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Virtual Museum of Canada The Making of Treaty #8 in Canada's Northwest
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1899 and After

Residential Schools: The Background

anglican missionOne of the most acrimonious issues to result from the Treaty process is the dark legacy of the residential school system. The purpose of the residential schools in Canada was to educate and civilize or westernize the First Nation peoples in order that they adopt a more western - that is European - lifestyle. Separating the children from their parents and forcing religion on them, it was believed, was the only means by which to achieve this "civilizing" of the First Nations peoples.

The Residential Schools were not unique to the Treaty 8 peoples, and in fact had been established as early as the 1840s in Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario), but these earlier schools were strictly church-run institutions. The federal government became involved after 1842 and the passing of the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 which set aside funds for schools that would teach the First Nations peoples English in a thinly veiled attempt to attenuate local native cultures. The Indian Act of 1876 gave further responsibility to the federal government for Native education. An order-in-council was passed in 1892 announcing the regulations for the operation of residential schools. It set up a grant arrangement stating that the government would give $110-$145 per student per year to the church-run schools and $72 per student in the day schools.

The schools first appeared in Western Canada in 1883-84, with schools opened in Qu'Appelle, High River and Battleford. By 1898, there were 54 schools nation-wide, which increased to 74 schools in 1920. In the same year, the Department of Indian Affairs decided to make school mandatory for children aged 7 to 15. The 1950s were the peak of the residential school era, with 76 schools in operation.  However, the numbers started to go down as the rumors of the treatment of the children spread and as the federal government began to change its policies towards Canada's First Nations.

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