What were residential schools in Canada?

Residential Schools were part of an extensive education system created to culturally assimilate Indigenous children and force them to adapt to Euro-Canadian society.

The schools were established by the Canadian Government and administered by the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches in the 1870’s and were in operation until 1996. Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their family homes and sent to live in these boarding schools, completely alienated from their families. Earlier schools were segregated according to gender, which meant siblings were further separated from each other. 

Residential school education was intended to convert Indigenous children to Christianity; to strip them of their culture, values and social behaviours and to “Westernize” them. Missionaries and European settlers, who saw Indigenous people as “savages,”  believed Western civilization was superior. 

The assimilation process started as soon as the children arrived in school: their hair was cut short, they were stripped of their traditional clothes and given uniforms to wear, and were also given new names or a number as a form of identification. They had to adhere to strict daily schedules that involved mostly physical labour. Children were forbidden to speak their own languages, even in the limited communication some were allowed to have when writing letters to their parents. School staff abused the children physically, sexually, emotionally, and psychologically. 

By 1920 Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent for the Department of Indian Affairs, amended the Indian Act and made it mandatory for all Indigenous children to attend residential schools. It was illegal for them to attend any other type of school. 

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think, as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone … 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, that is the whole object of this Bill.” - Duncan Campbell Scott.

Indigenous Approach to Learning

Traditional North American Indigenous societies learned through storytelling and cultural values, and were taught the skills needed for daily survival. Although there were many differences between Indigenous groups, they shared commonalities in how children were taught. This included:

  • children learning in unstructured ways and without force 
  • cooperation, coexistence, and competence as fundamental pillars of their education  
  • learnings taking place in everyday life
  • storytelling and the role of elders sharing their wisdom as a central part of learning 

Federal Indian Day Schools

Western education in Canada began with Christian mission schools in the 17th century in Quebec. The religious orders that came to Canada wanted to convert, or “Christianize and civilize” Indigenous people.

Federal Indian Day Schools existed before residential schools. These schools were run by the government with the intent of stripping Indigenous culture, language and tradition from the children, and were also places of abuse. Most First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended day schools located on reserves or nearby. Unlike residential schools, children attended classes during the day and then went home to their families for the evenings. It’s estimated that there were over 700 day schools across Canada. 

History of Residential Schools

While residential schools and day schools already existed by the 1800’s, it was after Confederation (the forming of the “Dominion of Canada'' - federal union of British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada), in 1867 that the residential school system was established. 

Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald was the architect of the residential school system. It was the government’s effort to settle what is now Western Canada, along with signed treaties and policies that aimed at removing Indigenous people from their land and opening up western territories to non-Indigenous settlers. 

The expansion of these schools to the West created significant growth with some of the largest residential schools having over 500 children in attendance. This systemic approach of expansion across the country, helped the state formalize its partnership with the church. The federal government provided the core funding for schools while the churches ran and operated the schools. 

Historical Timeline

  • 1844-1846 - Egerton Ryerson, who served as Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada (British part of Canada) was a strong advocate for the creation of a residential school system.
  • 1867 - The Constitution Act - the federal government took authority over First Nations and reserves from the British Crown. 
  • 1876 - The Indian Act -  was created to strip First Nations people of their culture and become more like Euro-Canadians.
  • 1883 - Sir John A. Macdonald authorizes the creation of residential schools in the West although they had already been in practice for decades.
  • 1884 - Amendments to the Indian Act support the creation of Residential Schools funded and operated by the Government of Canada, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbytarian, Methodist and United churches. The government also bans traditional Indigenous ceremonies
  • 1896 - The number of schools continued to grow to well over 40 schools across Canada. Schools are provided with an allowance per child, which leads to overcrowding and an increase of infectious diseases.
  • 1913-1932 - Civil servant and extreme assimilationist, Duncan Campbell Scott, was involved in Aboriginal affairs throughout his career and ran the residential school system at its peak. He had very radical views on Indingenous people and is known for the phrase “Kill the Indian save the man” and his objective was to continue “until there was not a single Indian in Canada”.  
  • 1996 - The last federally-funded residential school closes in Punnichy, Saskatchewan.

Over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, between the ages of 4 and 16 years old, attended residential schools in Canada. 

What happened at residential schools?

Survivors who attended these schools recall overwhelmingly negative and traumatic experiences. Residential schools were based on a military discipline where children worked for half a day and attended school the other half. Children were sent to work on farm fields, laundry, kitchen, or carpentry work assignments. Older children were expected to take care of the younger ones. The government’s mandate was to save money by retaining free child labour, making the educational outcomes very poor.

The distribution of work among the children was gender-based labour and often boys spent significantly longer times working out in the farm fields while girls spent most of their time working on domestic chores. Work assignments were supervised by school staff that habitually beat children at the slightest altercation to ensure they followed their strict rules.  

Residential schools attracted staff who were criminal predators, abusers, and generally lazy and neglectful individuals who were unfit to teach children. There were no hiring standards for staff. Staff were not required to have any qualifications to work there, nor were they expected to produce professional certificates or have any formal training. They were often paid low wages to perform these jobs. No efforts were made to remove abusers from the system.


There was persistent neglect and debilitating abuse at residential schools and thousands of students suffered from different forms of physical and mental torture. 

As a regular practice, the staff criticized and belittled the children’s Indigenous spiritual traditions. They either beat the children, or performed other extreme forms of physical and mental abuse on them if they tried to speak their own languages or acknowledged their own culture in any way. 

Health conditions in residential schools were extremely poor in general. The schools were underfunded and overcrowded and had on-going sanitation issues. They became a breeding ground for infectious diseases. The high levels of stress and malnourishment were contributors to the children’s health. Many children died of hunger, and from the recurring waves of tuberculosis, influenza and measles epidemics that swept through the unkept institutions. Many others died from abuse and neglect and were buried in unmarked graves.

For further reading on the survivor’s experiences An Overview of the Residential School System Booklet from the Anishinabek.ca website. Warning: this resource discusses trauma in very painful and graphic detail and some readers may find this disturbing. 

Despite the last school closing in 1997, and those days being “behind us”, the abuse students endured caused lasting physical and mental effects for generations today. First Nations Peoples are the most “at-risk” ethnic population in the country. The intergenerational trauma continues to destroy the lives of current generations of Indigenous Peoples because even those who survived, grew up without the foundational family support of love and stability to succeed in their lives. Mental health experts believe the physical and mental effects of trauma continues on for up to six generations.  

Although records are incomplete, it’s estimated that at least 6,000 innocent children died and were hidden in unmarked graves across the country. The number of unmarked burial grounds discovered continues to grow. The recent discoveries of children’s remains in grounds across the country has triggered further investigation of unmarked graves. There  is still so much we don’t know about all the children who died in the residential school genocides. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created in 2008 by the federal government to foster healing of the intergenerational trauma for all First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples who were directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of residential schools, among other atrocities. Its primary focus is to record and expose the truth about residential schools and related policies that negatively impacted Indigenous communities.

Day schools are not considered part of the Reconciliation Act due to a nation-wide class-action settlement that was approved by the federal court of Canada in 2019 to compensate survivors. A legacy fund was established to help with the intergenerational effects these schools had on those who attended.

For a full list of the residential schools that existed in Ontario and throughout Canada visit the residentialschoolsettlement.ca page

Please Note: This article was written by settlers in what we know today as Canada. The aim of this article is to provide an information overview of Indigenous history and issues for newcomers to Canada who may not be familiar with them. This is a work in progress that may change as our team continues to do the necessary work to engage respectfully with Indigenous Peoples. We encourage our readers to seek out information and testimonies directly from Indigenous Peoples and organizations.

Last updated: September 29, 2021 4006498