A Painful Legacy

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by ADMINISTRATOR2016

About 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend residential schools between the 1880s and 1996. It was believed that native children would be better off if they abandoned their native cultures in favor of Canadian values. Here, three children are pictured at the All Saints Residential School in Shingle Point, Yukon, 1930.

About 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend residential schools between the 1880s and 1996. Here, three students are pictured at the All Saints Residential School in Shingle Point, Yukon, 1930.

David Eggen, the Education Minister of the Canadian province of Alberta, made an announcement on October 24, 2017. From now on, Alberta classrooms will provide a greater focus on Canada’s aboriginal, or native, people.

The new curriculum will include a unit called Secret Path. It tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a native Ojibwa boy. Wenjack was 12 years old when he fled a Canadian residential school in Ontario. Sadly, he froze to death before he could reach safety. What was it about a residential school that would lead a young person to take such desperate measures?

Residential schools were intended to teach native children how to be successful in modern Canadian life. In reality, teachers at the schools were often poorly trained. Many students said that they had been mistreated while attending these schools, which finally closed in 1996. In 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered an official apology to former students. He said the practice of residential schools was “wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”

David Eggen thinks that it is important for Canadian students to know about native cultures. According to Eggen, “It is critical our students understand the history of residential schools, along with the histories and vibrant cultures of indigenous communities and the role we all have to play in reconciliation.”

Residential Schools

Canada’s Indian Act of 1876 made the government responsible for educating Canada’s native people. Starting in the 1880s, the government worked with Christian churches to establish a system of residential schools across the country. An 1894 amendment to the Indian Act made attendance a requirement.

The Canadian government said that in order for native people to be successful, they would need to learn English or French. They would also need to abandon native practices and instead adopt Canadian customs. When these students grew up, they would then teach their children Canadian values. Over time, the government hoped, native traditions would disappear. This policy was called aggressive assimilation. Eventually, there were about 130 residential schools, and about 150,000 native children were forced to attend them.

Students found lessons confusing. School materials showed a way of life that was strange to many native children. Lessons were taught in either English or French, languages many native children did not speak. Students were taught that the Christian religion was superior to native spiritual beliefs. If they were unlucky enough to be caught speaking their native languages, students could receive severe punishments.

Life at residential schools was difficult. Food was low in quantity and poor in quality. The clothes provided often did not fit properly and were ineffective against harsh Canadian winters. Students spent half the day in class and the other half working. The schools maintained that through working, students would learn valuable job skills. Actually, the work program was included mostly as a way to keep down the cost of running the schools. Life at the schools was not healthy. It was eventually determined that at least 3,200 native children died while attending them. Since students were underfed and malnourished, they were especially vulnerable to diseases, such as tuberculosis and influenza.

Residential schools had a negative effect on native families, too. Most students were required to live at school for 10 months out of the year, so few had a chance to experience normal family life. Children were required to write letters home in English. This was a language that many native parents couldn’t read. Even if they attended the same school, brothers and sisters would rarely see each other since boys and girls were kept separate.

As a result, many residential school students found that they did not fit in anywhere. Many never learned the skills needed to help their parents at home. Others grew ashamed of their native heritage. Since the teaching at most schools was so poor, many graduates never learned the skills needed to find jobs in Canadian cities.


Both students and parents began to protest. Some students refused to cooperate with their teachers. Others stole food and supplies, or they simply ran away. Parents complained about the schools’ harsh conditions and poor teaching. At first, the government paid little attention to these protests. However, by the 1940s, native protests led to changes.

In 1969, Canada ended church involvement in residential schools. Many churches resisted. The Catholic Church insisted that segregated education was the only effective way to teach native children. However, in  time, the Catholic Church apologized for its involvement in the residential schools. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI expressed “sorrow” to a delegation from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations for the abuse and “deplorable” treatment that native students suffered at Roman Catholic Church-run residential schools. By the 1980s, most of the schools had closed. The last closed in 1996.

Classes at Canadian residential schools like one pictured above were taught in English or French, languages many native children could not speak. Students caught speaking their native languages could face punishment.

Classes at Canadian residential schools like one pictured above were taught in English or French, languages many native children could not speak. Students caught speaking their native languages faced punishment.

Acknowledgment and Apology

It took many years for government and religious leaders in Canada to admit that the residential school system had been a failure. In 1993, Archbishop Michael Peers offered an apology on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada: “I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.”

Over the years, the Canadian government worked with the Anglican, Catholic, United, and Presbyterian Churches, which ran residential schools, to provide money to former students. In 2007, the Canadian government announced a $1.9-billion (Canadian dollars) compensation package for native people who had been forced to attend residential schools. Former students began receiving Common Experience Payments. The amount was based on how long a student attended a school. Any money remaining from the $1.9-billion package was given to foundations that support learning needs of native students. As of 2013, $1.6 billion had been paid, representing 105,548 cases.

In 2008, the Canadian government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission was intended to both document and publicize native people’s experiences at the residential schools. It was able to gain access to more than 3.5 million government documents related to residential schools. The commission held events in several Canadian cities to publicly address the experiences of residential schools students. The commission released its final report in 2015.

Additional Resources

Read more about residential schools in Canada at at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Encyclopedia.

See an online exhibit about residential schools at the Legacy of Hope Foundation.

Learn more about the life of Chanie Wenjack at Maclean’s and CBC Music.

Images and Sources

Native children at residential school photo: BiblioArchives Canada
Native children at residential school photo license: Creative Commons 2.o

Residential school classroom photo: archives.algomau.ca
Residential school classroom photo license: public domain