For over a century, a system of residential schools operated in Canada under financial and administrative arrangements between the Government of Canada and the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United churches. In all, over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children passed through more than 130 residential schools in virtually every part of Canada. An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 former students of residential schools are alive today.
The history of the residential school system has been well told elsewhere, and through its important work, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada continues the efforts to enhance our understanding of that history. While this paper begins with a brief review of this history, then, its primary purpose is to provide an overview of recent legal and policy measures aimed at addressing the legacy of residential schools. This includes ongoing and future developments toward healing, reconciliation and redress, which will be summarized in the paper’s final section.
2 The Residential School System
Residential schools were established in Canada shortly after Confederation in the late 1870s. By the 1930s, over 70 schools were in operation in all parts of the country. While the federal government began phasing out the system in the 1960s, the last such institution closed its doors in 1996.
Throughout its existence, a main objective of the residential school system was to promote the assimilation of Aboriginal peoples into Euro-Canadian and Christian society. Statements by responsible federal officials reveal this policy and the use of residential schools as a primary means to achieve it. Frank Oliver, Minister of Indian Affairs from 1905 to 1911, for example, predicted that residential schools would “elevate the Indian from his condition of savagery” and “make him a self-supporting member of the state, and eventually a citizen in good standing.”
I want to get rid of the Indian problem … That has been the objective of Indian education and advancement since the earliest times … Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic …
Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, 1920
This assimilative objective was carried out in the schools through a variety of means. Long or braided hair, which had spiritual significance for many students, was often cut short. Homemade and traditional clothes were exchanged for a school uniform. Aboriginal names were replaced with Euro-Canadian names, and a student number. Students often attended schools that were far away and isolated from their families and communities. Most students were prevented from speaking Aboriginal languages or from practising their traditions, and were often physically punished or humiliated if found to be doing so.
I stayed in that Residential School for 10 years. I hurt there. There was no love there. There was no caring there, nobody to hug you when you cried; all they did was slap you over, don’t you cry, you’re not supposed to cry. Whip me when I talked to my younger brother. That’s my brother, for God’s sake.
Jeannie Dick, former student at the Williams Lake (St. Joseph’s) Indian Residential School, Williams Lake, British Columbia
Testimony by former students has revealed extremely harsh and hazardous living conditions at the schools, including hunger and malnutrition, poor heating and sanitation, inadequate clothing, and exposure to contagious diseases. Many students suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse by the teachers and staff responsible for their care, as well as by their fellow students. The lack of proper treatment and conditions in the schools contributed to the deaths of thousands of children; many families were not informed of the deaths or burial sites.
It was masterfully drilled into me that I was a “heathen savage,” incapable of being white or doing what the white man could do. I’ve had to come to terms with the realization that Canada has tried hard to rid the land of its First Peoples, and has contravened the laws of humanity.
Theodore Fontaine, former student at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School, Fort Alexander, Manitoba
While many former students report positive experiences and benefits from the education they received, these memories often coexist with those of trauma and loss resulting from attendance at residential schools.
By comparison with courses of study in other schools, our curriculum would have been regarded as below standard. It’s true that we did not have access to a well-stocked library, or attend classes from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. It’s also true that we were taught to know what to do with what little we knew; we were taught to be resourceful. But unless one has a sense of worth and dignity, resourcefulness, intelligence and shrewdness are of little advantage.
Basil H. Johnston, former student at the St. Peter Claver’s (Garnier) Indian Residential School, Spanish, Ontario
As much as that particular teacher used to call us bloody dodos and no good for nothing, a bunch of hounds of iniquity, he taught us pretty good in terms of English. But those were the pretty good things that happened to us in terms of getting our education system. The education system that we got was top notch in Chesterfield Inlet.
But the abuses …
We want to make sure that these kinds of things never happen to young people again, little children, in the future. We don’t hold grudges against those people, but we want to make sure that these things never happen to young people again, little children, never again.
Peter Irniq, former student at the Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School, Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut
The traumas of physical and sexual abuse, social and emotional dislocation, and cultural loss have manifested, for many survivors and their communities, in after-effects such as substance abuse, violence and family breakdown. Many survivors’ descendants have experienced and continue to experience inter-generational effects as a result of this unresolved trauma. Many survivors, their families and communities have also demonstrated great resilience in seeking help and building networks of support to deal with the effects of residential schools.
3 Legal and Policy Responses
When an Indian comes out of these places it is like being put between two walls in a room and left hanging in the middle. On one side are all the things he learned from his people and their way of life that was being wiped out, and on the other side are the white man’s ways which he could never fully understand since he never had the right amount of education and could not be a part of it. There he is, hanging, in the middle of two cultures and he is not a white man and he is not an Indian.
John Tootoosis, Cree leader and former student at the Delmas (Thunderchild) Indian Residential School, Delmas, Saskatchewan
Through the 1980s and 1990s, the voices of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians rose in unprecedented numbers to demand federal measures for healing, reconciliation and redress. Thousands of former students filed lawsuits against the federal government and church organizations involved with the residential school system. The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which had conducted public hearings with survivors, called the residential school system “an act of profound cruelty,” and called for a public inquiry to investigate its policies and practices, as well as the impact of the system “on individuals and families across several generations, on communities, and on Aboriginal society as a whole.”
The federal government announced its policy response to the RCAP report in January 1998. Entitled Gathering Strength - Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, it included a grant of $350 million to support community-based healing for those affected by the legacy of residential schools. The grant was disbursed to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a national Aboriginal-managed, not-for-profit private corporation established by the federal government in March 1998. The policy was accompanied by a statement of reconciliation, delivered by then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jane Stewart, in which the Government of Canada formally expressed “profound regret for past actions of the federal government” and acknowledged “the role it played in the development and administration of these schools.”
The courts have addressed the question of liability for the harms suffered by survivors of residential schools. In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada found that both the Government of Canada and the United Church of Canada were vicariously liable for the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children committed by a residential school employee. In an earlier case, the Court of Appeal for Ontario found that the federal government had, through implementation of its residential school policy, assumed a fiduciary duty with respect to the education of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
The largest class action lawsuit in Canada to date, brought forth on behalf of tens of thousands of survivors across Canada, culminated in 2007 with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The settlement agreement provided for the following measures and accompanying funding commitments:
- Common Experience Payment: The Common Experience Payment is individual compensation for all former students who resided at a recognized Indian Residential School and were alive on 30 May 2005. Payments are comprised of $10,000 for the first school year or portion thereof, and $3,000 for each additional year. The deadline for applications is 19 September 2011.
- Independent Assessment Process: The Independent Assessment Process provides individual compensation for claims of sexual and severe physical abuse. Claims proceed through an adjudicative process; validation of claims and the amounts of compensation in each case are determined by an independent adjudicator. The Independent Assessment Process is running for a period of five years, through to 19 September 2012.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission: The settlement agreement established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an independent body “to contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation.” The goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are to create a permanent and public record of the legacy of residential schools, complete a public report that includes recommendations to the parties of the settlement agreement, and establish a National Research Centre on Residential Schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose mandate expires in 2014, was granted $60 million in funding under the settlement agreement.
- Aboriginal Healing Foundation Endowment: The settlement agreement provided the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, which was established prior to the 2007 agreement, with an endowment of $125 million over five years “to support the objective of addressing the healing needs of Aboriginal People affected by the Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, including the intergenerational impacts, by supporting holistic and community-based healing to address needs of individuals, families and communities …” The endowment extended the mandate of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to March 2012.
- Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support program: The settlement agreement provided the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support program, which was established in 2006 and is administered by Health Canada, with $94.5 million over six years. These funds help the program furnish emotional health and wellness support services to survivors and their families.
- Commemoration Initiative: The settlement agreement earmarked $20 million over five years to facilitate regional and national memorial projects to eligible survivors, communities and interest groups.
On 11 June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered in Parliament a statement of apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to survivors of residential schools. In the apology, the Prime Minister stated that the entire “policy of assimilation” implemented by the system of residential schools “was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.” The Prime Minister further committed to “moving towards healing, reconciliation and resolution of the sad legacy of Indian Residential Schools …”
The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long. The burden is properly ours as a Government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian Residential Schools system to ever prevail again. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey.
Canada has thus begun a national effort to remember the history of the residential school system and to come to terms with its legacy. The apology and the settlement agreement were catalysts for action toward the ultimate goals of healing, reconciliation, redress, and reparation of the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. These events have created a rare opportunity for all Canadians to learn about and re-examine history, acknowledge the suffering caused by the policy of assimilation, and examine the effects this policy has had on Canadian society for so many years.
4 Going Forward
Seven generations passed through the residential school system. The present generation can begin to address the legacy of the schools and forge a path ahead. As many survivors and Aboriginal leaders have noted, the well-being of future generations depends on what happens today.
We need to think about reconciliation as a long-term objective. I do not think we will find it easily because we need to recognize that there is a great deal of pain that is still out there and a great deal of frustration on both sides. A large segment of the Aboriginal population does not want to talk about re-establishing a positive relationship with Canada, and many Canadians do not accept that they need to be engaged in this issue. Getting those communities to come together is an important first step, but then we have to talk about what we want to achieve in the long term.
Political negotiations and legal actions to address issues not initially covered by the 2007 settlement agreement continue on behalf of survivors. Notably, negotiations and litigation in respect of some schools excluded from the list of recognized Indian Residential Schools under the settlement agreement have led to their subsequent inclusion and accompanying benefits for the survivors of these schools. Discussions on the particular experience of Métis survivors of residential schools were included in a 2008 federal protocol on Métis issues, and continue between Métis, federal and provincial leaders. Individual lawsuits and class actions continue to proceed through courts across Canada, including class actions on behalf of former day students and former students of several residential schools located on the coast of Labrador and northern Newfoundland.
Since being established, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation has disbursed a total of 1,345 grants to community-based healing programs and initiatives across Canada. Although all available funds have now been fully committed, some programs hope to continue following the closure of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The 2010 federal budget committed to extend funding, for a further two years, to the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support program to provide individual healing and counselling support to survivors and their families.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is expected to continue to play an important role in healing and reconciliation within Aboriginal families, and between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, churches, governments and Canadians generally. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also central to the processes of truth-telling and developing the historical record on residential schools. Ongoing activities within its mandate include the hosting of national events, held in different regions across Canada, to engage the public and further education on residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also working to support community-based events and reconciliation processes, coordinating the collection of statements of individual survivors across Canada, and establishing a permanent National Research Centre on Residential Schools.
Canadians should really try to find out and ask questions. Find out for themselves. Sit one-to-one with somebody who has been through … Sometimes people think you’re just talking like this just because, but it’s not. It’s not. They have to find out the true facts of what we went through.
Lillian Elias, former student at the Aklavik Immaculate Conception Indian Residential School, Aklavik, Northwest Territories
Reconciliation is a vast concept that includes historical, cultural, epistemological, pedagogical and moral dimensions. As Marie Wilson, a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has noted, “… it is such a big word, it is so undefined and it has, therefore, many possible rich interpretations. The act of reconciliation creates many great opportunities.” The path toward reconciliation may be generations long, but, for many on this journey, there is much potential value in the process toward its achievement.
† Library of Parliament Background Papers provide in-depth studies of policy issues. They feature historical background, current information and references, and many anticipate the emergence of the issues they examine. They are prepared by the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, which carries out research for and provides information and analysis to parliamentarians and Senate and House of Commons committees and parliamentary associations in an objective, impartial manner. [ Return to text ]