In Canada, the Indian residential school system was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples. The network was funded by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches. The school system was created for the purpose of removing Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilating them into the dominant Canadian culture, “to kill the Indian in the child.” Over the course of the system’s more than hundred-year existence, about 30 per cent of Indigenous children (around 150,000) were placed in residential schools nationally. The number of school-related deaths remains unknown due to an incomplete historical record, though estimates range from 3,200 upwards of 6,000.
The system had its origins in laws enacted before Confederation, but it was primarily active from the passage of the Indian Act in 1876. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1884 made attendance at day schools, industrial schools, or residential schools compulsory for First Nations children. Due to the remote nature of many communities, school locations meant that for some families residential schools were the only way to comply. The schools were intentionally located at substantial distances from Indigenous communities to minimize contact between families and their children. Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued for schools at greater distances to reduce family visits, which he thought counteracted efforts to civilize Indigenous children. Parental visits were further restricted by the use of a pass system designed to confine Indigenous peoples to reserves. The last federally operated residential school closed in 1996, called Gordon Indian Residential School and was located in Punnichy, Saskatchewan. Schools operated in every province and territory with the exception of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
The residential school system harmed Indigenous children significantly by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse, and forcibly enfranchising them. Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system often graduated unable to fit into either their communities and still subject to racist attitudes in mainstream Canadian society. The system ultimately proved successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs across generations. The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which persist within Indigenous communities today.
On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology on behalf of the Government of Canada and the leaders of the other federal parties in the House of Commons. Nine days prior, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to uncover the truth about the schools. The commission gathered about 7,000 statements from residential school survivors through public and private meetings at various local, regional and national events across Canada. Seven national events held between 2008 and 2013 commemorated the experience of former students of residential schools. In 2015, the TRC concluded with the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the publication of a multi-volume report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. The TRC report concluded that the school system amounted to cultural genocide.