The purpose of the residential schools was the education, integration, assimilation and “Christianization” of Indigenous children into mainstream Canadian society. The government removed Indigenous children from their homes and home communities, and transported them to residential schools which were often long distances away. The residential school system predates Confederation and in part grew out of Canada’s missionary experience with various religious organizations.

The federal government began to play a role in the development and administration of this school system as early as 1874, mainly to meet its obligation, under the Indian Act, to provide an education to Aboriginal peoples. Residential schools were established by the churches in 1820, and by the government in 1874.

The government controlled all aspects of the admission of Aboriginal peoples to the schools, including arrangements for the care of such persons over holiday periods as well as the methods of transporting children to and from residential schools. Aboriginal children were often taken from their families without the consent of their parents or guardians.

It is estimated that there were in excess of 100 residential schools in operation throughout Canadian history in every province and territory except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, with a peak of seventy-four schools in operation in 1920. There were twenty residential schools in Saskatchewan, operated under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church (see Table RS-1).

The federal government operated nearly every school in partnership with various religious organizations until April 1, 1969, when it assumed full responsibility for the school system. The last federally run residential school in Saskatchewan closed in 1983. Most residential schools ceased to operate by the mid-1970s, with only seven remaining open through the 1980s.

In recent years, individuals have come forward with personal and painful stories of the abuses that took place in the residential schools. The hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples uncovered many of these personal accounts.

On January 7, 1998, the government of Canada announced Gathering Strength—Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, which calls for: a renewed partnership with Aboriginal peoples, based on recognizing past mistakes and injustices; the advancement of reconciliation; healing and renewal; and the building of a joint plan for the future. The federal government offered a Statement of Reconciliation, which acknowledged its role in the development and administration of the residential schools and offered an apology to survivors of residential schools:

“Sadly, our history with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal people is not something in which we can take pride. Attitudes of racial and cultural superiority led to a suppression of Aboriginal culture and values. As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the identity of Aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and outlawing spiritual practices. We must recognize the impact of these actions on the once self-sustaining nations that were disaggregated, disrupted, limited or even destroyed by the dispossession of traditional territory, by the relocation of Aboriginal people, and by some provisions of the Indian Act. We must acknowledge that the result of these actions was the erosion of the political, economic and social systems of Aboriginal people and nations.

One aspect of our relationship with Aboriginal people over this period that requires particular attention is the Residential School system. This system separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their heritage and cultures. In the worst cases, it left legacies of personal pain and distress that continue to reverberate in Aboriginal communities to this day. Tragically, some children were the victims of physical and sexual abuse.

The Government of Canada acknowledges the role it played in the development and administration of these schools. Particularly to those individuals who experienced the tragedy of sexual and physical abuse at residential schools, and who have carried this burden believing that in some way they must be responsible, we wish to emphasize that what you experienced was not your fault and should never have happened. To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry.”

Lorena Fontaine