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Residential Schooling of Indigenous Children in Canada

Klara Meyer-Wehrmann, University College Maastricht

Schools play an important role in child and youth development. Ideally, they provide a safe space for a child to learn, socialize and grow as a person. However, schools can also be sites of violence. The Canadian system of so-called Indian Residential Schools (IRS) is a striking example of how schools can become havens of physical, psychological, and sexual violence. Many of these forms of violence are not uncommon in European school settings. For instance, corporal punishment for non-compliance with teachers’ instructions has long been considered necessary to the process of learning. The violence employed in Canadian residential schools, however, was more extreme and operated in a vastly different context. The schools were one of the instruments of group destruction deployed against Indigenous peoples in Euro-Canadian settler colonialism (Woolford, 2015).

According to estimates, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential schools at least for some time during their childhood and youth (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015a). The boarding schools were established exclusively for children from indigenous communities. Over 130 schools were located across Canada and operated from about the early 1830s to the end of the 20th century. In 1831, the Mohawk Institute was the first residential school for Indigenous children to open in what is now Brantford, Ontario. This institute was established before Canada became a sovereign nation and before boarding schools became law under the Indian Act of 1876. Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, was the last federally funded residential school to close its doors in 1996. During most of the time of their existence, the schools were funded by the Canadian government’s department of Indian Affairs and run by Christian churches of various denominations, such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United churches. Clergymen and women performed most of the teaching and administrative roles in residential schools.

The schools were advertised by the Canadian government as a benevolent act of support, a way to provide access to formal education to Indigenous people. However, the schools had both a Christianizing and civilizing mission (Milloy and McCallum, 2017). Residential schooling was based on a belief in the cultural and racial superiority of Euro-Canadian people. Residential schools were designed to weaken Indigenous influence and gain access to Indigenous lands and resources. By targeting children and making them embrace Christianity and Western values, future generations of Indigenous people would be disconnected from their origins and their communities disrupted.

Residential schooling as a practice of violence consisted of a range of techniques that served to break the children’s bonds to their families and communities and forcibly assimilate them to mainstream Euro-Canadian settler society. The Canadian residential school system went through gradual changes throughout its more than 120 years of existence and shows a high degree of local variations across the country. Therefore, the experiences of former IRS students largely vary, depending on when and where they attended the residential schools. However, some general patterns of the practice can be recognized. A series of features that most forms of residential schooling for Indigenous children in Canada had in common will be illustrated in the following. The different elements of the practice will be explained mainly by reference to the findings of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission that interviewed more than 6,500 residential school survivors. In any case, the children that went through the IRS system experienced violence that would impact their entire lives and the lives of future generations.

Forced Departure

The children’s residential school experience started with the departure from their families and communities and their journeys to school. The parent’s decision to send their children to residential school was achieved through persuasion and coercion exerted on them by government officials or members of the respective Christian orders that ran the schools. In most cases, families did not send their children to residential schools voluntarily. From 1894 until 1948 residential school attendance was compulsory for Indigenous children age 7 to 16 (later 6 to 15) in Canada, only with a few exceptions regarding school location, health of the children, and their prior completion of school examinations (TRCC, 2015a). Some children were already taken to residential school at the very early age of 4 or 5. Supposedly in the name of benevolence, Indigenous parents were declared unfit to care for their children and pressured to send them to public educational facilities. At times, this happened by threatening parents with fines, arrest, and imprisonment if they withheld their children or tried to remove them from the schools. Government officials such as so-called Indian agents responsible for the reserves that most Indigenous communities were contained to, as well as members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, were also deployed to take children to the schools by force.


However, not all parents completely rejected the idea of residential schooling for their children. Christian missionaries tried to recruit students, sometimes by handing out gifts and telling stories about sports teams, bands, or other recreational activities offered at the schools. Some of them convinced young children and their parents of the benefits of attending a residential school, at least initially. Moreover, some Indigenous families decided to send their children to the schools in the hope of giving them more opportunities in the future through Western-style education. However, most families only let their children go reluctantly and some parents continued to resist and did not send their children to residential school at all.

Children travelled to the schools in different ways. Residential schools were often located in very remote places. To get there, many children were picked up at their families’ homes with school-owned trucks or busses. Those living even further away from the schools travelled by plane or boat. The journey was often long and uncomfortable. Some children were brought to residential school by their parents or other family members, not knowing that they would not be able to return home for a long time. Frequent contact with parents or other community members was often impossible due to the locations of the schools. Residential school students were usually only able to return to their families during short time periods of the year. Thus, the moment of saying goodbye and letting the children go to the schools was emotional for both parents and their children.

Arrival at Residential School

The first day at residential school was a moment that many former residential school students remember vividly (TRCC, 2015c). While some children were excited to arrive at their new school, others were frightened and exhausted from their journey. The large residential school buildings, as well as the attires of nuns and priests welcoming the children, left many children confused and scared. As Archie Hyacinthe reports on his arrival at Catholic residential school in Kenora: “It was like being, you know, taken to a strange land, even though it was our, our, our land, as I understood later on” (ibid., p.36). Upon arrival, children had to undergo a procedure that turned them into residential school students. The process was not identical across the different time periods and institutions of the residential school system, but consisted of a series of similar steps, in varying order: registration, cutting hair, loss of personal belongings and exchange of clothes, taking a shower or bath, and physical examination.

Upon arrival, children were asked to line up for registration, boys and girls were separated. Moreover, siblings were also separated and would often not be allowed to talk to each other or interact in any other way during their time at residential school. In most schools, staff assigned each of the children a number. This number was inscribed into the children’s clothing, on their dorm beds and used for administrative purposes. In some instances, children were not called by their name but their number during their entire time at residential school. Lydia Ross who attended Cross Lake residential school recalls: “So, I wasn’t, I didn’t have a name, I had numbers. You were called 32, that’s me (…)” (ibid., p.66). The number thus became an essential part of their residential school identity. Former residential school students later describe this experience as dehumanizing and as denying them any personal identity (TRCC, 2015c). Additionally, children’s names were often anglicized, or replaced by Christian names. This happened especially if their names seemed hard to pronounce for school staff.

After registration, children had to take a shower or bath. Former residential school students report that the accompanying process of physical examination felt humiliating. They had to strip in front of school staff and other children that had arrived. Their heads were checked for lice. Many former IRS students report that school staff gave them a type of powder or liquid to put on their hair in an attempt to kill lice and bugs that they would supposedly bring with them. The baking soda, oil, vinegar, coal oil, or turpentine that were used to do so felt and smelled extremely uncomfortable on the bodies and hair of the children. Ricky Kakekagumick who arrived at Popular Hill residential school in Ontario in 1985 reports that school staff acted upon unfounded assumptions: “I knew I didn’t have bugs. But right away they assumed I did because I’m Aboriginal” (ibid., p.40).

According to former IRS students such as Campbell Papequash, the cutting of the children’s hair was an especially significant moment during the first day at residential school. Papequash was taken to residential school in 1946 and recalls: “[M]y hair, my hair represents such a spiritual significance of my life and my spirit. (…) You know and I cried and I see them throw my hair into a garbage can, my long, beautiful braids” (ibid., p.32). The children’s hair was often a source of pride to them. At residential school, their hair was cut short. For former residential school students like Victoria Boucher-Grant, this was a shocking experience: “(…) it was a violation, like, your, your braids got cut, and it, I don’t know how many years that you spent growing this long hair” (TRCC, 2015c, p.41). Girl’s hair was often cut to chin length with bangs, while boys ended up with very short haircuts or a completely shaved head. Their hair was quickly and messily cut as this was done by regular school staff that was not trained as hairdressers. Many children were crying or screaming during the process.

In addition to the loss of their hair, the arriving children were also stripped of their personal belongings. School staff took away the clothes they were wearing upon arrival, as well as the additional garments, toys, or other objects they had brought. Sometimes, children had dressed up and were equipped with particularly nice hand-made clothing and gifts from their families for their start at residential school. The priests and nuns at residential schools stored these things in places that were not accessible for the children or threw them into the garbage right away. Often, the students would not see their personal belongings ever again. In exchange for their individual garments, school staff handed the children a set of school clothing. This was a kind of uniform including underwear, socks, shoes, as well as pants and shirts for boys, and skirts, blouses, and stockings for girls. Usually, the children were also provided with a more formal outfit for masses on Sundays. However, they only received a minimal supply of clothing that tended to be simple, ill-fitting, uncomfortable, and insufficient, especially for winter. From a bunch of children from different backgrounds with individual physical appearances, they now all appeared identical in clothing and hairstyle.

Former IRS students report that the first days at residential school were confusing, invasive, and humiliating. Children arrived at residential school being fluent in an Indigenous language such as Cree or Ojibway. Their knowledge of French or English was often extremely limited or non-existent. School staff usually did not speak the children’s mother tongues and gave all instructions in the school language English or French. The language barrier thus placed a major obstacle to the children’s integration into their new environment. Additionally, most of the school staff did not explain what was happening to the children and was very tough on them right from their first day at school. Degrading and dehumanizing comments showed the children from the beginning that they were not seen as equals. “We were told we were little, stupid savages, and that they had to educate us” (ibid., p.41), is what Elaine Durocher reports about her first day at Roman Catholic school in Kamsack, Saskatchewan. And Archie Hyacinthe remembers one of the nun’s words on his first day at residential school: “(…) if your mother and dad really cared about you, they wouldn’t have left you here” (ibid., p.39).

Life at residential school

Residential school grounds often consisted of a school building with classrooms, dormitories, a playing room, dining hall, kitchen, and additional functional rooms, as well as a church or chapel. The children were accommodated in large dormitories that were separated by gender. With dozens of students sleeping close to each other in one room, these did not provide any privacy. Funding of the schools was generally inadequate. Students were provided with food that was poor in quality and low in quantity. Due to the lack of adequate nutrition, students were frequently hungry and physically weak. Former students of Mohawk Indian Residential School report that they had to eat mushy oatmeal all day, giving the school the nickname ‘the mush hole’ (Al Jazeera, 2017). Overcrowding, poor or non-existent sanitation and ventilation systems, and a lack of medical care caused the frequent spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis in the schools. The mortality rates at residential schools were much higher than at Canadian schools for non-Indigenous children at the time. Thousands of children died at residential schools, many of them due to the harsh living conditions (TRCC, 2015b).

Daily life was organized according to a strict schedule. From early in the morning until the evening the children’s daily activities were planned out. Many former IRS students, among others Bernadette Nadjiwan who attended Spanish girls’ school in Ontario, recall that their lives were directed by a bell: “It rang in the morning when we’d wake up, (…) to get ready for school, (…) and to get ready for bed, even to go to classes. We were so well trained, and everyone was likened to a soldier” (TRCC, 2015c, p.65). The daily schedule from Qu’Appelle Industrial School, a type of residential school, from 1893 (Figure 1) gives an impression of how students were kept busy during the entire day. Their daily schedule on weekdays consisted of getting up early and going to bed early, chores, classes, short periods of recreation, meals, and regular prayers. Weekends usually gave more room for recreational activities such as sports, music, and sometimes family visits. Some schools also scheduled supervised activities relating to manners and social modesty for residential school students on the weekends. Church attendance and religious studies were usually compulsory on Sundays.

Figure 1: 1Daily Schedule at Qu’Appelle Industrial School, 1893 (Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs, 1893, p.173–74; reproduced in TRCC, 2015b, p.296)

The schools operated on a half-day teaching system. Academic education was given for only a few hours a day, the rest of the day consisted of chores. The language of instruction was English or French exclusively and the education differed from the one non-Indigenous Canadian children received. The curriculum focussed on basic level skills such as reading, writing, and basic maths. Lessons were usually given by the clergymen and women running the schools instead of trained teachers. The other half of the day consisted of manual labour as a form of education in vocational skills. The schools declared Indigenous children as unfit for higher-level academic education and emphasized practical and manual skills. Work was prioritized, following a European-style gendered separation of tasks. Girls were mostly responsible for housekeeping tasks such as cleaning, cooking, or sewing. Boys, on the other hand, had to take care of farming, or general maintenance of the schools. The half-day teaching system served as a cost-effective way to run the schools as the children themselves were responsible for sweeping the classrooms and dormitories, assisting in cooking, washing, and ironing the laundry, or harvesting vegetables that were used in their meals.

Language and culture played an important part in the practice of residential schooling. Children were forbidden to talk in their mother tongues. They had to speak English or French to their peers and supervisors, even outside the classroom. Raymond Mason who spent 12 years at residential school reports: “I got strapped, I got beaten up for speaking my own native tongue, I even had my tongue pulled out and pinched, you know” (Chruscicki and Bonner, 2008). Moreover, practicing non-Christian beliefs and traditions was strictly prohibited. “(…) [W]e were not allowed to speak our language; we weren’t allowed to dance, sing because they told us it was evil” (Haig-Brown, 1988, p.58), is what a former student of Kamloops Residential School describes. Instead of practicing the children’s cultural ways, Christianization through religious training and an emphasis on Euro-Canadian customs were a dominant aspect of residential school education. The priests and nuns at the schools introduced the children to regular prayers and masses as well as religious studies as part of their curriculum. Former students like Louise Large recall that they had to kneel and pray so much at Blue Quills residential school that many of them ended up with “boarding school knees” (TRCC, 2015c, p.86). Lessons included learning about the church, catechism, holy days, Euro-Canadian culture, and manners. Figure 2 shows an example of such lessons in a classroom at Shubenacadie Residential School. In many students, this instilled feelings of fear, shame, and guilt. They were told at all instances that their diverse Indigenous backgrounds were not something to be proud of but to be ashamed of. Victoria Boucher-Grant, a former Fort William residential school student, recalls: “(…) this became a way of life, kneeling on my knees, and praying to, to some, some God that made me feel guilty because I was, I was not a very clean person” (ibid., p.86).

Figure 2: A classroom at the Shubenacadie Residential School, circa 1940 (Sisters of Charity Halifax Archives)

Strict rules and routines dominated life at the schools, children were regimented in all regards. Rules were not written down, they were changed and expanded again and again. However, school staff made sure to constantly remind the children about what was considered right and what wrong by punishing every type of non-compliant behaviour. Thus, newly arrived students learned to adapt and follow the rules quickly. These included being on time, doing what supervisors order without any question, not spilling food during meals, washing hands before and after meals, addressing school staff as Fathers and Sisters, not talking when it was time to be silent, and countless others. Daily routines such as eating, cleaning, lining up for school, church or food were strictly regimented according to ideas of proper social conduct. The strict boundaries and rigid routines did not leave much room for children’s individual development.

Residential school students lived in a general climate of fear, loneliness, and uncertainty. About his years in two different Manitoba schools, Timothy Henderson says: “Every day was, you were in constant fear that, your hope was that it wasn’t you today that were going to, that was going to be the target, the victim” (Chruscicki and Bonner, 2008). He continues: “You know and they always had nasty, nasty remarks all day long. (…) I never heard a kind word.” The children’s supervisors at residential schools were constantly controlling them, but they usually did not provide any emotional support. Punishments were arbitrary and unpredictable. Without family members to care for them, the students had to look after themselves and after each other. The children often felt lost, scared, and confused during their time at residential school. “Homesickness was your constant companion besides hunger, loneliness, and fear” is how Paul Dixon describes his time at schools in Quebec and Ontario (TRCC, 2015c, p.110). In this isolated and vulnerable position, children were also not protected against the sexual abuse that was widespread in residential schools. The abusive behaviour of some of the school’s staff members was usually covered up which gave room for them to routinely abuse children physically and sexually.

Breaking any of the prescribed rules led to punishment. In residential schools, the line between discipline and punishment on the one hand and physical abuse on the other was frequently crossed. School staff was often sanctioning non-compliant behaviour through corporal punishment, such as whipping, kicking, or beating with sticks, straps, rulers, or other objects. Especially when children tried to escape, they were publicly and severely punished to deter others from doing so. Punishments could be individual or collective and take up a variety of forms such as food deprivation or isolation. IRS student’s experiences include hours of being isolated and placed in a closet, kneeling, or scrubbing floors, or even receiving electric shocks. To many, life at residential school felt like life in prison. Despite the threat of punishment, disobedience and escape remained important means of resistance for residential school students. A significant number of children attempted to escape confinement and regimentation by running away.

Leaving Residential School

Children usually attended residential school for several years and spent a significant part of their childhood in these institutions. They usually left them at the age of 16, some students quit school earlier. When they left for good as young adults, they were often not prepared for life after school. Students only received education on a minimum level with few of them reaching a level higher than primary education. As Mary Courchene describes her experience at Fort Alexander school in the 1940s: “The nuns that taught us weren’t teachers; they weren’t qualified. (…) Their only mandate was to Christianize and civilize, and it’s written in black and white. And every single day we were reminded” (TRCC, 2015c, p.123). Thus, many children were left without the skills required for further education. Residential schooling was intended to make the children assimilate to Euro-Canadian settler society, but instead of giving them the opportunity for upward social mobility, they were contained to become contributors to the Canadian economy as working-class citizens (Woods, 2013).

Upon returning to their families and communities, many of the young adults found that they had become disconnected from their roots. Former residential school student Madeleine Dion Stout remembers: “You come home and they are like: ‘You’re a stranger’. I’m a stranger to them but they are strangers to me” (Chruscicki and Bonner, 2008). After years of education by white people at residential schools, those that left the schools often had only limited knowledge of Indigenous languages and a lack of understanding of their communities’ cultural ways. While partly having internalized the rules and routines of residential school life, they often did not know how life was regulated in their home communities. As a result, some of them were not fully accepted by their families and communities anymore.

On the other hand, children were also not prepared for becoming full members of Euro-Canadian society. Residential school education had taught them about Christianity and European lifestyles but provided little to no direct contact with the people and society they were supposed to integrate into. They remained subject to racist attitudes in Euro-Canadian mainstream society. Thus, without having the opportunity to develop a positive sense of belonging during their childhood and youth, former IRS students often had no place to call home when leaving residential school.

Residential school attendance had far-reaching long-term consequences. Corporal punishment often left permanent damages on the students. Slaps by school staff left former residential school students at times with impaired hearing, broken or crippled body parts. Many former residential school students struggled with psychological consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, problems with affection, and substance abuse. The terror and fear they experienced in residential school were frequently transferred to their families afterwards and handed down to following generations. The intergenerational trauma of IRS experience persists within Indigenous communities in Canada until today (Cowan, 2020).

Transformation through Residential Schooling

Residential schooling as a practice was a process of transformation of Indigenous children’s bodies and minds. Starting from their departure from home to their arrival and life at residential school to leaving the schools, the children underwent a radical change. This transformation process was implicit in the setup of the schools.

Bud Whiteye, a survivor of Mohawk Institute Residential School, explains: “They didn’t put us in a room and indoctrinate us all day long or anything like that. It was in the routine of the place. You didn’t speak anything but English. You went to white man’s school. You went to white man’s church. You wore white man’s clothes. All those were built in. It wasn’t a classroom-type lecture. It was ingrained in the system” (Chruscicki and Bonner, 2008).

The two pictures of Thomas Moore Keesick, a Cree boy from Mucowpetung Saulteaux First Nation in Saskatchewan (Figure 3), illustrate the radical transformation that residential schooling was to lead to. The pictures were staged for a report of the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs in the 1890s to generate more funding and public support for the school system (Brady and Hiltz, 2017). They show Thomas Moore Keesick as a young boy, supposedly before and after attending residential school. The first image depicts him in what looks like traditional hand-made clothing. It is loose and elaborately decorated. He wears his hair in long braids and stands next to the fur of a dead animal. In his right hand, the young boy holds a gun. The second image depicts Thomas Moore Keesick in a radically different manner. He is older, has changed physically and his body posture seems more confident. He leans on a piece of furniture; a flower vase is standing next to him. The boy has short hair and is dressed formally, wearing a suit and leather shoes. The pictures were intended to illustrate the transformation from an Indigenous, uncivilized, and possibly dangerous boy into a cultivated young adult with a European-style appearance and manners. Thomas Moore Keesick’s pictures are an example of how the schools were advertised to show their success in “killing the Indian in the child”. The radical change in his physical appearance is portrayed as a metaphor for positive social transformation (Gleason, 2017).

Figure 3: Thomas Moore Keesick before and after attending Regina Residential School, circa 1893 (Archives of Saskatchewan)

Residential Schooling as a Practice of Violence

As sites of institutionalized assimilation by force, residential schools in Canada show how education can be a form of violence. The remote location of the schools, restricted contact to families and communities, as well as the children’s physical transformation upon arrival removed the children from the life they had lived before entering residential school. School staff tried to disrupt the children’s Indigenous identities by banning the use of their Indigenous languages, attires, beliefs, and traditions and speaking about them in derogatory terms. Children had to assimilate to Euro-Canadian lifestyles and were indoctrinated to believe in their superior value. The transformation process that the children underwent was radical and violent. It was supported by the constant control of the children’s bodies and minds, severe punishments, and abuses.

The practice of forcibly assimilating children through boarding school education does not only relate to the case of the IRS system in Canada. Schools aimed at re-educating or assimilating children of a particular ethnic or religious group exist across cultures, and time periods. Throughout history, education has served hegemonic interests. By targeting children, institutions such as residential schools deprive communities of one of their most vulnerable and important elements and ensure to manipulate the identity and agency of future generations. Similar institutions existed in settler colonial contexts in the United States of America and Australia (Jacobs, 2006). The practice that links education, assimilation, and oppression of certain ethnic and religious groups remains present until today. A prominent contemporary example of schooling for assimilative and civilizing purposes refers to the fate of the Uyghurs in Northwest China. News reports hint at the fact that children that belong to the Muslim minority group are currently sent off to boarding schools to separate them from their parents’ and communities’ cultural influence and assimilate them into Chinese mainstream society (John, 2019).

Klara Meyer-Wehrmann studies liberal arts and sciences (BA) at University College Maastricht, focusing on international relations. She wrote her entry during an Applied Research Internship at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (March 2021).


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