What Happened in Canada’s Residential Schools?

Elaine Harris


The Kamloops Indian Residential School in 1937.

History has not been kind to indigenous people. When the Europeans first came to what would later be known as America, they made contact with the Native Americans and spread their deadly diseases to them. These diseases would go on to kill 90% of their population. They were removed from their homes under the Indian Removal Act and during the late 1600’s through the 1700’s; the European settlers enslaved thousands of Native Americans. This is all knowledge that is often taught in schools, but they don’t really teach us about the residential schools. There was recently a mass spread of information on many social media platforms about how the bodies of indigenous children were found buried in unmarked graves underneath these residential schools. The posting has since died down, but the problem remains.


What is a residential school?

A residential school is defined as an extensive school system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches. They had the nominal objective of educating indigenous children. They wanted to indoctrinate them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilate them into mainstream white Canadian society.  They operated from the 1880’s all the way until the last school closed in 1996. People need to understand that this was a purposeful attempt made by the government and church to eradicate all aspects of indigenous culture.


Young girls taking part in their first communion in 1955 at the Spanish Indian Residential School in Spanish Ontario.

What happened in the schools?

The system separated children from their families for long periods of time and didn’t allow them to acknowledge their heritage and culture or speak their native languages. Frederick Ernest Koe was sent to a residential school in the Northwest Territories. He explains his situation saying, “Well pack up, a few little things, no suitcases, my hunting bag is still kind of dirty, throw whatever stuff you had in it and off you go. And I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad or my brother Allan, didn’t get to pet my dogs goodbye or nothing, you know, we’re going.” The children were severely punished with physical abuse if they broke any of these rules. The schools provided the children with inadequate education. They focused mainly on prayer and manual labor in agriculture, light industry, and domestic work. Students had to cut their hair short and dress in uniforms. Campbell Papequash, who was sent to the Roman Catholic residential school, recalls his experience saying, “And then they cut off my beautiful hair. You know and my hair, my hair represents such a spiritual significance of my life and my spirit. And they did not know, you know, what they were doing to me. You know and I cried and I see them throw my hair into a garbage can, my long, beautiful braids.”

Group of children getting their hair cut at the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Most of the time, they were referred to as numbers instead of their names. Wilbur Abrahams remarked the importance of remembering their numbers, “They told us to remember our number, instead of calling my name, they’d call my number, and if you don’t remember your number, you, you know you get yelled at. And I, I think we did extra chores, so you had to really keep memorizing your number. Mine was 989.” Their days were strictly regimented by timetables. The boys and girls were kept separate. Siblings were rarely allowed to interact with each other. Many students attended classes part-time and worked for the schools. The work they did was often involuntary and always unpaid. The school presented it as practical training, but in reality the schools needed their work in order to run.

Most students had only reached a fifth-grade level education by the time they turned 18. After that they were sent away and discouraged from pursuing further education. The schools used many different forms of abuse on the children. Physical abuse was used as a punishment. Survivors remember being beaten and strapped down. Some were shackled to their beds and others had needles shoved in their tongues for speaking their native languages. Garnet Angeconeb, an Anishinaabe elder who survived a residential school, spoke about her journey. “Once inside the Indian Residential School system, I was afraid. I was lost. I was so lonesome. I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I was abused: physically, culturally, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and yes, sexually,” she says. The abuse combined with the overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate food and healthcare resulted in a high death toll.

Girls working in the kitchen at the Bishop Horden Memorial School in Moose Factory, Ontario around 1940.

Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, or P.H. Bryce, was a Canadian doctor and a leader in the field of Public Health. He documented and released evidence about the number of indigenous children that were dying in the residential schools. He visited 35 different schools and wrote the “Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories” in 1907, which later became better known as the Bryce Report. He reported that 24% of healthy children across Canada were dying in the residential schools. He also reported that 47% to 75% of students who were discharged from the schools died shortly after they had returned home. His documentation of the schools helped us to understand the conditions and lasting effects they had.


What were the effects of the schools?

This photo shows a First Nation elder with children at the Qu’Appelle Indian School in Lebret. The difference between the clothing of the elder and the children shows how much of indigenous culture the schools take away from the children.

The residential schools systematically undermined indigenous cultures in Canada and disrupted families for generations. They severed the ties in which indigenous culture is taught and sustained. They contributed to the general loss of indigenous language and culture. Jeanette Basile Laloche, a young girl who was sent to the Sept-Iles residential school in Quebec said, “My values were disrespected, my beliefs humiliated, I suffered infanticide. After all those horrors, my body, my mind had to adhere.” Many students grew up without experiencing a nurturing family life because they were separated from their families. Most former students don’t have the knowledge and skills needed to raise their own families. Helen Cromarty, another survivor, remembers her experience and speaks on it, saying, “I left home when I was five years old, so the family bonding that all of you get when you’re a child, in those formative years, I don’t have that. But I somehow learned that, after having five children I worked hard at bonding.” This school system is considered a form of genocide for both the people and their culture. There were around 139 residential schools in total. More than 160 unmarked graves were found at the Kuper Island Residential School. More than 1500 children have been found at other residential schools. Canada is being pressured to perform searches on the remaining schools to find the rest of the missing children.


How does the art connect to the article?

The painting depicts a residential school sitting above a pile of skulls. The skulls represent the bodies of the children who suffered and died while living in the residential schools. The painting is painted in a red scheme to set an ominous atmosphere. There is a glowing red cross above the door of the school because 70% of the residential schools were run by the Catholic Church. I chose this perspective of the school looking down at the skulls to represent how the schools often looked down on the children forced to live there.