Residential Schools: An integral part of Canada’s project of Indigenous genocide


“And further, Her Majesty agrees to maintain schools for instruction in such reserves hereby made as to Her Government of the Dominion of Canada may seem advisable, whenever the Indians of the reserve shall desire it.” — (The Canadian Government’s version of) Treaty 6, 1876.

Since May 2021, over 1700 Indigenous children’s bodies have been discovered at former Canadian Residential Schools. While this confirms little that was not already known, these discoveries made Canada’s ongoing program of Indigenous genocide tangible in a way that Indigenous peoples could rally around, and Canada could not ignore.

Indigenous-led marches, protests, and rallies have been held across the country, including massive Cancel Canada Day actions on July 1, 2021. These actions have not only demanded reparations and acknowledgement of the Residential Schools by the Catholic Church and Canadian state. They have called for the end of settler-colonial oppression and murder of BIPOC; settler encroachment onto the land of the Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous peoples for the purpose of fossil fuel production and celebration of the settler-colonial Canadian state; and the return of Indigenous land and Indigenous sovereignty.

The Catholic Church has long attempted to ignore or deflect responsibility for the Residential Schools. However, these discoveries and public outrage finally forced Pope Francis to offer an apology to an Indigenous delegation on April 1 of this year. But this has not stopped demands for tens of millions of dollars owed as restitution to survivors, the return of land and artifacts, the release of withheld Residential School documents, investigation of the Church’s past and ongoing abuses of Indigenous peoples and people around the world, and reforms to end them.

It is vital that everyone understands what these schools were, their place in the Canadian program of eliminating Indigenous peoples, and the effects they continue to have on First Nations people. However, in order to begin to understand the Residential Schools, one needs to understand their political and economic origins, the context in which they were devised, and their place in Canada’s ongoing program of Indigenous oppression and elimination.

Indigenous peoples on the land now occupied by the Prairie Provinces maintained a large degree of independence well into the 19th century, despite increasing integration into an international economy. While many peoples were exploited by European firms producing furs, hides, pemmican, and other goods, this production was grafted onto traditional subsistence production, which continued to provide a fallback, and Indigenous control of the land and their labour meant that direct coercion was largely untenable. At the same time, a lack of settlers eager to take up land in the north while land more suitable for agriculture could be expropriated from Indigenous peoples to the south, combined with Indigenous peoples’ labour being seen as profitable enough for investors in Britain and the east, resulted in relatively little interest in directly seizing our land.

In the latter half of the 19th century, however, several interrelated shifts served to undermine this state of affairs. One of the most well-known is the near extinction of the bison, brought about by two key factors. The first was American mass culling to starve out Indigenous resistance on the land south of the Medicine Line (the Canadian-American border, so called because of the seemingly supernatural inability for each state’s troops to cross it). This combined with more intensive hunting on the part of Indigenous peoples, both local and displaced, and the region’s growing population of settlers, to meet rising demand for both pemmican and for leather, the latter to meet industrialization’s need for drive belts. Together, these factors served to destroy plains peoples’ primary source of food and resources.

The population of fur-bearing animals were similarly depleted by over-hunting, affecting the options even of woodland peoples. Finally, demand for our land on the part of capitalists, the Canadian government, and settlers in general—all of whom saw greater potential profit in occupying our land for direct access to resources and conversion to farmland—grew as land south of the Medicine Line was fully occupied by settlers.

Government betrays the terms of its own forced treaties

It was in this new climate that the British Crown, on behalf of the Canadian government, made treaties with First Nations peoples in the prairie West, which we were forced into under duress and the threat of invasion and starvation. As they say, “A starving man will sell his house for a sandwich.”

Despite this, as well as deliberate misrepresentation of the treaties on the part of the Crown’s negotiators (what was written down often had little to no resemblance to what was discussed), First Nations leaders pushed for the best deal they could get. On the northern prairies, we generally agreed to share some of the land (the treaties varied in particulars, but Treaty 6, for example, specifically concerned sharing the fields to “six-fingers depth.”). We weren’t stupid, and we understood that we had to adapt to new tools and outside knowledge to move forward.

In return for sharing land, we asked for farming equipment and training, food in times of famine, and in the case of Treaty 6, medical care. Most relevant to this discussion, we demanded on-reserve schooling, with the expectation that the first generation would be taught by settler teachers, and then teaching would be turned over to those who were taught, so that it might be blended with traditional knowledge and education.

First Nations leaders were well aware of the government’s likelihood to betray these agreements. After all, word travels, and different Indigenous peoples had been making treaties and seeing them broken for several hundred years. Mistahi-Maskwa, a holdout who attempted to rally the other Nehiyaw chiefs to demand one large reserve rather than scattered ones, called the treaties a noose around our necks. Pitikwahanapiwiyin, another chief in the treaty critical camp, is famously quoted as saying “This is our land. It isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.”

Even those of the pro-treaty camp, such as Mistawasis and Ahtahkakoop, acknowledged that they acquiesced only because they had no other choice. The Canadian government would later go on to use the crushed 1885 Metis Revolution as pretext to round up most of the treaty critics for treason, and Mistahi-Maskwa and Pitikwahanapiwiyin were only released from prison on the verge of death years later.

The Canadian government ignored even what they bothered to write down, and quickly set about shunting First Nations peoples to small plots of often marginal land, often by threatening to withhold promised food. However, we were still viewed as an obstacle to settler-capitalist expansion and control of the land, a potential threat, and a money sink due to the nominal need to adhere to treaty promises. Infamously, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, was at one point called out by the Liberal Party for overspending on the food promised by treaty, to which he replied that food was refused “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”

Representing the interests of settler-capitalism, the Canadian government had three key objectives in mind as it first devised its Indian Policy. Foremost, it wanted to wipe out Indigenous peoples to seize the rest of our land. As a secondary objective, it wanted to create cheap wage/farm labour to better exploit the West as a source of raw materials to fuel industry in the East, a key interest of Canada’s burgeoning capitalist class reflected in the “National Policy.” Finally, it wished to spend as little money as possible to achieve the first two ends.

Reflecting these goals, the Canadian government began a project of trying to wipe us out and force us off our remaining land—which continues today. The strategies used to achieve this end were myriad. The pass system forbade us from leaving the reserve unless we “enfranchised” ourselves, legally renouncing our legal status as “Indians.” First Nations individuals were not allowed to vote, and veterans were barred from promised support and pensions, unless they did the same. When few were willing to accept enfranchisement at the cost of abandoning their homes, families, and the rights promised by the treaties, the government took to involuntary enfranchisement, declaring by fiat that individuals were no longer Indigenous against their will. Throughout, even the small pieces of marginal land we were left were not safe, with the government repeatedly confiscating and selling it off for whatever excuse they could cook up.

Schools established far from the Indigenous communities and reserves

Finally, these objectives provided the driving force behind the introduction of the Residential School System. Boarding and day schools of one sort or another, administered by colonial governments or settler religious institutions for the purpose of assimilating Indigenous peoples, had existed since the time of New France. However, they generally lacked the ability to force Indigenous attendance, and as a result were forced to acquiesce, at least to a degree, to the wishes and expectations of their intended pupils if they wished to have any hope of success. The newly created Residential School System, funded and overseen by the Canadian government, was a beast of a fundamentally different type. While this system was ostensibly based on the stipulation for on-reserve government funded schools “whenever the Indians of the reserve shall desire it” that was included in the numbered treaties, what we received instead were often little more than work and concentration camps.

The Residential Schools were constructed far from Indigenous communities and reserves, and children were often allowed only limited leave for holidays or the summer. This was in the interest of cost saving via centralization, as well as to separate children from what Canada saw as the corrupting influence of their families and communities, which might, it was feared, allow them to retain a stronger connection to their Indigenous cultures. The latter is exemplified once more by John A. MacDonald, who stated, “when the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”

Direct responsibility for operating the Residential Schools was granted to the lowest bidder in the interest of cost saving, with 70% ending up administered by the Catholic Church, and most of the remainder by protestant churches. Attendance at the schools was enforced by the North-West Mounted Police and its successor, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who had the authority to arrest and try parents who refused to turn their children over.

Anything in the way of actual education at the Residential Schools was sparse. The Church would often use children as slave labour, farming Church land or performing other work, for half the day or more, with the excuse of supposedly teaching “industry” and “practical skills.” The food was abysmal. My moshom (grandfather) recalls that he was served green vegetable slurry while the nuns and priests ate full meals at the heads of the table. Traditional religion was forbidden, to be replaced with forced adherence to Christianity. Children had their hair (which often had traditional significance) shaved on arrival, were called by numbers or given settler names, and were barred from speaking their own languages.

Verbal abuse was constant, with children constantly told they were savages, beasts, pagans, heathens, and worse. Physical abuse, something viewed as fundamentally monstrous according to many Indigenous traditions, ranging from ear pulling to beatings, was dished out for any infraction. Many survivors on my home reserve have lasting hearing damage from being clapped on the ear. Saint Anne Residential School, known as one of the most brutal, went so far as to install and use an electric chair.

Finally, sexual abuse was commonplace, and “trouble priests” were deliberately reassigned to the schools as sexually abusing Indigenous children was less likely to have negative repercussions for the Church. My kohkom (grandmother) recalls many of her friends being brought out to the priest’s cabin in the night and coming back crying. She was only spared, she believes, because she was the daughter of the chief, and the priests feared a scandal.

The Canadian government would have preferred that we were converted into cheap labor and forced into the lowest rungs of settler-capitalist society. However, as the hundreds of recently discovered graves reflect, killing us was a more than acceptable outcome.

Diseases and deaths were high

Tuberculosis and other diseases were widespread throughout the schools’ existence, spreading easily in the densely packed and poorly built, heated and maintained quarters, and those who caught it barely received treatment. Death rates ranging from 30-60% can be shown at many of the early schools. Even based on highly incomplete information, Doctor Henderson Bryce published in a 1907 report that of “a total of 1537 pupils reported upon [in his study], nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.”

Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs for two decades in the early 20th century, confirmed much the same when he wrote, “It is quite within the mark to say that fifty percent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.” However, he responded to these and similar statistics: “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”

The official death toll acknowledged by the Canadian government is 6000, but the discovery of 1700 bodies at 10 schools alone has drawn attention to the fact that this is a deliberately and incredibly conservative number. The ultimate goal of Canadian Indian Policy was (and is) elimination, not assimilation, which was simply the preferred means to that end. The Residential Schools were no exception.

Despite the threat of reprisal, we did not go quietly. Indigenous peoples used a variety of means to resist the theft of their children and imposition of settler ideology by the Residential Schools. Parents and families hid their children when the priest came through to collect them, as my moshom escaped being sent to the schools for two years by hiding with his kohkom. In other cases, they outright refused to hand them over despite the risks. Even when children were taken to the schools, escape attempts were common, and children might speak their own language and practice their own traditions in secret. There is no shortage of stories of resistance offered to Canadian oppression.

Residential Schools were not a universal experience. For example, only 31% of First Nations children attended one in 1920. However, over 150,000 children passed through their doors, and they have caused an incredible amount of damage to Indigenous peoples and cultures. Bans on Indigenous languages left entire generations of some reserves unable to speak their native tongue. Traditional systems of education, knowledge transmission, and child-raising were devastated.

In the case with which I am most familiar, traditional Nehiyaw education is based around bonds being made between the elders and children. The elders have the knowledge, but not the strength. Children and youth have the strength, but not the knowledge. So, by forming these bonds to learn how to live right, we continued to exist. Instead, sometimes several generations in a row were dragged off to the schools, where, even if they survived, they were often left physically and psychologically scarred. When they came back, they had no idea how to live, or parent, and unless they could overcome it, risked destroying themselves or passing their abuse on to their children (part of what is referred to as “inter-generational trauma”).

As just one personal example of the effects the Residential Schools have had, my moshom recalls that the first time he was ever able to tell his daughter he loved her was as she left for college. The love he was taught was God’s love, and God’s love was beatings and abuse. So, he simply couldn’t bear to say it.

A massive amount of work is being put into trying to piece together and relearn our traditions and languages, and address the damage caused by past and ongoing Canadian oppression of Indigenous peoples. Further, as the actions mentioned in this article’s introduction have shown, we are still fighting to end the program of Indigenous oppression that spawned the Residential Schools, and for sovereignty and the return of our land.

Residential Schools began to fall out of style in the 1960s in the face of Indigenous resistance and a growing conviction by the government that integration, not segregation, was a more efficient means of eliminating/assimilating Indigenous peoples. Despite this, it was only in 1996 that the last Residential School was closed. However, the Residential Schools were followed by other programs, such as the “Sixties Scoop,” which lasted from the 1950s to 1980s, and consisted of taking Indigenous children from their families and placing them with white foster families for the purpose of assimilation. Even today, while the main cause for removal of children by child protection for non-Indigenous people is abuse, for Indigenous people it is neglect, usually a function of poverty resulting from Canadian oppression.

Further, education continues to play an assimilative role despite the Canadian government’s nominal acceptance of “Indian Control of Indian Education,” as bands remain forced to adhere to provincial and federal curricula and standards, and most Indigenous students attend settler schools with largely settler focused curricula and content. Finally, reflecting the Canadian government’s ongoing goal of eliminating Indigenous peoples, it continues to define “inheritance” of Indian Status such as to ensure that the number of “legal Indians” it will recognize will decline over time.

All this reflects a reality that the beast responsible for the Residential Schools and anti-Indigenous oppression is still loose, despite all the words and platitudes settler-capitalist governments will offer about reconciliation and “not repeating the mistakes of the past.”

Unlike what many liberals and idealists believe, the root causes for the introduction of Residential Schools and other aspects of colonialist policy aren’t mere concepts like European superiority, or a lack of respect for Indigenous peoples, and they cannot be addressed in a vacuum by simply building a “respectful” and “equitable” relationship. While the desire to convert Indigenous peoples into labour is no longer as strong as when Canada devised its Indian Policy, capitalism’s need for constant growth ensures that Indigenous peoples, Indigenous beliefs, and Indigenous control of land will always be an obstacle that needs to be removed until either settler-capitalism, or we, break. No reconciliation is possible as long as capitalism remains in place, or the interests and needs of settlers are put before those of Indigenous peoples.

Author’s Notes: The first section of this article is written from the perspective of the land now occupied by the Prairie Provinces, as that is my home and area of expertise. Events leading up to settler invasion and the imposition of the Residential Schools were different for each region, and each people. However, the desire to eliminate Indigenous peoples as an obstacle to settler-capitalist expansion is universal, and the Residential Schools were a Canada wide institution with similar effects across the country. Further, I have chosen not to dwell on the personal experiences and aftereffects, as important as they are, as there is no shortage of first-hand accounts from elders and knowledge-keepers who have brought them forth with greater clarity than I could hope to.

Photo: Glunz, B. (1945). Cree Students at their Desks with their Teacher in a Classroom. National Film Board of Canada (R1196-14-7-E). )

One comment

Leave a Reply