From Assimilation to Reconciliation: A Timeline of Residential Schools in Canada
Tracing the Legacy of Cultural Genocide towards a Path of Healing and Restitution
In Canada, the Indian residential school system was a network of mandatory 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 to remove Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilate them into the dominant European-Canadian culture. Over the course of the system's more than hundred-year existence, at least 150,000 children were placed in residential schools nationally. By the 1930s over 30 percent of Indigenous children were believed to be attending residential schools. The number of school- related deaths remains unknown due to incomplete records. Estimates range from 6000 to over 30,000.
The system was brought in by Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, after sending Nicholas Flood Davin to study industrial schools for Indigenous children in the United States. Davin’s recommendation to follow the U.S. example of “aggressive civilization” led to public funding for the Canadian residential school system. “If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions.” Davin wrote in his 1879 Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds.
Canada’s Indigenous populations existed for thousands of years off the land and were still in a period of adjustment to the onset of Europeans and the creation of Reserves. In the mid 1880’s the Residential School system would come into being and by 1920 amendments to the Indian Act would make attendance mandatory and made attendance at any other institution illegal. While these students would have already been living under the reserve system for several years, mandatory attendance was to catch them off guard. Taking children once raised by the extended family and greater community into institutions to be raised by Government and Church officials who had little to no regard for their culture and it extreme cases, even their safety.
“I looked outside, my mom was, you know, flailing her arms, and, and I, and she must have been crying, and I see my dad grabbing her, and, I was wondering why, why my mom was, you know, she was struggling. She told me many years later what happened, and she explained to me why we had to be sent away to, to residential school. And, and I just couldn’t get that memory out of my head, and I still remember to this day what, what happened that day. And she told me, like, she was so hurt, and, and I used to ask her, ‘Why did you let us go, like, why didn’t you stop them, you know? Why didn’t you, you know, come and get us?’ And she told me, ‘We couldn’t, because they told us if we tried to do anything, like, get you guys back, we’d be thrown into jail.’ So, they didn’t want to end up in jail, ’cause they still had babies at, at the cabin.”
Lynda Pahpasay McDonald TRC, Statement, 02-MB-16JU10-130.
A timeline of residential schools is like a dark and winding road that leads us through the painful history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Each milestone on this road represents a painful chapter in the story of colonization, where the lives and cultures of Indigenous children were systematically destroyed. Just as a road can be long and difficult to travel, so too is the journey towards reconciliation and healing for those affected by residential schools. But by following this timeline, we can gain a deeper understanding of the past and work towards a better future for all Canadians.
This chronology was compiled to convey, by historic milestones, how the Indian Residential School system came to be, how it embodied attitudes of its time, how critics were dismissed, and how finally the deep harm it did to many members of generations of Indian children was exposed during a reconciliation process that continues. While Canada has apologized and provided compensation, much of the damage to individuals, and to First Nations culture, can never be put right.
1755 – Indian Department created as branch of British military to establish and maintain relations with Indians.
1820 – This decade sees Anglican and Methodist missionary schools established in Upper Canada and Red River settlement.
1842 – Governor General Sir Charles Bagot appoints Commission to report on “the Affairs of the Indians in Canada.”
1844 – Bagot Commission finds reserve communities in a “half-civilized state”; recommends assimilationist policy, including establishment of boarding schools distant from child’s community, to provide training in manual labour and agriculture; portends major shift away from Royal Proclamation of 1763 policy that Indians were autonomous entities under Crown protection.
1847 – Dr. Adolphus Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister and educational reformer, commissioned by Assistant Superintendent General of Indian Affairs to study Native education, supports Bagot approach (as
does Governor General Lord Elgin); proposes model on which Indian Residential School system was built.
1856 – “Any hope of raising the Indians … to the … level of their white neighbours, is yet a … distant spark”: Governor General Sir Edmund Head’s Commission “to Investigate Indian Affairs in Canada.”
1857 – Gradual Civilization Act passed; males
“sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education” could be enfranchised (they would no longer be “Indians,” and could vote).
1861 – St. Mary’s Mission Indian Residential School, Mission, and Presbyterian Coqualeetza Indian Residential School, Chilliwack, first residential schools in B.C., established.
1862 – What became Blue Quills Indian Residential School (Hospice of St. Joseph / Lac la Biche Boarding School) established at Lac la Biche, later Saddle Lake, then St. Paul, AB; first residential school on the Prairies.
1867 – Confederation: British North America Act (now Constitution Act, 1867) establishes federal jurisdiction over Indians. Thus, while education is under provincial jurisdiction, Indian matters including education are federal.
Fort Providence and Fort Resolution Indian Residential Schools established; first residential schools north of 60⁰.
1871 – Treaty No. 1 entered into at Lower Fort Garry: “Her Majesty agrees to maintain a school on each reserve … whenever the Indians of the reserve should desire it.” This promise, repeated in subsequent treaties (though hedged in Treaties No. 5 on), reflected desire of Indian leadership to ensure transition of their youth to demands of anticipated newcomer society.
1876 – Indian Act passed into law by Parliament.
1879 – Nicholas Flood Davin, journalist and defeated Tory candidate, commissioned by Prime Minister Macdonald, also Minister of the Interior, to produce proposal for Indian education; visits US industrial schools grounded in policy of “aggressive civilization”; produces Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds. Four residential schools already operated in Ontario; “mission schools” planned for the west. This date generally taken to mark beginning of Indian Residential Schools, though the system had early predecessors in New France and New Brunswick, and several schools were already operating.
Duncan Campbell Scott, best known later as a “Confederation poet,” joins Indian Affairs at age 17 as “copying clerk,” at direction of Macdonald.
1883 – First industrial school established, at Battleford, modelled on Davin Report.
1885 – Residential schools necessary to remove children from influence of the home only way “of advancing the Indian in civilization”: Lawrence Vankoughnet, Deputy Superintendent General, to Prime Minister Macdonald. Despite treaty promises, reserves lacked schools; removal, often forcible, of pupils to residential schools is option chosen by government.
1890 – Physician Dr. G. Orton reports to Indian Affairs that tuberculosis in the schools could be reduced by half; measures rejected as “too costly.”
1892 – Regulations passed giving control over daily school administration to churches: Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist. (In 1925, Methodists joined most Presbyterians and others to form United Church, which continued to run schools.)
1896 – Programme of Studies issued; stresses importance of replacing “native tongue” with English. Children forbidden to speak their native language, even to each other, and punished for doing so. This continued
to be the policy for life of the system.
1904 – Dr. Peter Bryce appointed “Medical Inspector” to the Departments of the Interior and Indian Affairs.
1904 – Minister Sir Clifford Sifton announces closure of industrial schools – large urban institutions – in favour of boarding schools. They are closed over the next two decades.
1907 – Dr. Bryce visits 35 schools; reports appallingly unsanitary conditions, micro-organism- bearing ventilation, high death rates; “the almost invariable cause” is tuberculosis.
“The appalling number of deaths among the younger children … brings the Department within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter”: Hon. S.H. Blake, K.C., Chair of Advisory Board on Indian Education (partner in what is now national law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon), to Minister Frank Oliver.
1908 – Indian Affairs Accountant F.H. Paget reports school buildings in bad condition. 1909 – Duncan Campbell Scott appointed Superintendent of Indian Education.
1910 – “I can safely say that barely half of the children in our Indian schools survive to take advantage of the education we are offering them”: Scott to Major
D.M. McKay, Indian Affairs Agent General in B.C.
The children “catch the disease … in a building … burdened with Tuberculosis Bacilli”: Duck Lake Indian Agent MacArthur on the continuing prevalence of tuberculosis.
1912 – “… in the early days of school administration
… [t]he well-known predisposition of
Indians to tuberculosis resulted in a very large percentage of deaths among the pupils … fifty percent of
the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein”: Scott, in an essay in the authoritative 22-volume Canada and its Provinces.
1913 –Scott appointed Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (deputy minister), reporting to Minister of the Interior and Superintendent General Dr. William A. Roche.
1919 – Position of Medical Inspector for Indian Agencies and Residential Schools abolished (in the year of the Spanish ‘flu) by order in council on
recommendation of Scott “for reasons of economy.”
1920 – “I want to get rid of the Indian problem”:
D.C. Scott to Parliamentary Committee. A Scott- instigated amendment to the Indian Act, with church concurrence, compelled school attendance of all children aged seven to fifteen. Though no particular kind of school was stipulated, Scott favoured residential schooling to eliminate the influences of home and reserve and hasten assimilation.
“I am afraid I cannot give a very encouraging answer to the question. We are not convinced that it is increasing, but it is not decreasing”: Prime Minister Arthur Meighen, former Ministerof the Interior, on being asked whether tuberculosis was increasing or decreasing amongst the Indians.
1922 – Dr. Bryce publishes The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, the Wards of the Nation, Our Allies in the Revolutionary War, Our Brothers- in-Arms in the Great War. He charges that, for 1894-1908, within five years of entry 30% to 60% of students had died, an avoidable mortality rate had healthy children not been exposed to children with tuberculosis: A “trail of disease and death has gone on almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs.” His 1907
recommendations on tuberculosis control not given effect, he says, “owing to the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott.”
1923 – “Residential Schools” adopted as official term, replacing “boarding” (55) and “industrial” (16), housing 5,347 children.
1932 – Scott retires as Deputy Superintendent General after more than 52 years in the department. The anthologist John Garvin writes that Scott’s "policy of assimilating the Indians had been so much in keeping with the thinking of the time that he was widely praised for his capable administration.” He embodied a fundamental contradiction: While a rigid and often
heartless bureaucrat, “his sensibilities as a poet [were] saddened by the waning of an ancient culture” (Canadian Encyclopedia).
1939 – 9,027 children are in 79 residential schools run by Catholic (60%), Anglican (25%), United and
Presbyterian churches. “1939 [was] the approximate mid-point of the history of the system”: John S. Milloy, A National Crime.
1944 – Consensus develops among senior Indian Affairs officials that integration into provincial systems should replace segregated Aboriginal education.
1951 – Indian Act of 1876, with many amendments, repealed; replaced with modernized Indian Act (today’s Act, with amendments) conceptually similar to previous Act.
1955 – Jean Lesage, Minister of Northern Affairs and National Resources, department responsible for Inuit (then known as Eskimos), gets Cabinet approval for broad education policy in North. General policy is to substitute settlements for nomadic life. A school is built at Chesterfield Inlet, followed by Coppermine, and ten “hostels.” Some Inuit had formerly been sent south to Indian Affairs schools. “Destitute” Métis were sometimes
1969 – Indian Affairs takes over sole management of residential schools from churches.
1969 – Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chretien produces assimilationist “White Paper” to abolish Indian status; strongly opposed by Indian organizations.
Alberta Indian Association produces Citizens Plus, known as “Red Paper,” in response. White Paper retracted two years later.
1971 – Blue Quills School, St. Paul, AB, becomes first Indian-run school, following month-long contentious occupation by elders and others.
1972 – National Indian Brotherhood (predecessor of Assembly of First Nations) produces Indian Control of Indian Education, advocating greater band control of education on reserves; adopted next year by government.
1975 – Six residential schools close this year; 15 remain.
1976 – NIB proposes amendments to Indian Act to provide legal basis for Indian control of education; rejected by government.
1978 – National Film Board produces first film ever on residential schools: Wandering Spirit Survival School, about a non-traditional school organized by parents who had themselves survived residential schools.
1984 – 187 bands are operating own (day) schools, half in B.C.; the rest mainly on Prairies.
1993 – Archbishop Michael Peers, Primate of Anglican Church of Canada, apologizes to survivors of Indian residential schools on behalf of the Church.
1996 – Gordon Indian Residential School, Punnichy, Saskatchewan, closes; last of 139 Indian Residential Schools in Canada.
The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommends public investigation into violence and abuses at residential schools. Report brings these issues to national attention.
1998 – Minister of Indian Affairs Jane Stewart
responds with “Statement of Reconciliation,” acknowledging government’s role, stating “sexual and physical abuse … should never have happened. To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry.” Established Aboriginal Healing Foundation to assist Aboriginal communities to build healing processes, with $350 million endowment.
Express apology had to wait until 2008.
2001 – Federal Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada created to manage and resolve large number of abuse claims filed by former students, resulting in 17 court judgments.
2003 – National Resolution Framework launched, including Alternative Dispute Resolution process, an out of court process providing compensation and psychological support for former students who were physically or sexually abused or had been wrongfully confined.
2004 – Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Report on Canada’s Dispute Resolution Plan to compensate for Abuses in Indian Residential Schools leads to resolution discussions.
RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli expresses sorrow for the force’s role in the residential school system.
2005 – $1.9 billion compensation package announced to benefit former residential school students.
2007 – Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, largest class action settlement in Canadian history, negotiated and approved by parties, and Courts
in nine jurisdictions, implemented. Of the 139 schools ultimately included in the settlement, 64 were Roman Catholic, 35 Anglican, 14 United Church, and the balance other or no denomination. The objective was reconciliation with the estimated 80,000 former students then still living, of over 150,000 enrolled since 1879.
• Common Experience Payment to be paid to all eligible former students who resided at a recognized Indian Residential School;
• Independent Assessment Process for claims of sexual or serious physical abuse;
• Establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission;
• •Commemoration Activities;
• •Measures to support healing such as the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program and an endowment to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Survivors report harsh and cruel punishments, suicides of others, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, poor quality and meagre rations and shabby clothing in the schools, and inability on leaving to belong in either the Aboriginal or larger world. Posttraumatic stress disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder and borderline personality disorder have been diagnosed, and many have criminal records.
2008 – Prime Minister Harper offers formal apology in Parliament for the Indian Residential Schools, in presence of Aboriginal delegates and church leaders. Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission established June 1, with five-year mandate, later extended to 2015.
Mr. Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. In the 1870’s, the federal government, partly in order to meet its obligation to educate Aboriginal children, began to play a role in the development and administration of these schools.
Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal. Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, “to kill the Indian in the child.”
Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. Most schools were operated as “joint ventures” with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United churches. The government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities. Many were inadequately fed, clothed, and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents, and communities.
First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home.
The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on Aboriginal culture, heritage, and language. While some former students have spoken positively about their experiences at residential schools, these stories are far overshadowed by tragic accounts of the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and neglect of helpless children, and their separation from powerless families and communities.
The legacy of Indian residential schools has contributed to social problems that continue to exist in many communities today. It has taken extraordinary courage for the thousands of survivors that have come forward to speak publicly about the abuse they suffered. It is a testament to their resilience as individuals and to the strength of their cultures. Regrettably, many former students are not with us today and died never having received a full apology from the government of Canada. The government recognizes that the absence of an apology has been an impediment to healing and reconciliation.
Therefore, on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to Aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the Indian residential schools system.
To the approximately 80,000 living former students, and all family members and communities, the government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this.
We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions, that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this.
We now recognize that, in separating children from their families, we undermined the ability of many to adequately parent their own children and sowed the seeds for generations to follow, and we apologize for having done this.
We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you.
Not only did you suffer these abuses as children, but as you became parents, you were powerless to protect your own children from suffering the same experience, and for this we are sorry.
The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever again prevail. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey.
The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry.
In moving towards healing, reconciliation, and resolution of the sad legacy of Indian residential schools, implementation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement began on September 19, 2007. Years of work by survivors, communities, and aboriginal organizations culminated in an agreement that gives us a new beginning and an opportunity to move forward together in partnership. A cornerstone of the settlement agreement is the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
This commission presents a unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian residential schools system. It will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities, and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper 2008
2009 – AFN Chief Phil Fontaine meets Pope Benedict XVI at Vatican. Pope Benedict expresses “sorrow” and “sympathy and prayerful solidarity,” but avoids apologizing.
After a rocky start, with resignations of original Commissioners, Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins work under Justice Murray Sinclair, an Aboriginal Manitoba judge who became the province's Associate Chief Justice in 1988.
2010 – Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins hearings in Winnipeg.
2011 – University of Manitoba president David Barnard apologizes to Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada for institution's role in educating people who operated the residential school system.
2012 – Truth and Reconciliation Commission releases Interim Report. Reviews progress, explains statement gathering and document collection process. Tells of degrading treatment, unwarranted punishments, and physical and sexual abuse by “loveless institutions.” Makes numerous recommendations respecting public education about residential schools and about mental health and wellness programs, especially in the North, and that Canada and churches establish a cultural revival fund. Notes mandate to establish a National Research Centre.
Over 105,000 applications for Common Experience Payments were received by Canada by September 19, 2012, deadline; over 79,000 were found eligible and paid, the average amount being $19, 412.
2014 – Commission hearings in more than 300 communities wrap up. “National Events,” in Winnipeg, Inuvik, Halifax, Saskatoon, Montreal and Vancouver were held, as required by the Settlement Agreement, the final one taking place March 27-30 in Edmonton.
2015 – Final year for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; related events occur:
August 16: Dr. Peter Bryce (1853-1932), author of The Story of a National Crime, is honoured by the unveiling of a plaque in his honour at Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery, the National Cemetery of Canada.
November 1: The plaque at Beechwood Cemetery honouring Scott as a poet modified to include mention of his role in residential schools.
December 15: The massive final six-volume, 3,231- page TRC report is released. The TRC also produced a summary and five other companion volumes, 2012-15.
December 18: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission closes its doors. As required by the Settlement Agreement, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation opens, with a mandate to hold and make accessible all of the materials gathered by the Commission throughout its mandate. It is located at 177 Dysart Road on the University of Manitoba Fort Garry Campus in south Winnipeg: nctr.ca.
The Report looks to the future: “Reconciliation is not about ‘closing a sad chapter in Canada’s past,’ but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice.”
Assimilation policy was cultural genocide, “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow [a targeted] group to continue as a group.”
At the heart of the Report are 94 “Calls to Action,” under two main headings, “Legacy” and “Reconciliation.” Governments, educational, professional and sports bodies, media, churches (including the Pope), the arts, and the corporate sector are called to action. “Legacy” calls are to “redress the legacy of residential schools” in the areas of child welfare, education, language and culture, health, and justice. Under “Justice,” an
“Investigation into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls” is called for, and is underway. “Reconciliation” calls are more general, the most numerous calling for “full” adoption and implementation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “as the framework for
reconciliation,” and related matters. This is controversial, and the federal government is equivocal. Other calls are for a “Covenant of Reconciliation,” a National Council for Reconciliation, church apologies, and a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a statutory holiday. Many non- governmental entities, including law societies, have acted in response to the Report.
2016 – The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador approves a $50 million settlement of five class action lawsuits on behalf of indigenous former students from Labrador who attended one of the residential schools at Cartwright (Lockwood), North West River (Yale), Makkovik and Nain (in Labrador) and St. Anthony (on the island of Newfoundland). The schools were established by the International Grenfell Association or by the Moravian Mission well before 1949 when Newfoundland joined Canada, but subsequently received government support until the last one closed in 1980.
2017 – Prime Minister Trudeau apologizes, at Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL, to the indigenous former students who attended residential schools in
Newfoundland and Labrador, and to their “families, loved ones and communities impacted by these schools for the painful and sometimes tragic legacy these schools left behind.” Residential school students were not included in Prime Minister Harper’s 2008 apology, having been excluded from the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in the province.
Governments and Institutions have historically been the largest purveyors of human suffering and the case of the Canadian Residential School System fits the mold. The relationship between Canadians and First Nations is one that would be better served by open dialogue than with legislation. We cannot move into a better or more unified future until the mistakes of the past are, at a minimum, realized. First Nations communities find themselves still to this day reeling and recovering from a culturally traumatic experience that is less than a generation past. Poverty, substance abuse, and suicide plague many Indigenous communities to this day and unless we learn the why of the situation correcting it for future generations seems impossible
Indigenous Opinions is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.