The residential school experience continues to
haunt First Nations peoples today. Many believe that
their experience even led to a general indifference
towards the education of Aboriginal youth today.
Many Aboriginals who experienced a residential
school "education" are now parents and grandparents
and many possess deep biases against education for
their children because of what they experienced. It
is a difficult subject for many to understand
because the residential school experience was not
the same for everyone involved. Clearly, some
schools were better maintained than others while
some staff members more benevolent than others.
Although a difficult subject to broach, the story of
the residential schools has become an important part
of not only First Nations history but of Canadian
Separated from their family, friends, and in many cases the
only home they had known, First Nations children were taken
together, according to age level, to the residential school in
the fall of each year. Once at the school, they were not
permitted to speak their native tongue and the supervisors spoke
only English to them, punishing them if they reverted to their
own language. In many cases, the children knew nothing of the
English language upon their arrival and this meant that many
spent several years in silence until they were even able to
express their needs.
The school environment was a stark contrast to the home
environment where Aboriginal children were important
contributing members of their family and community. At home the
children were encouraged and expected to help with the daily
work – tending the nets, feeding the animals, cutting and
hauling wood, or cutting up meat and fish for drying. In
contrast, the schools demanded very little of these types of
tasks. The children were not taught to take care of others in
their community. In fact, often times the children were
discouraged from developing their own ideals. Their movements
were monitored and they were expected to adhere to strict
guidelines of conduct.
The schools were very difficult and lonely places for many
children, but their effects reached all the way into individual
communities. Often times, children returned home for summer
vacation completely changed. They were no longer interested in
helping with daily tasks and rather than spending time with
their families, who were no doubt becoming more foreign each
passing year, they preferred to spend time with children their
own age who also attended residential school.
Perhaps the most detrimental effect of the schools was the
children's loss of all ability to speak their own language –
effectively breaking the means of communication and traditional
knowledge shared between parents and their children.
Furthermore, children were taught at school that their culture
was somehow inferior and not worth preserving. As a result, the
residential school disrupted the passing of traditional beliefs,
skills, and knowledge from one generation to the next, and
deliberately separated the children from their heritage by
encouraging them to resent it and embrace a more European
outlook and belief system.
While the cultural shock was immense, residential schools did
provide an opportunity for some of the Aboriginal youth to learn
how to read and write in English, which some believe has aided
the two cultures in gaining a better understanding of each other
By the 1950s, the Canadian government finally began to
realize the residential school policy was a failure. The last
residential school in Canada was closed some 30 years later.
Today, Aboriginal people want recognition of what was done to
their communities as a result of the residential schools.
Aboriginal people have demanded, and received, official
apologies from the Anglican, United and Roman Catholic churches
which operated residential schools. As more and more former
students of residential schools come forth with stories about
the sexual and physical abuse they experienced, several
religious authorities who administered the schools are being
charged criminally. The far-reaching effects of the schools are
impossible to measure. For the hundreds of Aboriginal Peoples
who went through the residential school process, the most
important work lies in healing. The process is ongoing, but
communities are working both with Elders and institutions to
bring justice and peace to those who were hurt.