Indian Residential Schools: Canada’s National Disgrace

sign outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School
BC Ministry of Transportation

On May 27, Canada was shaken out of its coronavirus haze by a press release from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc (Kamloops Indian Band) stating that the remains of 215 children had been found buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The school, operated by the Catholic Church in Kamloops, British Columbia, housed up to 500 students at a time. This discovery came through the use of ground-penetrating radar.

Residential schools are a very ugly black mark on Canada’s history, and it seems like an appropriate time to talk a bit about that.

The history of residential schools

Between 1831 and 1996, the Canadian government’s Indian Affairs ministry (the exact name has changed a few times over the years) operated a system of residential schools for Aboriginal children. These children were taken from their parents with the goal of assimilation into white Canadian society, along with conversion to Christianity. Individual schools were run by the Catholic, Anglican, United, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was created in 2008 to address the harms and injustices related to the residential school system. The commission interviewed over 6000 witnesses and wrapped up its work with the release of its findings in 2015. Some of the findings in its massive report were:

  • Many parents were threatened with being sent to jail if they refused to send their children to residential schools. Breaking the parent-child bond was intentional, not an accidental byproduct.
  • When students arrived at residential schools, their own clothes were taken away, their long hair and traditional braids cut off, and they were often assigned new, English-language names.
  • Only English (or in some cases French) was spoken, and children were often punished if they tried to speak their native language. Government policy was to “rigorously exclude the use of Indian dialects.” This has resulted in many endangered languages.
  • Discipline was severe, including beatings and rubbing students’ faces in human excrement.
  • Sexual abuse occurred and was covered up.
  • Some students ran away and either died or disappeared.
  • In the 1960s, the “Sixties Scoop” saw a significant increase in apprehensions of Aboriginal children by social services, which corresponded to the beginning of a decline in the number of residential schools.

The Commission identified 3200 deaths related to residential schools, although the actual number was likely higher. The mortality rate for children at residential schools was higher than average for children that age. Record-keeping by the schools was very shoddy and often didn’t include the cause of death. The 2015 report indicated that the Commission suspected that there were unidentified burial sites that were yet to be found, just like the one that’s just been discovered in Kamloops.

The words of survivors

The Legacy of Hope website has video interviews with survivors providing oral testimonies of their experiences. On the Truth and Reconciliation Commission site, the Survivors Speak report contains statements from survivors on various aspects of residential school life, from physical abuse if they spoke the only language they knew to verbal and sexual abuse.

What now?

The Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society has called on Pope Francis to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system, including the Kamloops school. The Catholic Church is the only one of the major players in the residential school system that hasn’t issued an apology; the Anglican, United, Presbyterian, and Methodist Churches have previously done so.

Children learn how to parent from their parents. Combine large numbers of people not being parented and having their cultural identity stripped away with the effects of intergenerational trauma and ongoing systemic racism, and it’s a hot mess that Indigenous Peoples are left to deal with. Canada caused this, and our government needs to do more to fix it.


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28 thoughts on “Indian Residential Schools: Canada’s National Disgrace”

  1. I am a dog parent and I likely parent better than many parents, parenting humans out there today. In any event, I know it’s not the same, but that is why I’m not parenting humans. This world sucks.

  2. The government needs to do more than talk.
    There is no way to fix decades of criminal abuse, but we can at least help the peoples who have survived these atrocities, and do our best to wipe out all racism.

  3. Utah had Indian Schools (same kind of idea as Canada’s I suppose), but they were discontinued in and before 1984.
    The town I now call home had one of the largest. If you go to the link I’ve provided, you’ll see the remains of the buildings and campus, which was really huge. I met a couple who had taught there (and on the Navajo Indian Reservation earlier in their careers). Some of the policies were really awful, and by today’s standards were racist and just wrong. From the experiences shared by that couple I knew that taught there, the standards back then were different and many just didn’t know any better. No excuse of course, but perspective is important too I think.

    But there was also an institution (best word for the place) for the mentally disabled in another town in Utah. The mentally ill, the ‘retarded’ (sorry, bad term), and the severely physically disabled were warehoused in that place. They got worse treatment and abuse than the children in the Indian School did. And I am probably mistaken, but I don’t know of anyone who raised a hue and cry over that awful place, like they did about the Indian Schools. Of course the institution (called the Utah Training School) has been shut down now and the abuse of the inmates exposed, but I don’t know. Mankind never seems to learn to treat everyone, regardless of race or ‘ability’ with equal respect, do they?

    1. There was something like that near where I am called Woodlands School, and it was a disaster. Being different in some way certainly hasn’t served people well.

  4. I sent an email to my member of parliament on this horrific issue. I don’t expect one email will make a difference, but it certainly can’t hurt.

  5. Ashley, thank you for writing about this, Canada’s dirty little secret.
    It turns my stomach how many were inhumane towards others, such as First Nation People.
    There are still lingering racism towards them. The city of Regina is terrible that way.
    I sometimes think we have made little progress in these issues.

  6. So sad. Children as pawns in culture wars the minority First Peoples have been losing for 400+ years. We could have all co-existed—imagine that works. But Europeans violated our own treaties and imprisoned Indigenous peoples on infertile land. And waged this further genocide. Reparations we can all contribute to

  7. Johnzelle Anderson

    This is heartbreaking. I just finished reading “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” and experienced some vicarious trauma from just reading the magnitude of the atrocities committed against native people. My review of it will be on the podcast on Monday. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. This is just so sick and horrid! As a Christian, I totally don’t get the idea that used to be commonplace in Christianity, and some still live by it, that by doing things like sexual abuse and beating the language out of people they could convince anyone to adopt their beliefs.

    1. It’s bizarre. And while in a way I can see why the higher ups would try to hide things like this, it would actually make the Church look better to others to apologize and say they’re committed to making sure that doesn’t happen again.

  9. The ethnic integration is never an easy thing to do, even in my country, people face discrimination unconsciously now, whether its racial, sexual, or language.

    Maybe the government should figure out the best way to deal with it, or apologize to the public.

  10. Thanks for sharing this (I’ve written about it too) and I hope that the Canadian government and the Catholic church step up in a big way to help search all the residential schools in Canada. I’m hopeful that the same will be done for the schools in the US too.

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