INDIAN RESIDENTIAL, DAY,
AND INDUSTRIAL SCHOOLS
Trigger Warning: readers may be triggered by the recount of Indian Residential Schools. To access a 24-hour National Crisis Line, call: 1-866-925-4419. Community Assistance Program (CAP) can be accessed for citizens of the Anishinabek Nation: 1-800-663-1142.
INDIAN RESIDENTIAL, DAY, AND INDUSTRIAL SCHOOLS
History of the Indian Residential School System in Canada
Our Creation Story tells us how we came to occupy and thrive on Turtle Island. For thousands of years, our culture and knowledge have helped us to flourish and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. We lived in a vibrant society based on the enduring strengths of our culture.
The biggest test of our society began when visitors from another continent arrived under the guise of friendship. Alliances and rivalries were formed with the various newcomers. Soon, missionaries arrived on our lands with the intent of saving our souls – they were trying to save us from ourselves. Many of our people embraced the new Christian religion as they saw parallels between our Creator and their God; however, the missionaries were serving a double purpose. Their intent was to pacify and assimilate so that the settler-colonists could occupy our lands. As the tides of power shifted towards the settler nations, we became less useful allies. We soon became a hindrance to their nation-building efforts. How could a new nation usurp the territories of existing nations?
The new nation of Canada was determined to solve the ‘Indian Problem’ through assimilation and legislation. Their solution was to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ thereby solving their ‘Indian problem’. This was an effort to erase our culture and society and replace it with Euro-centric views and ways. The Industrial School system was devised before Canada officially became its own country. These schools were intended to teach Indigenous children the new ways of the settlers. These schools were religious schools and often run by the missionaries whose sole purpose was to convert our people to Christianity.
Shortly after confederation in 1867, the John A. Macdonald government enacted the Indian Act and the Indian Residential Schools system. For Macdonald, the current assimilationist efforts were not strong enough. Our people held on to our culture, beliefs, ways of life, and most importantly, our lands. The Indian Residential School system was designed as the final solution to remove the biggest barrier to his nation-building exercise. He decided that it would be the children who would bear this ultimate burden.
By 1920, it was mandatory for all First Nations children to attend a Residential School from the age of 6 to 16. The children were purposefully shipped far from their home community to sever their connection to their family and their culture. This went on for over a century until many generations of Anishinaabeg had been brought up through the Residential School system. Once a child entered the school, they were stripped of everything they had known about themselves, including their name. Their hair was cut short, and they were forbidden from speaking their language. There was little education as the children were too hungry and sick to learn what the teachers taught. The children were indentured servants and wards of the state. There was no love for the students. The abuses were many and varied. Upon graduation, the student was far removed from their Anishinaabe ways. Intergenerational trauma and poor coping skills were hallmarks of the Indian Residential School system.
Despite the efforts to assimilate us, we were poorly equipped to enter and thrive in a foreign society that often hated us. We became ill-equipped for both our own culture and theirs. This was the intent of the Indian Residential School system; the settlers were not interested in having us as part of their society. The narratives of the day had us vanishing in a few years. Macdonald’s plan had worked very well. Indigenous lands were now Canadian lands, and we were legislatively subjugated by Canada, not as citizens, but as wards.
It has been 25 years since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People (RCAP) released its findings. The RCAP revealed the horrors of the Indian Residential School system to the rest of the country. In 1997, the last Residential School closed in Canada; shortly thereafter, the Minister of Indian Affairs apologized for the atrocities that occurred in the schools. This was a catalyst for many healing journeys to begin. Soon after, Survivors began sharing their stories, no longer suffering alone and in silence. Litigation was launched against the Crown and eventually, an Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was reached between the Crown and the Assembly of First Nations.
Survivors were marginally compensated for their abuse at these schools, but most importantly, Canada accepted its role and intent in this assimilationist endeavour. Although it was the churches that operated these schools, it was the government of Canada who bore the brunt of these claims. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued 94 calls to action to address the abuses and legacy of the Indian Residential School system. The TRC documented the horrors of these schools, and they will now forever be woven in the fabric of Canada. The TRC determined that the Residential Schools were “a systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples.”
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