Chapter 2

The Residential School Legacy

The Residential School Legacy

There is a history of residential or boarding schools for children in virtually every colonized country in the world. In Canada, the first Residential school was established by Catholic missionaries in the 1600s in what was then known as New France, but closed due to not being able to keep the students in the schools.(1) Indigenous communities were largely autonomous and they could not be convinced to participate in the schools. There were other attempts to establish residential schools in the 1830s in New France and Upper Canada. However, it wasn't until Canada officially became a country in 1867 that the assimiliation policy extended into education and caused the damage Indigenous peoples are still trying to recover from today.

Education is a treaty promise. The federal government has fiduciary responsibility for fulfilling the treaty promises. The federal government also has fiscal responsibility for the entire country. The federal government's aim was to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the settler society and to accomplish that with the least amount of capital output. In 1887, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald stated the government's purpose: "The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”(2)

Residential schools as a federal initiative began with the enactment of the Indian Act in 1876. The Indian Act is an all encompassing piece of legislation that governs and dictates practically every aspect of a Status Indian's life, including education, creation of reserves, marriage, mobility, and other aspects of citizenship (more information can be found in the Shared Ground module). The Davin Report of 1879 encouraged the federal government to put monies towards residential schools as a similar initiative (boarding schools) was showing promise of assimiliating the American Indian population south of the border.

Residential Schools were run by various religious groups but funded by the federal government on a per capita basis. The majority of schools were run by Roman Catholic, followed by Anglican, then United/Presbyterian. For example, in 1931 there were 80 residential schools in operation; 44 were run by the Roman Catholic Church, 21 by the Anglican Church, 13 by the United Church and 2 by the Presbyterian Church.(3) During the residential school era (1877-1996) in Canada, there were 139 Residential Schools operating in every province and territory except Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and New Brunswick, and an estimated 150,000 children in attendance.(4)

Duncan Campbell Scott was the Deputy Superintendant General of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. During his tenure, he had the Indian Act amended to make it mandatory for all First Nations children to attend residential school. Scott stated that the government would “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”.(2)

The following article gives an idea of what the residential schools were like:

In 2001, discussions with youth and the A Legacy of Hope Foundation recognized a lack of knowledge available for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit students regarding Residential schools in Canada. This site was created with the hope that knowledge of this history would assist in healing and reconciliation for the many survivors who have never publicly shared their stories. A Legacy of Hope described the purpose of the Where are the Children virtual exhibition:  

"A primary objective of our work is to promote awareness among the Canadian public about residential schools and try to help them to understand the ripple effect those schools have had on Aboriginal life. But equally important, we want to bring about reconciliation between generations of Aboriginal people, and between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people."

While exploring this online module, it's important to provide context that the Canadian government and partners have created since formalalizing/westernizing education. As you begin to navigate through this information, please be aware that some of the experiences that Indian residential school survivors share is graphic and detailed.

This interactive site is well designed and visually stimulating, which makes it highly recommended for anyone interested in exploring Residential School History:

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(1). Miller, J. R. (2012). Residential schools. Retreived from: (2). Joseph, B. (2016). 10 Quotes John A. Macdonald made about First Nations. Retrieved from: (3). King, D., Napier, D., & Kechego, J. (2004). The Federal Government's Funding of Indian Residential Schools in Canada for the years 1877 to 1965. Retrieved from: (4). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, Reconciling for the future. Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from: