Residential Schools, Canadian boarding schools for First Nations and Inuit children. In residential schools, the children were to receive an elementary education modeled after the education that European Canadian children received in their schools. The federal government supported residential schools from the 1850s to 1969. Most closed in 1969, in part because indigenous groups objected to the schools’ policies of separating families and attacking First Nations and Inuit cultures. After the schools closed, publicity about the problems the schools created for the children who attended them caused a national scandal, and indigenous groups and individuals demanded reparations.
|II||MECHANISM FOR ASSIMILATION|
During French colonial rule in the 1600s, Roman Catholic missionaries established the first residential schools in what is now Québec. Their primary purpose was to convert First Nations children to Christianity. However, the First Nations neither wanted to convert nor felt much pressure to do so from the relatively small European communities. None of the schools lasted even a decade.
In the early 1800s Protestant missionaries opened other schools in what is now Ontario. In addition to converting the First Nations people, the Protestant missionaries sought to help them adopt agriculture on the early reserves (lands set aside by the government for First Nations bands). The missionary efforts complemented the government’s aims, which from the 1850s onward focused on assimilating First Nations communities into European Canadian culture. The missionaries funded the first schools alone, but government began paying a portion of the costs in the 1850s. The government expressed its goal of assimilation in laws such as the Gradual Civilization Act (1857) and the Indian Act (1876). In addition, the treaties the federal government had signed with western First Nations in the 1870s agreed to create schools in the Prairie provinces (Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan). From 1892 until the 1950s, the government generally paid a set amount per student at the residential schools.
Churches operated nearly all of the schools, with Roman Catholics running 60 percent and Anglicans about 30 percent. Although some residential schools housed hundreds of students, the typical school had less than 100 and was located in one of the Prairie provinces, British Columbia, or the northern territories. Fewer schools were located in Ontario and Québec, and only one school opened in the Maritime region (the eastern provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island). At its high point in the 1920s, the system encompassed 80 schools supported by the government and run by missionary churches.
Until the 1950s the residential schools operated on the half-day system, in which students were supposed to spend half their time learning basic academic subjects. During the other half, students were to learn useful work skills, such as growing and serving food, making and repairing clothing, and maintaining school facilities. The students’ work was crucial to the schools’ operation because most of the schools were underfunded. All too often the amount of work the students did increased at the expense of their time in the classroom. Although a minority of First Nations and Inuit children learned useful classroom and work skills, all too many left school at age 15 or 16 having completed only a few grades. The excessive workload eased somewhat in the later 1950s, both because the half-day system had been phased out, and because the government began to fund the schools according to their actual cost of operation.
Besides overwork, students complained that sports and recreational facilities were poor and that too much time was devoted to Christian religious services. The schools intentionally separated the students from their families and cultural traditions, then sought to advance Christianity by attacking indigenous culture. Some instances of corporal punishment and sexual abuse were reported. Overall, residential schools generally provided a harsh upbringing, which caused long-term emotional damage to some of the students.
|III||OPPOSITION AND CLOSURE|
Indigenous leaders were not happy with the education provided by the residential schools. Parents objected to missionaries’ criticism of First Nations and Inuit identity and spirituality. They complained about the amount of student labor and the poor teaching at the schools. The reports of physical and sexual abuse outraged them.
In the late 1940s the protests of indigenous political organizations finally began to be heard. At that time doubt was growing among government officials and most non-Catholic missionaries about whether the schools were effective in providing either educational or religious instruction. The combined opposition prompted a drive to close the residential schools, and in 1969 the government decided to end the system.
In northern Canada, many schools were replaced by hostels in which children lived while attending nearby publicly supported schools. The same Roman Catholic or Anglican missionary groups that had operated the residential schools often ran the hostels. Some residential schools lasted into the 1980s because other arrangements could not be made more quickly. A few Prairie and British Columbia schools continued to operate under First Nations control. Other children went to day schools on their reserves or to the regular schools non-indigenous children attended in their area.
The residential schools disrupted First Nation and Inuit families and attacked their cultures and identities. Although not the sole cause of the social problems found on many western and northern reserves, the residential schools contributed to these problems by failing to provide adequate education or job skills and by attacking students’ identities and beliefs. For non-indigenous people in Canada, the unhappy history of the residential schools became a scandal and an embarrassment.
Since the late 1980s, both individuals and indigenous political organizations have pressed the churches and the government to admit that the schools harmed students and to apologize for that harm. In addition, they wanted the government to provide funds to help former students and their communities to heal. In 1998 the government, after consulting with the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, announced a C$350 million “healing fund” to address social problems on reserves. Since this package did not deal directly with individual demands, many former students filed legal claims for themselves. By 2000, more than 5,000 lawsuits had been filed against churches and government.