Tag Archives: Indian Residential Schools

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement allowed the Catholic Church to escape justice

It failed residential school survivors, and it failed the many Catholics of goodwill who expected better of their spiritual leaders

Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement
✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | OCTOBER 6, 2021 • Current Events

WHEN THE INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL lawsuits began in the 1990s, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaimed that “the Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools” and that legal responsibility fell upon the individual dioceses and religious communities — the Jesuits, Oblates, Grey Nuns, Sisters of Providence, Daughters of Jesus, and so on.

This opening gambit would be succeeded by others, of an equally insincere and squalid nature, to minimize the liabilities of a church implicated in ongoing scandals of physical and sexual abuse. The CCCB well knew the communities and dioceses who’d managed residential schools had in many cases dissolved or relocated to distant jurisdictions, conveniently beyond the reach of Canadian courts.

At a time of mounting pressure, to say nothing of peril, the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) yielded an opportunity to make the headlines and headaches go away. The Catholic dioceses and religious congregations conjoined in the laboriously christened “Corporation of Catholic Entities Party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement (Agreement),” or CCEPIRSS, to negotiate with residential school survivors and the federal government. The largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history, the IRSSA also involved the Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches.

In 2006, I was a senior manager at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a not-for-profit national funding agency established in 1998 with a $350M federal grant and mandated to fund community-based projects addressing the intergenerational legacy of Indian residential schools. Our organization had productive, frequent and warm collaborations with leaders of the United Church, the Presbyterians, and the Anglicans. But our relationship with the Catholics was challenging. That relationship began when, without informing us, their lawyers injected the AHF into the settlement agreement as their partner. We discovered this through our colleague David MacDonald, a special adviser to the United Church and a former cabinet minister in the Joe Clark government, who provided us with a draft of the negotiations.

Schedule O-3 of the IRSSA, the 75-page settlement on behalf of the 48 Catholic Entities, committed the Catholics to a seven-year, best-efforts $25-million Canada-wide fundraising campaign, $25 million of in-kind services, and $29 million in “healing and reconciliation commitments” to be administered by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. I was in the room in February 2007 when AHF senior management sat down with the Catholic Entities lawyer to work out the details of a collaboration that was forged in our absence. The Catholics wanted something big, something that would draw attention, and they wanted enough control to ensure a funding stream for their existing outreach work with Indigenous people. We listened, and we deliberated their proposals, but we told them that $29 million was too little for their ambitious plan. The best approach, in our view, was to direct the money into our network of existing projects.

Subsequent events would prove that Schedule O-3 of the agreement was too vague, as well as unenforceable. In the end, the Catholic lawyers accepted our recommendations. The settlement agreement did little more than bind us together. There was no direction, and no plan. With the exception of the Canada-wide fundraising campaign, which was a meant to elicit donations from parishioners, no timeframes or payment schedules were provided. There were no consequences for non-compliance or failure to meet targets. (Speaking of targets: four years into its mandate, the Canada-wide campaign was reporting a loss of over $1 million.) The Catholic Entities lawyers set themselves to reducing the amounts of the settlement, deducting millions in legal fees and administration costs and loans. The agreement allowed for this, too, but without defining a reasonable administration cost.

The fundraising campaign amassed under $4 million, well short of the $25-million goal. According to a document produced by federal lawyers, an accountant for the Catholic Entities reported the provision of $25 million worth of in-kind services, with “no basis on which to value these services” except minutes from meetings. Where did the money go? As Jason Warick reported on the CBC on Sunday, it went into “attempts to evangelize and convert Indigenous people,” just as I’d inferred was their agenda in the February 2007 meeting.

As for the healing and reconciliation commitments, the lawyers reduced the $29 million for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to $18 million, with administrative deductions. Payments were slow to arrive. We sent letters to the government, and the government put pressure on the Catholic Entities. It was a nightmare for our accountants, who never knew when the money would arrive and in what amount. When $1.6 million remained of the $18 million, the lawyers claimed it for legal fees. That’s when the federal government intervened and took them to court.

In the end, a miscommunication between the federal and Catholic lawyers enabled the Catholic Entities to exchange $1.2 million for their release from obligations of the IRSSA. Lawyers for the federal government claimed that they had not agreed to a general release, but upon appeal the court ruled that “the balance of the record” proved otherwise. From the beginning to the end, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement did not deliver justice or reconciliation, so far as the Catholic Church was concerned. That the settlement did not deliver justice and reconciliation is evident in the ongoing calls for apologies, and from the recent pledge of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops of $30 million for healing and reconciliation. The IRSSA furthermore failed residential school survivors, and it failed the many Catholics of goodwill who expected better of their spiritual leaders. ⌾

Time to Pay For The Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate


Children Died and Disappeared Because the Government Was Cheap

✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | June 2, 2021 • Current Events

THE Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc announcement of a newly-confirmed burial ground is an instance of shock but not necessarily of surprise. For decades the existence of unmarked graves on and near former residential school properties had been known among the former students, and many of them told me so when I first began researching and writing about the residential school system in the 1990s. Only the scale and precise location of these sites were, and still are, a matter of uncertainty.

The need for an investigation was evident even before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established, on June 1, 2008. Volume Four of the TRC’s final report, “Missing Children and Unmarked Burials,” rehearses the background of the 2007 Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate, a directive of Jim Prentice, at the time Minister responsible for Indian Affairs and the Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada. Prentice instructed a working group to produce recommendations for research into the disappeared children of the residential schools, only for his successor to reject the recommendations when they came back with a request for funding in excess of $1.5 million.

As the TRC puts it, “the federal government’s denial of this request has placed significant limits on the Commission’s ability to fully implement the working group’s proposals, despite our sincere belief in their importance.” The substance of these proposals was four research projects into topics including student enrolment and illness numbers, disease and death rates, disappearances of children, and the location of cemeteries and gravesites in which students are believed to be buried. None of these studies was within the scope of the TRC’s existing budget, hence the request for additional funds to support an expanded mandate. A scaled-down version of this research was conducted and published as volume four of the TRC final report, and today this volume constitutes the first and perhaps only systematic effort to document these subjects, albeit within constraints partly related to resources but also to a lack of historical documentation.

Where might we be today had the Minister allocated funding to support his Missing Children and Unmarked Burials Mandate? No one can say as certain. But we can note an irony occurring across the history of Indian Affairs, the short-term cost-saving measure that in the long-run costs more dearly. Parsimony was the guiding principle of the residential school system on the day it was created, by an Order in Council of October 22, 1892 which established the government-church partnership as well as the per-capita funding formula. (The 1892 formula was a cut of funding levels Indian Affairs had been paying for industrial and boarding schools up until that date.) From then forward parsimony would keep coin in the accounts of the Crown at the expense of undernourished children and overcrowded buildings, the spread of disease, and other ugliness that is today the subject of class action lawsuits, multi-billion-dollar settlements, and several commission reports.

Over the years I’ve met and interviewed hundreds of survivors (as former Indian residential school students came to be called) in and from communities coast to coast to coast. Their stories have been recorded in books, plays, newspaper articles, and commission reports. But many children did not survive, and others who did survive were forever lost to their parents and families and communities. Some were institutionalized, others placed into adoption, and yet others drifted into towns and cities, never to restore the bonds that residential schools were designed to sever. The two hundred and fifteen children we have read about represent two hundred and fifteen families and many more siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. The scope of this pain is as large as Canada itself. We can never know the experiences of their short lives in their own words. All Canada, and the churches who ran the schools, can do now is support the work of communities like Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. ⌾

Read this article at the National Post.

Podcast 94: Celebrating the Work of Cree Author, Larry Loyie, with Constance Brissenden

Podcast Season 5

Visit the Living Traditions Writers Group website to learn more about Larry’s work. You can also order the iBook version of Residential Schools with the words and images of Survivors here.

The Indian Residential Schools Are Still With Us

In 2010, I interviewed the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, about his many years as a politician. The conclusion of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement negotiations was a few years behind, and I asked Phil for his assessment. What did he think of the agreement?

Never mind that this settlement was, as people like to say, “historic”—at $5-billion and more, the largest court-supervised class action in Canada’s history. Never mind that it had involved dozens of lawyers in simultaneous, multi-city sessions, or that it was front-page news for months and even years running. Indeed, today’s Globe and Mail headline reads “Residential Schools: Bennett puts settlement onus on Catholics.” Who would have thought the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement would be news nearly a full decade after its 2007 roll-out. Maybe Phil. But on that day he shrugged and pulled a face. He was proud of the agreement and said something to the effect that it was the best they were going to get. But there was something wrankling him, and he told me what it was.

Phil had many accomplishments over his career. He listed a few. I couldn’t dissent: he’d been more than a few places, made more than a few waves. Yet inevitably when he’s introduced, he pointed out, it’s the residential schools that everyone mentions, and only the residential schools. Everything else disappeared.

I don’t usually commiserate with politicians, but in this instance I knew exactly how he felt. I’ve written on hundreds of topics over the past three decades, but to the degree I’m known for anything at all, it’s the Indian Residential School System. My articles on residential schools, routinely the most-visited pieces on this blog, are about the only thing I’ve composed that could be called “evergreen.” My book on residential schools is by far my most successful book, by which I mean it’s the book that people actually read, more than any other of mine.

I’m not complaining. I am, however, registering genuine surprise. I never expected the article I wrote in May 2002, for the Globe and Mail, to be at the top of the most-read list in May 2016. In the meanwhile I’ve written nearly a thousand essays that have dropped (as they do, for most writers of current event) into the black hole of yesterday. Perhaps I should have expected this. Twenty years ago I’d learned to assert that, just as the Indian residential schools had done decades worth of damage, it would take decades to heal and restitute. Canada may wish to be done with its residential school history, but history is not done with Canada. Not even close.

Today’s Globe and Mail headline refers to the amounts negotiated in Schedule 0-3 of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, by the Corporation for the Catholic Entities, Parties to the IRSSA (or CCEPIRSSA). Why then an “onus”? The short answer is that the (in my estimation) badly-written agreement committed the Catholic Entities to the “best effort” fund-raising of a $25-million “Canada-Wide Campaign.” It didn’t pan out, according to lawyers for the CCEPIRSSA. So the federal government released the Catholic Entities, who ran ~65% of the residential schools, from this settlement obligation.

I mention the badly-written bit because the current mess was created by the agreement, insofar as it is a vaguely-composed document with no clear timelines or enforcements. And what exactly constitutes a “best effort”? Who decides? These and many other questions are not answered by Schedule 0-3, which bears all the evidence of having been drafted by junior lawyers while, elsewhere, the bulk of the effort went into the Common Experience Payment.

All of this makes me wonder where we’ll be five years from now. Or ten, or twenty. With some confidence, I can say that the Indian residential schools will probably be with us. The question is, will we be inching closer to restitution, or slinking yet further away?

Education is the key to reconciliation

100 Years of Loss

BRITISH COLUMBIA’S Education Minister, Peter Fassbender, announced late last week that the province will introduce a new education curriculum on Aboriginal cultures and history this autumn.

Education was a focus of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 recommendations. (Download the TRC’s “Calls to Action” document here.)

Here’s an excerpt from the TRC’s education-specific recommendations:

Education for reconciliation

62. We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to:

i. Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.

ii. Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.

iii. Provide the necessary funding to Aboriginal schools to utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms.

iv. Establish senior-level positions in government at the assistant deputy minister level or higher dedicated to Aboriginal content in education.

63. We call upon the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada to maintain an annual commitment to Aboriginal education issues, including:

i. Developing and implementing Kindergarten to Grade Twelve curriculum and learning resources on Aboriginal peoples in Canadian history, and the history and legacy of residential schools.

ii. Sharing information and best practices on teaching curriculum related to residential schools and Aboriginal history.

iii. Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.

iv. Identifying teacher-training needs relating to the above.

There are many more education recommendations in Calls to Action. Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, has said that “Education is the key to reconciliation.”

It makes sense for him to say this. The residential school system was an education system of a sort. It didn’t provide much at all by way of skills or learning. Mostly, it was a child labor system.

Always poorly-funded, the residential schools depended upon the output of child workers. Relatively little teaching and learning took place, especially until the 1950s, when reforms gradually were introduced.

The point is that the present-day education system can help to redress what was done by an education system of the past.

For this reason, I’ve been working for years on residential school curriculum. One of the projects with which I’ve been involved—”100 Year of Loss”—is already in use in two Canadian school systems, Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

Next month, I’ll start work on an exciting new curriculum project which I will say more about when the time arrives.

In the meantime, I commend British Columbia. And I look forward to more school systems responding to the TRC’s recommendation to “make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students,” in “consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators.”

eBook Download: Reconciliation & the Way Forward

Reconciliation and the Way Forward

LAST WEEK in Ottawa I had the pleasure of launching the book Reconciliation & the Way Forward with my friends Shelagh Rogers, Glen Lowry, Sara Fryer and Mike DeGagné. I contributed an essay (“Time to Get Our Indian Act Together for First Nations Students”) that was previously published at the National Post. Click on the image above to download a 4.2Mb PDF version of the book.

Full Circle: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation & the Unfinished Work of Hope, Healing & Reconciliation

An excerpt from my book Full Circle: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation & the Unfinished Work of Hope, Healing & Reconciliation, Chapter 3, “Long-Term Visions & Short-Term Politics.”


THE MANDATE of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was conceived as two related components: healing and reconciliation. As a funding agency, the AHF supported these with money and community support workers and other clerical services. Another large part of the Foundation’s work and legacy subsisted in its research agenda, which by 2010 had produced 20 studies all focused upon the Indian Residential School System and its current-day manifestations. The research was meant to advance one objective above all others: healing. The topics explored were enormously complex and included fetal alcohol syndrome, incarceration, domestic violence, sexual offenses and addiction. Behind the complex subjects however were practical questions: what relationship does the Indian Residential School System have to the realities of current-day life? Is there an underlying and perhaps even unifying agent which may account for the many apparent diverse forms of physical and emotional turmoil we can discern in indigenous communities? When communities undertake to solve their problems for themselves, what works, and why? Such were the sort of concrete prospects to which the research agenda was directed.

Continue …

I Went to an Indian Residential School, and My Father was the Principal

Guest post by Mark DeWolf

Indian residential schools

Part of my Truth is my memory of how it was at the residential school during the years my Dad was the Principal

IT’S A COLD BUT sunny day in Edmonton as I cross Jasper Avenue and approach the front doors of the Shaw Centre, the venue for the final national event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Streaming out one door is a large group of non-aboriginal teens, chatting, laughing, doing a bit of good-natured jostling. It’s Education Day at the TRC event, and a good number of local schools have arranged for their students to attend, no doubt hoping that the kids will not only learn about the work of the TRC and the reason for its establishment, but also gain something from the experience of sharing the event with thousands of their First Nations neighbours. Have they? I wonder.

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Listening to the Survivors of the Indian Residential Schools

Indian residential schools

I encourage you if you have never done so to seek out and talk to survivors of the Indian residential schools

THE REPULSIVE St. Anne’s Indian Residential School at Fort Albany is again in the news. Ontario’s Superior Court Judge Paul Perell has ruled that files in the possession of the Ontario Provincial Police, related to their investigation of crimes at this institution, should be turned over to the courts. These files are critical to the advancement of a case involving former school inmates. The term inmates, by the way, was in fact used by Indian residential school staff in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: people were less circumspect in those days. Here’s a direct quote from an Indian Affairs Annual Report of December 31, 1888:

Of the children who formerly attended the now abandoned day school on Little Child’s Reserve, No. 73, at Crooked Lakes, 27 have become inmates of the industrial school at Fort Qu’Appelle, and 34 of the semi-industrial boarding-school at Round Lake.

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Face It: Indian Residential Schools Were Bad

Indian Residential Schools
LAST WEEK, Paul Russell (the letters editor at the National Post) ran a piece entitled Could it be that residential schools weren’t so bad?:

The National Post has carried many stories about [Indian residential schools] before and since that apology. And every time we do, it is interesting to see that most of the letters we receive argue that the schools have been unfairly portrayed in the media. That phenomenon was on display again this week, following the publication of last Saturday’s story, “4,000 Children died in residential schools; Truth commission.”

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Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden

Residential Schools

SOME YEARS AGO I had the good fortune and pleasure to befriend the wonderful Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden. Larry is a Cree author and playwright from Slave Lake in Alberta. Constance is a freelance writer, author and editor who I first encountered when she was writing for Macleans in its glory days, under the capable editorship of Peter C. Newman, in the 1980s. Larry and Constance met in a writing class in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and within a few years had formed the Living Traditions Writers Group.

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Everything You Need to Know About Canada’s Indian Residential Schools

Indian Residential Schools

THE PHRASE “Indian Residential School System” refers to a historical church-state partnership formalized by the Government of Canada in 1892 with an Order-in- Council. Long before the late nineteenth century, many features of this system could be discerned. In the early days of Christian missionary work on the North American continent, beginning around 1600, religious orders established orphanages and schools for Indian children. These initiatives abroad were supported at home by private charitable donations known as subscriptions, and the work of securing the next year’s missionary funding drew the pious again and again back to the salons of high society.

From roughly 1500 to 1800, Europeans and aboriginal peoples regarded one another as distinct nations — in war as allies or foes, in peacetime as trading partners. Soon economic opportunity drew settler populations, and the resulting alliances provided the economic and military benefits of co-operation. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, European hunger for land had expanded dramatically, and the economic base of the colonies shifted from resource exports to domestic production, in particular agriculture. In the decades following the War of 1812, a period when the balance of military power shifted in favour of the colonists and the prospect of French-English (and British-American) war receded, the utility of strategic alliances was diminished. Co-operation with the Indian population gave way to the emerging business of nation-building and to direct competition for land and resources. Settlers began to view aboriginal people as a problem.

The Indian Problem was a direct outcome of the national project — the effort to forge a contiguous continental nation from sea to sea. Indians were seen as presenting an obstacle both to the physical and moral expansion of Christian civilization and industry. Although less of a mortal danger, the Indian population continued to be a threat to westward expansion, as the 1885 rebellion demonstrated. In the final quarter of the nineteenth century, Canada undertook a series of initiatives designed to pacify the Indian population, thereby to secure possession and control of the land and its resources. These initiatives included the drafting of legislation (foremost among which, in this context, are the 1876 Indian Act and the Dominion Lands Act of 1872), the building of a railroad, the establishment in 1873 of a security force — the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — and the negotiations of the numbered treaties*

Keenly aware of the changes underway, aboriginal people once again turned to the making of treaties as a tool to secure the means of their livelihood. While many settlers had come to regard Indians as an impediment to progress, aboriginal people continued to seek out the mutually beneficial alliances that had long served them in times of war and stress. To this end, the indigenous negotiators of the numbered treaties pressed their interlocutors for good faith commitments to provisioning Indians with the practical skills they would need in the years ahead. As the land base of aboriginal nations contracted and the means of subsistence receded, leaders turned to education as one of the more promising opportunities. [For a more detailed analysis, see J.R. Miller Shingwauk’s Vision, and  “A Vision of Trust: The Legal, Moral and Spiritual Foundations of Shingwauk Hall” by Jean L. Manore in Native Studies Review 9, no. 2 (1993-1994) 1-21.]

The Government had little interest in long-term commitments and agreements. As soon as the treaties were concluded, federal officials turned their attention to absolving themselves of their pecuniary and administrative entanglements. Indians wanted education not to displace or overwhelm their own traditional knowledge, but rather to help them sustain their cultures and languages and ceremonies into the new order. The federal government however considered all things Indian to belong to the past and to have no place in the future. The official policy of Canada was to assimilate the Indian — to make him into a law-abiding, industrious subject of the Crown, no different from any other citizen. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, summed up the Government’s position when he said, in 1920, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. […] Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian Question and no Indian Department.”

Education of the Indian as a means of assimilation had long been a subject of polemic throughout the Dominion. In 1842, the Bagot Commission produced one of the earliest official documents to recommend education as a means of solving the Indian Problem. In this instance, the proposal concerned farm-based boarding schools placed far from parental influence. The document was followed, in immediate successive decades, by others of similar substance: the Gradual Civilization Act (1857), an Act for the Gradual Enfranchisement of the Indian (1869), and the Nicholas Flood Davin Report of 1879, which noted that “the industrial school is the principal feature of the policy known as that of ‘aggressive civilization.’” This policy dictated that

the Indians should, as far as practicable, be consolidated on few reservations, and provided with “permanent individual homes” ; that the tribal relation should be abolished ; that lands should be allotted in severalty and not in common ; that the Indian should speedily become a citizen […] enjoy the protection of the law, and be made amenable thereto ; that, finally, it was the duty of the Government to afford the Indians all reasonable aid in their preparation for citizenship by educating them in the industry and in the arts of civilization.

A product of the times, Davin disclosed in this report the assumptions of his era – that “Indian culture” was a contradiction in terms, Indians were uncivilized, and the aim of education must be to destroy the Indian. In 1879 he returned from his study of the United States’ handling of the Indian Problem with a recommendation to Canada’s Minister of the Interior – John A. Macdonald – of industrial boarding schools.

The assumptions, and their complementary policies, were convenient. Policy writers such as Davin believed that the Indian must soon vanish, for the Government had Industrial Age plans they could not advantageously resolve with aboriginal cultures. The economic communism of Indians – that is to say, the Indians’ ignorance (from a European perspective) of individual property rights – was met with hostility by settlers eager for ownership of the land. Colonization required the conversion of Indians into individualistic economic agents who would submit themselves to British, and later, Canadian institutions and laws.

In the years leading up to the numbered treaties, the Government of Canada had little incentive to burden itself with the vast and potentially expensive task of educating the Indians scattered throughout its territories. Although in theory such an initiative may have been appealing, in practice it posed a series of administrative and logistic challenges. Nonetheless, and whether they welcomed this fact or did not, the treaties had drawn the officials of the bureaucracy into the business of education.

At the same time the federal government was contemplating its bureaucratic challenges, the denominations – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian – were eager to obtain a sufficient and predictable source of funding for their educational undertakings among the Indians. For decades, the various orders and sects and societies of the respective churches had been operating their orphanages, hostels, boarding, industrial and residential schools on the lean and precarious revenues of private subscriptions.

The work of fundraising was relentless and typically yielded insufficient resources. Petitions for subscription often involved the work of semi-formal grassroots organizations like the women’s auxiliaries, who sought financial support for missionary work by holding fund-raising meetings in the homes of well-off individuals. A presentation on the accomplishments and challenges of religious missions abroad would be followed by a call for donation. These activities continued into the twentieth century, and indeed to the present day, but by the nineteenth century religious groups became convinced of the necessity for a larger and more predictable funding base. To this end they became eager to draw the Government of Canada into a formal funding partnership.

The provisions of the numbered treaties presented the churches with their opportunity. The now-familiar, triangular relationship — between aboriginal peoples, religious entities, and the federal government —  was forged. The churches secured a per-capita grant for the work they were already undertaking, and the government divested itself of the day-to-day burden of managing an Indian educational system. Under the terms of the partnership, Canada provided funding and set the standards and legislative framework of the Indian Residential School System, and the churches hired the staff and supervised school operations. The Government found a willing partner in the work of carrying out its assimilative agenda, and the churches received aid in its effort to Christianize the Indian. Both partners eagerly pursued a shared vision of a nation marching forward on the road of progress.

Lost in this Church-Government relationship were the spirit and intent of the treaties and the interests of aboriginal people. Instead of receiving the skill-oriented education they had negotiated, aboriginal people found themselves the objects of an aggressive Christian-based campaign of State-supported assimilation. The aspirations of government and churches were accommodated, but for indigenous peoples the Indian Residential School System represented a shocking, painful, and ultimately destructive violation of trust. The co-operative and mutually beneficial relationships with which we began this chapter had given way to exploitative relationships of opportunism and conquest. That, reduced to its core, is the story of Canada’s Indian Residential School System.


Over the decades, the Indian Residential School System comprised a diverse set of arrangements including industrial and boarding schools, Inuit tent camps, and hostels adjacent to school buildings. Today the Government of Canada officially recognizes 139 residential schools (located in all provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick)  as belonging to the system, over half of which were operated by one of the many Roman Catholic orders active in the country. (The Roman Catholic Church, which is to say the Vatican, is not subject to Canadian law — the legal representative of the Catholic Church within Canada is the Corporation of Catholic Entities.) The remaining schools were operated by the Church of England (later the Anglican Church of Canada), the United Church of Canada (formed by the United Church of Canada Act on June 10, 1925, by union of members of the Methodist Church of Canada, the Congregational Union of Canada, and 70 per cent of the Presbyterian Church), the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and the Baptists. In 1931, the number of concurrently operating Indian residential schools peaked at 80, with an enrollment of approximately 7,831.

[The number of schools operating declined from this point, while total enrolment rose. In 1931, 17, 163 Indian students were enrolled if one includes the day schools. See here for example.]

The Indian residential schools were distributed geographically as follows:

Alberta: 25
British Columbia: 18
Manitoba: 14
Northwest Territories: 14
Nova Scotia: 1
Nunavut: 13
Ontario: 18
Quebec: 12
Saskatchewan: 18
Yukon 6

[Source: the official Court website for the settlement of the In re Residential Schools Class Action Litigation retrieved on January 8, 2013.]

The following, from the 1931 Annual Report of Indian Affairs, provides a breakdown of the residential school system by denomination:

Generally speaking, residential schools enjoyed a particularly successful year. At these institutions, emphasis is placed on vocational training, religious instruction and the care of health. The various churches, as shown hereunder, co-operate with the department in the residential school activity, to the advantage of all concerned.

Roman Catholic 44 residential schools
Church of England 21 residential schools
United Church 13 residential schools
Presbyterian 2 residential schools
Total 80 residential schools

Indian schools follow the provincial curricula, but special emphasis is placed on language, reading, domestic science, manual training and agriculture. Frequent inspections are made by officers of the department. In addition, public and separate school inspectors visit all classrooms, except in the provinces of New Brunswick and British Columbia, where there are special Indian school inspectors.

As early as the first Indian Act, in 1876, the government legislated provisions concerning the education of Indian children. However, not until the 1920 amendments to the Indian Act was attendance at a residential school made compulsory, with the government assuming the right to apprehend children:

The recent amendments give the department control and remove from the Indian parent the responsibility for the care and education of his child, and the best interests of the Indians are promoted and fully protected. The clauses apply to every Indian child over the age of seven and under the age of fifteen.

If a day school is in effective operation, as is the care on many of the reserves in the eastern provinces, there will be no interruption of such parental sway as exists. Where a day school cannot be properly operated, the child may be assigned to the nearest available industrial or boarding school. All such schools are open to inspection and must be conducted according to a standard already in existence. A regular summer vacation is provided for, and the transportation expenses of the children are paid by the department.

In 1930, the compulsory education clause of the Indian Act was again amended, making it possible “to compel the attendance of every physically fit Indian child between the full ages of 7 and 16 years.” Furthermore, according to the Department of Indian Affairs Annual Report, “in very special cases, the Superintendent General may direct that a pupil be kept in school until he has reached the full age of 18 years. The usual practice at Indian residential schools is to encourage pupils to remain until they are 17 or 18.”

More children were enrolled in a residential school than attended regularly, some children for instance accompanying their parents on seasonal hunts and trap lines. According to government records, average attendance in 1891 was 80.03%, rising to 88.33% in 1931. The principal interest of school administrators was in enrolment: the per capita formula meant that income from government would be based upon the number of registered students. As a result, administrative efforts tended to focus more upon the processing of children as against the pursuit of truants. With the federal legislation of compulsory attendance came resources to employ a more aggressive campaign of seizing, invigilating and retaining Indian children. Unco-operative parents were in many cases imprisoned, and run-away children — an ever-present reality leading to many deaths, particularly in Winter — were pursued by police and/or church employees. Compliance was enforced in other, more indirect ways. One example may be derived from the Indian Agent Hayter Reed, whose withholding of food rations from troublesome individuals earned him the nickname “Iron Heart.”

The Indian residential school was an institution enveloping every aspect of a child’s life. Having been taken from home and family and community to be placed on a boat or plane or train for a journey of hundreds and in some cases thousands of kilometres, and in many cases separated from siblings who were sent to other distant residential schools, these first waves of children arrived disoriented and confused to an alien landscape of concrete, nuns, priests, inscrutable words and strange religious iconography. Noticing a bleeding man nailed to a cross, children would infer for themselves a similar fate. [See for instance the interview with Ralph Johnson in Nadia McLaren’s 2008 documentary Muffins for Granny: “the first thing I saw was this huge, ah, sculpture or image of a man they had nailed to the cross. And, ah, I didn’t know what it was. I was thinking, you know, is this what they’re going to do to us?”] Stripped of their clothes, the children would then undergo a routine initiation — scrubbing, head shaving, and assignment of a uniform, bed, and number. It would be by this number that the children would henceforth be known. Alone and far from the comforts and familiarity of home, children would struggle with the fears, loneliness, and deprivations which attend incarceration within a state institution.

Every moment of every day in the Indian residential school was regimented. The routine was divided along gender, the typical day of a boy focusing on  farming and stock raising, and the day of a girl on “domestic science.” Accordingly, the boys’ mornings began as early as 5:30 with the feeding of animals, milking of cows, and otherwise tending to the animals. The girls would rise at roughly the same time, or shortly thereafter, to conduct the morning’s household chores. Following this would be the long queues for washing and a breakfast of porridge and bread, after which came morning religious and academic studies. Then a lunch, typically soup, stew or sandwiches. The afternoons were dedicated to work — farming, house cleaning, sewing and general maintenance, again organized according to gender. The labour of children was critical to the economics of the residential school. The produce of the school (including staples such as milk and potatoes, as well as handicrafts) was sold, the profits applied to the costs of administration. The children themselves encountered hunger as a normal condition, so much so that it was common for them to sneak into the fields at night to dig up and eat whatever could be had from the ground. The afternoon’s labour concluded, children would have some time to themselves before a dinner of meat and root vegetables, and perhaps a snack of fruit when in season. The evening would include time for recreation followed by evening prayer and a bed time of 9.

As the years progressed, the schedule evolved to keep up with the broader changes in the culture. More time was accorded to recreation, and many schools added sports teams, brass bands, dances and movie nights to their regular activities. By mid-century a full day of study, focused on core subjects like math and science, was not uncommon.

From the beginning, the schools exhibited systemic problems. Per capita Government grants to Indian residential schools — an arrangement which prevailed from 1892 to 1957 and which represented only a fraction of the expenditures dedicated to non-Aboriginal education — were inadequate to the needs of the children. (As noted earlier, child labour supplemented the government’s contributions.) Broad occurrences of disease, hunger, and overcrowding were noted by Government officials as early as 1897. In 1907 Indian Affairs’ chief medical officer, P.H. Bryce, reported a death toll among the schools’ children ranging from 15-24% – and rising to 42% in Aboriginal homes, where sick children were sometimes sent to die. In some individual institutions, for example Old Sun’s school on the Blackfoot reserve, Bryce found death rates which were even higher.

F.H. Paget, an Indian Affairs accountant, reported that the school buildings themselves were often in disrepair, having been constructed and maintained (as Nicholas Flood Davin himself had recommended) in the cheapest fashion possible. Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott told Arthur Meighen in 1918 that the buildings were “undoubtedly chargeable with a very high death rate among the pupils.” But nothing was done, for reasons Scott himself had made clear eight years earlier, in a letter to British Columbia Indian Agent General-Major D. MacKay:

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential 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 geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.”

As a consequence of under-funding, residential schools were typically places of physical, emotional and intellectual deprivation. The quality of education was quite low, when compared to non-Aboriginal schools. In 1930, for instance, only 3 of 100 Aboriginal students managed to advance past grade 6, and few found themselves prepared for life after school – either on the reserve or off. The effect of the schools for many students was to prevent the transmission of Aboriginal skills and cultures without putting in their place, as educators had proposed to do, a socially useful, Canadian alternative. This predicament is vividly described by John Tootoosis in a biography which recounts his days at Delmas (or Thunderchild) Residential School, in Delmas, Saskatchewan:

  … when an Indian comes out of these places [i.e. Indian schools] it is like being put between two walls in a room and left hanging in the middle. On one side are all the things he learned from his people and their way of life that was being wiped out, and on the other side are the whiteman’s ways which he could never fully understand since he never had the right amount of education and could not be part of it. There he is, hanging in the middle of two cultures and he is not a whiteman and he is not an Indian. They washed away practically everything from our minds, all the things an Indian needed to help himself, to think the way a human person should in order to survive.

No matter how one regarded it – as a place for child-rearing or as an educational institution – the Indian Residential School system fell well short even of contemporary standards, a fact recorded by successive inspectors. A letter to the Medical Director of Indian Affairs noted in 1953 that “children … are not being fed properly to the extent that they are garbaging around in the barns for food that should only be fed to the Barn occupants.” S.H. Blake, Q.C., argued in 1907 that the Department’s neglect of the schools’ problems brought it “within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.” P.H. Bryce, whose efforts earned him the enmity of the Department (and an eventual dismissal), was so appalled – not only by the abuses themselves but by subsequent Government indifference as well – that he published his 1907 findings in a 1922 pamphlet entitled “A National Crime.” In the pamphlet, Bryce noted that

Recommendations made in this report followed the examinations of hundreds of children; but owing to the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott, and his advice to the then Deputy Minister, no action was taken by the Department to give effect to the recommendations made.

Bryce’s 1907 report received the attention of The Montreal Star and Saturday Night Magazine, the latter of which characterized residential schools as “a situation disgraceful to the country.” These publications, and others like them, make it clear that the conditions of the schools were generally knowable and known, not only by officials of the church and government, but by members of the public-at-large.

Because low regard for aboriginal languages and cultures, and for the children themselves, shaped Canada’s policies toward Indians, matters continued as before despite internal reports and published accounts of abuse. In 1883, the Yakima Indian Agent and veteran of the Mexican and American Civil wars, General R. H. Milroy, was quoted in a British Columbia petition for industrial boarding schools as saying that “Indian children can learn and absorb nothing from their ignorant parents but barbarism.” The residential school system, designed to produce in the Aboriginal child “a horror of Savages and their filth” (in the words of Jesuit missionary Fr. Paul LeJeune), was rationalized by this contemptuous belief.

Individual beliefs about Indians, which in any case varied, did not determine the character of the individual schools. Nor were the conditions identical in each institution: students today recall diverse memories of both good and bad experiences, as well as good and bad teachers. Nonetheless, the widespread occurrence of certain residential school features suggests that structural elements were in effect. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) concluded in 1996 that the schools themselves were, for readily identifiable and known reasons, “opportunistic sites of abuse”:

Isolated in distant establishments, divorced from opportunities for social intercourse, and placed in closed communities of co-workers with the potential for strained interpersonal relations heightened by inadequate privacy, the staff not only taught but supervised the children’s work, play and personal care. Their hours were long, the remuneration below that of other educational institutions, and the working conditions irksome.

In short, the schools constituted a closed institutional culture that made scrutiny difficult, if not impossible. For staff the result was, in the words of RCAP, a “struggle against children and their culture […] conducted in an atmosphere of considerable stress, fatigue and anxiety.” In such conditions, abuses were not unlikely – a fact to which the experts of the day attested.

Then there are the testimonies of hundreds of former students, whose list of abuses suffered includes kidnapping, sexual abuse, beatings, needles pushed through tongues as punishment for speaking Aboriginal languages, forced wearing of soiled underwear on the head or wet bedsheets on the body, faces rubbed in human excrement, forced eating of rotten and/or maggot infested food, being stripped naked and ridiculed in front of other students, forced to stand upright for several hours – on two feet and sometimes one – until collapsing, immersion in ice water, hair ripped from heads, use of students in eugenics and medical experiments, bondage and confinement in closets without food or water, application of electric shocks, forced to sleep outside – or to walk barefoot – in winter, forced labour, and on and on. Former students concluded in a 1965 Government consultation that the experiences of the residential school were “really detrimental to the development of the human being.”

This system of forced assimilation has had consequences which are with Aboriginal people today. Many of those who went through the schools were denied an opportunity to develop parenting skills. They struggled with the destruction of their identities as Aboriginal people, and with the destruction of their cultures and languages. Generations of Aboriginal people today recall memories of trauma, neglect, shame, and poverty. Thousands of former students have come forward to reveal that physical, emotional and sexual abuse were rampant in the system and that little was done to stop it, to punish the abusers, or to improve conditions. The residential school system is not alone responsible for the current conditions of Aboriginal lives, but it did play a role. Following the demise of the Indian residential school, the systemic policy known as “aggressive civilization” has continued in other forms.

Many of the abuses of the residential school system were, we should keep in mind, exercised in deliberate promotion of a “final solution of the Indian Problem,” in the words of Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott. If development of the healthy Aboriginal human being meant respect of Aboriginal cultures, then indeed the regimented culture of the schools was designed precisely to be detrimental. As noted in the 1991 Manitoba Justice Inquiry, the residential school “is where the alienation began” – alienation of Aboriginal children from family, community, and from themselves. Or to put the matter another way, the purpose of the schools was, like all forced assimilationist schemes, to kill the Indian and save the man – an effort many survivors today describe as cultural genocide. [The phrase “Kill the Indian, and save the man” is often misattributed to officials within the Canadian government. Its source is Captain R.H. Pratt, an American soldier and founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  In June 1892, Pratt delivered a speech entitled “The Advantages of Mingling Indians and Whites” to the National Conference of Charities and Correction in Denver, Colorado. In this speech, he said:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”]


By the 1940s, government officials were shifting their focus from the segregationist approach of the residential school to integrationist arrangements such as the placement of Indians within the public school system. In 1934, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Harold W. McGill, noted that “there is no foundation for the common belief that the Indians of Canada are a vanishing race. The census which is taken at five-year intervals has shown a substantial increase in each of such periods during the past fifteen years at least, and the statistics may now be regarded as reliable. The birth rate continues to be high, and the death rate is definitely diminishing.”

Although on its surface this change of direction — from residential to public schooling — suggests a change of policy, assimilation remained the ultimate objective. Not only was the Indian Problem not being solved, with every passing year there were more Indians under the auspices of the Indian Act and the Indian Department. Assimilation, it appeared, would require another approach.

The Indian Residential School System would continue for three more decades. Although enrolment into this system would increase, after 1932 the total number of schools within it stopped growing. The Trudeau government’s 1969 “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy” [the infamous “White Paper”] reiterated many of the points made in the October 1967 Hawthorn Report, which called for “complete school integration.” The White Paper outlined the way ahead as Canada envisioned it, again with a view to extinguishing the treaties and the relationship articulated therein:

The significance of the treaties in meeting the economic, educational, health and welfare needs of the Indian people has always been limited and will continue to decline. The services that have been provided go far beyond what could have been foreseen by those who signed the treaties.

As the earlier comments of Duncan Campbell Scott, and others, disclose, the Government of Canada assumed from the beginning the view that the treaties were a temporary expedience on the way to absorbing Indian peoples and assuming control of the land. On April 1, 1969 Trudeau terminated the formal church-government partnership, and the federal government assumed administrative control of the Indian residential schools. This marked the official end of the Indian Residential School System. Throughout the 1970s and beyond, the schools were closed and responsibility for on-reserve education was transferred to local Indian band councils while the provinces took over the work of the off-reserve education of Indians. Gordon’s Indian Residential School, in Saskatchewan, was the last federal-run Indian residential school. Managed by the federal government at the band’s request, it closed in 1996.

With few exceptions, the men and women who created and sustained Canada’s Indian Residential School System believed that the policy of “aggressive assimilation” (as Nicholas Flood Davin, following the example and policies of US President Ulysses S. Grant,  termed it) was benevolent and forward-looking. The absorption of the Indian into Canadian society, a necessary part of the effort to possess the land and resources and to build a nation-state, was the desired outcome of policies and the final solution of the Indian Problem envisioned by, among others, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott. The policy of assimilation neither began nor ended with the Indian Residential School System. The program of assimilation continues to this day, as does the project of nation-building, from sea to shining sea.


Study of the Indian Residential School System poses special challenges to the student of history. Those who seek representations of “what really happened” should do so under advisement. For example, what do the archival photographs of residential schools and students capture?  Often not the authentic experiences of the children, but rather the policy of assimilation in action. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the taking of one’s photograph was a rare and special occasion. The administrators of the schools put considerable effort into crafting the best possible image of their institutions on film. In many archival photographs, the students pose in laboured formations, well-manicured and dressed in formal clothing they would have worn only on such occasions. The photos were informed by multiple desires and purposes, chief among them the desire to impress the distant Ottawa bureaucrats and the missionary societies whose continued financial contributions the administrators greatly desired.

Another way of putting the matter is to observe that the historical record preserves the viewpoints often of the Government and the churches. We see reflected in the historical record the self-image of these institutions. Most of the individuals who worked in the hostels, schools, orphanges and boarding houses were kind and well-meaning. Many sacrificed to undertake this work. They were proud of their accomplishments, and it is the accomplishments which the archive captures.

The Indian Residential School System provokes the question, Is forcible assimilation a good policy? Was it morally right in the past, and is it morally right now? It is one thing for a member of a culture to choose assimilation into another culture. It is quite another matter when a dominant culture systematically forces assimilation upon another group. This process has endured under many names, for examples colonization, progress, advancement, imperialism, charity and cultural genocide. In Canada, residential schools were one instrument of advancing assimilation of indigenous peoples. Others have been the Pass and Permit System, the mass adoption of indigenous children into non-indigenous homes (a policy known today as the “Sixties Scoop”), and the displacement of traditional leaders in favour of a Chief and Council system of colonial governance. These and other policies have been features of the Indian Act, which remains to this day the legislative instrument governing the lives of Aboriginal people in Canada. The Indian Act not only determines the rights of Indians but defines who and who is not an Indian in Canada. In short, the very Act from which the Indian Residential School System derived its force and legitimacy remains in place. Specific policies have come and gone, but the underlying goal of assimilation, and the overriding Indian Act, continue.


The nature of the relationship between aboriginal peoples and the government of Canada may be characterized in many ways, but it was above all the desire for justice and reparation which fueled the healing movement in the decades following the demise of the Indian Residential School System. The trust of aboriginal people was violated throughout the roughly eighty years the residential school system endured, as generations of children were subjected to many forms of systemic institutional abuse, creating the historic trauma which remains with us today. Not only the children suffered. The parents and grandparents and communities left behind were also devastated.

It is important to realize that residential schools were only one symptom of the imbalanced relationship between aboriginal people and the Government of Canada. To address only residential schools, even in a comprehensive manner, is to treat a symptom. Land, languages, cultures, mental and physical health, have all suffered, and continue to suffer, as a result of this broken relationship.

Furthermore, considering Indian residential schools as an instance of failure to honour the spirit and intent of a negotiated relationship exposes the relevance of the issue to the contemporary individual. Policies come and go, but the historically-grounded relationship between aboriginal peoples and the crown remains. The policy of forced assimilation has not only devastated aboriginal people, it has violated trust. As a result, the residential school legacy of chronic addictions, community violence, suicide, mental illness, broken families, mistrust of leadership and authority, poverty, and shame persist, as does the political impasse.

The theme of relationship shows the way out of this legacy. It binds past, present, and future. It is the underlying reality. That is one reason why, for instance, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples chose as the title of the Final Report Summary, “People to People, Nation to Nation.”

In the introduction to that publication, the Commissioners wrote,

The story of Canada is the story of … peoples trying and failing and trying again to live together in peace and harmony. But there cannot be peace or harmony unless there is justice. It was to help restore justice to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, and to propose practical solutions to stubborn problems, that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was established.

Ten years later, and more, this remains the case.

* “Numbered treaties” refers to 11 negotiated agreements signed between aboriginal people and the federal crown,  between 1871 and 1921.


My Fall 2014 book “Residential Schools, With the Words and Images of Survivors, A National History,” is available from Goodminds. Order by phone, toll-free 1-877-862-8483.

Garnet Angeconeb’s Journey of Healing, Hope and Reconciliation

IN MANY RESPECTS, Garnet Angeconeb is representative of the countless Aboriginal children beaten and raped in Canada’s Indian residential schools. For years he told no one, including his wife. Angry, pain-filled and confused, he drank heavily to dull his feelings. The turning-point in his life arrived during a business trip to Ottawa, on October 31, 1990:

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