The term Residential Schools refers to an extensive school system put in place by the Canadian Federal Government and administered by the Church. These schools had one main purpose: “To kill the Indian in the child”. This controversial school system, often considered a form of cultural genocide, was in place for over a century, from the 1870s until 1996, and was introduced as part of the European settlers’ attempts to “civilize” the Aboriginal peoples through education, believing that because they were different they were “ignorant and savage”.

In fact, Prime Minister Sir John MacDonald commissioned Nicholas Flood Davin to study industrial schools for Aboriginal children in the United States, Davin reported back saying: “If there is anything to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions”, this led to public funding for the Residential School system. By 1920 an amendment to the Indian Act made it mandatory for Aboriginal children to attend Residential Schools, and illegal for them to attend any other educational establishment.

During the century of their existence, over 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their homes, families and cultures and forced to live in abhorrent conditions one could only describe as a nightmare, where many faced abuse and death. Upon arrival the children’s hair was cut short, they were forced to wear uniforms, boys and girls were separated (even siblings) and forbidden from speaking their native language. The level of education delivered in these schools was inferior, it was often only until Grade 5 and was very focused on manual labour.

It is estimated that over 4,000 children died in the Residential Schools, many died from tuberculosis as a result of unsanitary living conditions, many died in fires, others committed suicide or died as runaways, found frozen to death in the winter, or drowned in lakes and rivers. One of the most famous cases of runaways involved four boys who fled the Lejac Residential School in BC on New Year’s Day 1937. They were found frozen to death on a lake. It was -30˚C that day, and one report claimed that one of the boys was wearing summer clothes, “had no hat and his foot bare”. Many of the children who died were buried in unmarked graves near the schools; their parents were often not even notified of their child’s death.

In the 1950s it became clear that this form of assimilation was not working and because people were becoming more aware of the devastating effects of the Residential Schools, the government decided to let Aboriginal children live with their families wherever possible. The Department of Indian Affairs took exclusive control of the school system in 1969, ending the Church’s involvement and Aboriginal children began to be incorporated into public schools. The last Residential School to close its doors was the Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, which finally closed in 1996.

Residential Schools laid the foundations for many of the problems we see plaguing Aboriginal peoples today, including domestic abuse against women and children, alcoholism and substance abuse, and suicide.
Feb 8, 2016
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