Canada in July 2022, Pope Francis reiterated the apologies of the Catholic Church for its role, also acknowledging the system as genocide.[17][18] In October 2022, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion calling on the federal Canadian government to recognize the residential school system as genocide.[19]


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