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Residential Schools in Canada

The colonization of North America involved not only the dispossession of Indigenous populations of their traditional lands but also attempts at reshaping of the First Nations into “useful citizens” as defined by the colonial powers. In Canada, the signing of treaties was the vehicle for accomplishing the first; establishment of residential schools was meant to enable the second. The settling of Aboriginal Peoples on reserves meant that they could no longer roam the land freely, and their hunting and gathering life style would need to be replaced by a more sedentary occupation, that is, agriculture which could be learned through schooling. In the process, the “Indian” would be taken out of them and they would become a part of a new nation built on European models.  This was the Government’s objective in establishing the residential schools.


Legislation became the vehicle for the accomplishment of these objectives that were intended to assimilate Aboriginal Peoples into the developing settler world. Two important pieces of legislation began the process: the Gradual Civilization Act (1857) and Gradual Enfranchisement Act (1869). The former was passed by the Legislature of the Province of Canada and awarded 50 acres (200,000 square metres) of land to any Indigenous male with appropriate education. (However, by becoming “enfranchised,” the individual would lose Treaty status. It was, therefore, opposed by First Nations who had signed Treaties prior to that time1

The westward expansion into the North West following upon Confederation in 1867 saw not only a flurry of Treaty signings (Treaties 6 and 7 and, later, Treaty 8) but also the development of federal policies establishing residential schools for all Aboriginal children. Simply put, this meant that students would not live at home but in residences attached to schools. Students had been “living in” or “boarding” at schools in most European countries for centuries. Since it was commonly believed that living in a closed environment was conducive to learning, the application of this educational model to Aboriginal Peoples was in and of itself not inherently bad.  However, contrary to boarding schools in Europe, these were aimed at the systematic “erasure” of the students’ previous upbringing and traditional Aboriginal culture.

In 1879, the government of Sir John A. MacDonald accepted a report by Nicholas Flood Davin titled: “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds.” This resulted in the approval of public funding for the establishment of an Indian residential school system in Canada. The intent was the forced assimilation through the loss of language, culture and religion as well as family and community values and ways of being.

Missionaries belonging to various Christian denominations (for example, Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic) had already established schools in their missions. All understood that Aboriginal Peoples’ conversion to Christianity would be facilitated through education. Thus, education became a dual vehicle for conversion and assimilation. Many of the missionaries and government officials did not believe that they were depriving Aboriginal Peoples of any rights or damaging them in any way. They saw themselves as representing the forces of civilization and bringing about a better life for the original inhabitants of the land. The Roman Catholics operated about 60 percent of the residential schools; the Anglican Church of Canada, about 30 percent; and the Methodists, Presbyterian and Congregationalist (together comprising the United Church of Canada after 1925) operated about 10 percent.

Attendance at residential schools was compulsory for all children from the ages of 6 to 15, who for up to 10 months a year had to leave their families and reside in the schools. They were forbidden by government directive from speaking their native language; and this was enforced by inspectors. Students rarely if ever saw their parents during the school year and felt rootless and alienated. The European way of learning was alien to them and the curriculum unrelated to anything that they had learned in their first years of life. They also missed the family ties and, eventually, when they returned to their homes, no longer felt comfortable with the “old ways.”

In a post-colonial age that values individual and collective rights and freedoms, the legacy of the residential school systems is a blot on the honour of the Government of Canada and a national shame.2 Residential school students suffered from a loss of basic freedoms (of religion, culture, self-determination, etc.). Corporal punishment was an accepted method of discipline among children of European ancestry but foreign to those from Aboriginal communities.  Some children also suffered from sexual abuse by perverted teachers and school officials in an era that had no awareness of children’s rights. What is most tragic and shameful is the severe and constant underfunding of the schools by the Canadian government over the first 75 years.  Not withstanding major efforts by the Churches to supplement government funds, the system often resulted in poor accommodation, nutrition and standards of education as well as inadequate health care.  This was a result of Government of Canada policy that was enforced on the Aboriginal communities.  For a number of reasons, various religious denominations, including the Oblates, participated in the implementation of this system, believing that they were serving mankind as well as their God.

Nor can it be said that the Government was unaware of the problems in the system.  As early as 1909, Dr. Peter Bryce, a general medical superintendent for Indian Affairs, had reported that between 1894 and 1908 mortality rates at residential schools in Western Canada ranged from 35 percent to 60 percent.  A logical conclusion is the existence of a pervasive racism within Government, both among elected officials and in the civil service. In 1922, after Bryce left Indian Affairs, his conscience prompted him to write The Story of a national Crime: Being a Record of the health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921.

It was not until 1947, following the report of a Special Joint Committee resulting in an amendment of the Indian Act, that things began to change. In 1969, the Department of Indian affairs took control of the residential schools and most were closed. The 1960s saw a rise in Aboriginal activism and assertion of Treaty rights.  It was this generation of educated and determined Aboriginal Peoples, joined by historians and others who were troubled by the plight of Aboriginal Peoples (this included members of various faith communities), that prompted the Government of Canada to address the residential school question.  This became the lightning rod for all of the wrongs done to Aboriginal Peoples. But it would not be until 1998 that the Government of Canada would issue a Statement of Reconciliation. This would include an apology regarding physical and sexual abuse. In addition, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was established and given $350 million for community-based healing projects. An additional $40 million was approved in the 2005 budget.

Parallel activities were happening in the US, Australia and New Zealand – all former colonies of Great Britain; all, Western societies having individual rights and freedoms enshrined in constitutions and charters. Recognizing that the treatment of Indigenous People from colonial times to the present was a legacy of wrong doing was a kind of retroactive application of these beliefs to First Nations. For some, this is an example of political correctness gone mad but, clearly, this is not a point of view shared by Aboriginal communities. Just as the US has implemented a policy of returning to claimants Aboriginal skeletal remains housed in the collections of the Museum of Natural History in Washington, the Government of Canada has proceeded to address residential school claims.

In 2001, the Government of Canada created the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada as a new department with the mandate to address the legacy of the residential schools through the provision of alternative means of compensation and support for former students. This was followed, in 2003, with the Alternative Dispute Resolution process. Because litigation would have swamped the court system and have lasted beyond the life span of even the last students of the system, the ADR is an “out of court” process that provides compensation and psychological support for former students, who were physically or sexually abused or wrongly confined.

In 2005, the government approved a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit survivors of abuse at residential schools. According to Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, the residential school policy was “the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history.” The Settlement Agreement announced in 2006 added additional funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and initiated a “Truth and Reconciliation” program in Aboriginal communities. The model for this is, clearly, the Commission in South Africa to promote post-Apartheid healing. Because there are so many individual accounts of wrong doing that would be impossible to prove, the Government established an individual Common Experience Payment. Thus, anyone who can be verified as having attended a federally-run Indian residential school in Canada is entitled to this payment. Compensation is based on years attended with a flat payment of $10,000 for the first year, plus $3,000 for every year thereafter.

The Settlement Agreement also proposed an advance payment for former students who are 65 years or older as of May 30, 2005. This required the simple completion of a form and $8,000 was awarded immediately (the amount was to be deducted from the total Common Experience Payment once it was agreed). The deadline for request of advance payment was December 31, 2006 but, as a result of legal challenge, an ‘opt-out’ period occurred, which ended on August 20, 2007. The Common Experience Payment became available to all the former students of residential schools on September 19, 2007. The deadline to apply for the CEP is September 19, 2011.


The Oblate Fathers had hardly been in Canada (1842) when Bishop Provencher from St. Boniface Manitoba requested that they come out West to serve the Aboriginal populations. From their arrival in Red River in 1845, they have been the dominant missionary order in the West and Northern regions of what became Canada. They came principally to serve the Métis and Aboriginal communities though, in their terms and in the view of the age, they were largely part of “an attempt to make the indigenous inhabitants of the North West conform to a preconceived image of the ideal Christian society and culture.”3 As a post-Revolutionary religious order reacting to the secularization of France, they wanted to build a truly Christian society in the New World that was modeled on European Christian societies. To do their work, the Oblates had to establish close ties with the Hudson’s Bay Company. As Huel points out, the Company and the Congregation both dealt with the same Aboriginal populations and, therefore, it was mutually beneficial to collaborate.4 Over the years, the relationship was generally amicable. In addition, the Oblates generally supported the ultramontane Catholicism of Quebec that guarded the prerogatives of the Catholic Church and entrenched the French language.5 Initially, the work of the Oblates, as that of other religious denominations, was funded by individual Christians and societies in Europe. All were involved in the conversion and “civilization” process. This was to change with the Government of Canada’s push westward and implementation of the residential school system.

The Oblates had already established schools and orphanages in their larger missions because they knew that young minds more easily responded to new ideas.  They also believed that, by educating children, when they returned to their homes, they would share their beliefs with their families and communities. Other religious denominations were also involved in education. Thus, the various religious denominations became the logical vehicles for implementing federally-funded residential schools. There really was no choice for the missionaries; for them to continue their work of conversion through education, they would need to comply with Government directives.

Initially, the Oblates believed that there were no negatives in this relationship with government but things began to change. In 1879, there was a government proposal to end the duty-free exemptions for goods destined for missions which would engender problems. There was also a power shift – the federal government was now the “legal guardian” of Aboriginal Peoples and the Oblates would have to serve under federal government directives. The signing of Treaties and establishment of reservations meant that Aboriginal Peoples could not travel to the established missions so the missionaries needed to establish a presence on the reserves. The government did not want to have competing missions or schools on reserves.  Representing an English majority,  the Government of Canada, inevitably, gave preference to Protestant denominations and the Oblates experienced discrimination. This was challenged over a number of years by various Oblates including Bishop Grandin. Huel writes:

As a witness to the signing of Treaty 6 at Fort Pitt in 1876, Grandin contended that Indians had been told they were free to have whatever missionaries they pleased and, furthermore, once they were settled on their reserves, they would receive whatever schools they requested. He claimed that, rather than abide by this fundamental principle, the government decided to divide reserves among the different denominations regardless of the wishes of the inhabitants of the reserves in question.” In 1883 Grandin went to Ottawa to present a position but after four months of waiting, he was disenchanted with Macdonald’s promises.6 (p 179)

The competition among the religious denominations continued, as did the efforts of the Oblates to ensure government neutrality to protect the liberty of conscience of Aboriginal Peoples. While the government affirmed its neutrality, the Oblates and others pointed out that in 1888 there were no Catholic Indian agents in the North West, only three Catholic farm instructors and only one Catholic employee in Regina.7

While the various religious denominations were “competing for souls” were they aware of the appalling conditions in many of the residential schools? Early in the 20th century, Samuel H. Blake was appointed by the Missionary Society for the Canadian Church, responsible for the Anglican missions, to undertake a review. He reported that he believed that the missionaries were only sending “pleasant reports” to them and suggested that the Indian schools were costly and ineffective and that the government should take over their running of them.8  The religious denominations did not want this to happen because they saw schools as a key part of their missionary activity.

The Oblates continued to struggle to be heard in Ottawa in order to improve the conditions in the schools.  Eventually, in 1920, Joseph Guy was appointed to represent western Oblates in Ottawa. Huel notes that Guy professionalized the role of Ottawa representative and made the office more influential. At the same time, Oblate principals of residential schools began to implement practices from the non-religious school system that were perceived as more pedagogical.  From 1924, Oblate principals met annually to discuss administrative practices in schools and to improve the education given to students. The 1925 convention passed resolutions requesting the establishment of a special program of studies for Catholic residential schools as well as the designation of separate schools, one with a focus on higher education and, another, for vocational education. They also wanted to see continued supervision of the progress of former students when they returned to their reserves.”  The principals also dealt with the issue of use of Native languages in the schools.

The Oblates were particularly sensitive to the use of the local language, since the missionaries began their preaching in France among the poor using the regional language of Oc. From the beginning, Oblates learned Native languages and priests, such as Father Albert Lacombe, worked on Cree syllabics.  From 1905, the Sacred Heart Review was published in Cree and continued to be published until the 1970s. Prayers were translated into various Native languages and prayers were said in those languages during the school day, thereby, contravening the federal directive against the speaking of Native languages. In addition, residential school had newsletters published in the Native language of the region. The 1934 convention of Oblate principals passed a resolution recommending the use of Native languages in morning and evening prayers and also for religious instruction as these were exempt from Federal regulations. They also noted that it was cruel to expect the students to speak in English during recess. Another important resolution related to the qualifications of residential schools teachers insisting that to ensure that teachers were qualified, they needed to offer reasonable salaries.

With 90 years of missionary work in the North West behind them, in 1935-36, a visit to Canada by the Superior-General Théodore de Labouré resulted in a re-evaluation of their missionary work in the North West. One of his recommendations was that missionaries would need to resume the study of native languages to become skilled linguists as their predecessors. It was this, of course, that had given the Oblates their advantage in relation to other religious denominations in the 19th century. As well, a number of Oblates documented the lives of Aboriginal Peoples creating what can be considered the first anthropological studies of these communities.  Father Vegreville went so far as to state that Aboriginal Peoples governed themselves, a state that challenged the given view that they were uncivilized.

The Superior General also announced that the General Administrative Council of the Oblates had ratified a proposal to establish three schools for the study of Indigenous languages: Grouard, Alberta, for Cree; Beauval, Saskatchewan, for Chipewyan; and Fort Alexander, Manitoba, for Saulteaux. He also dealt with the administration of the residential schools, which were generally operated by female religious communities with an Oblate principal. He ruled that Oblates should not reside in the schools and that they should reside in separate Oblate residences. He also expressed concern about the lack of priestly vocations among the Métis and Indian populations, reflecting, as it did, the shallow roots of Christianity in this part of the world.

As the Oblates sought to renew their missionary focus, it was becoming clear that the policy of conversion and assimilation was not working though it would take another 30 years for the Government of Canada to finally end these colonial practices. The rightful claiming of independence by former colonies throughout the world and assertion of the value of their unique languages, traditions and cultures, resulted in the abandonment of imperialism.  The values of European nations, who were the colonial powers were not necessarily better than any others. In this regard, all of the religious denominations in Canada have struggled in reassessing their role in the residential schools and have offered apologies to First Nations.


It is a truism that it is only by studying history that we can learn lessons that prevent successive generations from replicating the errors of the past. In the 20th century, libertarian philosophies and increasing protection of freedoms through constitutions and charters have resulted in a re-examination of imperialism and the colonial past. This is an incredibly important process for all nations to undergo to ensure the growth in a culture of human rights. In doing this, however, the standards and values of today have been used to judge individuals in the past who had no notion of these freedoms and were permeated by other ideologies.  Faced with the wrongs of history that have consequences today, governments and individuals must act in order to correct them.  However, the motivations of those who lived those events must also be taken into account in order to judge them fairly.

For many people in a largely sectarian world such as ours, the notion of conversion is repugnant, because it appears to reject the existing religious values and traditions of those to be converted. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the Christian religion,  was seen as something to be shared for the liberation of others and, would save their souls. One might describe this vision as religious imperialism. Unfortunately, the European form of Christianity was typically identified by missionaries as the only legitimate form.  Conversion to Christianity without respecting fully the Indigenous culture is an enormous task and beyond the scope of most of these missionaries.  There were some admirable exceptions but they were few in number. Aboriginal Peoples believe strongly that the residential schools imposed by the Government and run by the Churches were hugely damaging.  Our best efforts at repairing this damage is a responsibility that contemporary Canadians must assume.

As the Treaty Commissioners went out (Treaty 6 in 1876; Treaty 7 in 1877), starvation was a stark reality because the bison herds were well on their way to extinction, based on thoughtless hunting on both sides of the border. This essential source of food, clothing and ceremonial materials had effectively been taken away. In 1870, a smallpox epidemic affected all of the Aboriginal Peoples of the Plains. The Blackfoot signatories to Treaty 6 had been reduced to half their number. As well, the liquor trade was causing great damage.  This was the time of the great hunger. The signatories of Treaty 6 believed that they were not only signing a peace accord but would also benefit from the allocation of land and agricultural materials.9

The text of the Treaty was very similar to that of Treaty Five that had been signed in 1875 and of the other earlier numbered treaties. The land allocation was larger than for Treaty 5 - one square mile of land was to be allowed per family of five, as compared to 160 acres (a quarter section or quarter of a square mile). There was a one-time signing bonus of $12 per person as compared to $5 per person in Treaty 5, but the yearly annuities were nearly the same, $25 per year as salary for the Chief, $15 per year salary for headmen (but with a maximum of four instead of the three for Treaty Five) and a $5 per person annuity. Schools on reserves were agreed upon; liquor would be banned, as was the wish of the signatories.

The desire of the Government of Canada and the Treaty signatories to practice agriculture was an unrealistic expectation. The Aboriginal Peoples could not change from hunter/gatherers to farmers instantly even though they may have wished it and had been given supplies as well as the promise of agricultural instructors. Treaty 6 also had the important “medicine chest” provision, which has been interpreted as health care, but at the time was basic medical assistance at each agency, as well as help in time of famine.

For many of the missionaries, who saw the plight of Aboriginal Peoples on the reserves, the children in their schools were spared this suffering and, what is more, if they could be given education and basic trades, they would at least be able to help make reserve land productive and perhaps find employment. The unstated subtext in the governmental policy was that Aboriginal Peoples would cease to exist in the ways in which they had traditionally lived and that their survival would be through assimilation.

It is important to understand the grief of many well-meaning survivors of the various religious denominations who have seen their vocations and life’s work challenged. In addition, many have also been advocates for Aboriginal Peoples though, perhaps, there were not enough of them. An important example in the 20th century is Father René Fumoleau, OMI, whose book As Long As This Land Shall Stand: A History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 1870-1939, champions Aboriginal rights and challenges Northern development.  As James J. Wah-Shee, President Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories, writes:

This book, and the September 6, 1973, decision of Justice Morrow in the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories, together vindicate the interpretation of Treaties 8 and 11 which the Indian people have consistently maintained; that the treaties did not involve cession of Indian land, but were merely friendship or peace treaties implying a mutual respect for the rights and way of life of both parties involved. History has let us down sadly.

It is hoped that this book will help to clear away much of the ignorance that has blinded those charged with responsibilities toward the Indian people. If the book achieves the readership it deserves, it will engender a new respect for the Indian position and considerable sympathy for the recent historical experience of the Indians of the Territories.

Father Fumoleau’s involvement grew out of a deep concern on the part of Roman Catholic Priests of the South Mackenzie District that the Indian people of the Northwest Territories in their struggle for justice faced the obstacle of ignorance of the facts within the general public. This group of committed priests decided to do something about it and Father Fumoleau took up the burden.10



Huel, Raymond. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996).

Miller, J. R.  Shingwauk’s vision: A history of Canadian residential schools. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Milloy, John. A National Crime: The Canadian Govenrment and the Residential School System 1879-1986. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

Titley, Brian. “Dunbow Indian Industrial School: An Oblate Experiement in Education,’ in Western Oblate Studies, 2 (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), pp. 95-114.

1 The Canadian Encyclopedia article on Canadian Treaties retrieved on April 2, 2009: (http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0003983)

2 See John Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System 1879-1986. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

3 Huel, p. xii.

4 Huel, p. 177.

5 Huel, p. xix.

6 Huel, p. 179.

7 Huel, p. 185.

8 Maurice Lewis, “The Anglican Church and its Mission Schools Dispute,” Alberta Historical Review 14 (1966), pp. 10-12.

9 A. Blair Stonechild, “The Indian View of the 1885 Uprising”, Sweet Promises: a reader on Indian-White relations in Canada, edited by J. R. Miller, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo, London, 1991, p. 262.

10 René Fumoleau, OMI, As Long As This Land Shall Stand: A History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 1870-1939 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, c1973), pp. 11-12.

Web Resources:

Aboriginal Canada Portal, Indian Residential Schools http://www.aboriginalcanada.gc.ca/acp/site.nsf/en/ao20023.html, retrieved April 2, 2009.

Wikipedia: Canadian Indian Residential school system – http://en.wikipedia,org/wiki/Canadian_residential_school_system, retrieved April 2, 2009.

Wikipedia: List of Indian residential schools in Canada
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Canadian_residential_schools#Albertaa, retrieved April 2, 2009.

Official Court Website, In re Residential Schools Class Action Litigation http://www.residentialschoolsettlement.ca/english_index.html, retrieved April 2, 2009.

History of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, Assembly of First Nations, http://www.afn.ca/residentialschools/history.html, retrieved April 6, 2009.

History of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, Assembly of First Nations, Residential Schools in Alberta, http://www.afn.ca/residentialschools/ab_schools.html, retrieved April 6, 2009.

CBC, A Timeline of Residential Schools, http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2008/05/16/f-timeline-residential-schools.html, retrieved April 6, 2009.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Apology on Residential Schools by the Catholic Church,” http://www.cccb.ca/site/content/view/2630/1019/lang,eng/ , retrieved April 6, 2009.

Oblate Communications, Canada-US: Lacombe: Indian Residential Schools: “Agreement in Principle,” http://www.omiworld.org/Informazioni.asp?L=1&I=261, retrieved April 6, 2009.

Fr Camille Piché, OMI, “Oblate Ministry among Aboriginal People of Canada,” Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Website, http://omiusajpic.org/about/stories/ip/oblates-with-aboriginal-canada/,  retrieved April 6, 2009.

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