The Residential School System

By Erin Hanson (2009), with updates and revisions by Daniel P. Gamez & Alexa Manuel (September 2020). The original version of this article has been archived, but may be accessed here. To cite this article, we have recommendations at the bottom of the page.

Note on terminology: There is constant debate and reflection on the use of specific terms as umbrella categories to designate multiple Aboriginal, Indigenous, or Native peoples. For the most recent version of this article, we have decided to follow the terms Indigenous, First Nations, Métis and Inuit, or alternatively Indigenous Peoples, in the plural, following the guidelines of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the most widely accepted international instrument today. The term Indigenous Peoples can also be found in UBC’s Indigenous Peoples Language Guidelines.

In this section:

What Were Residential Schools?

Children’s dining room, Indian Residential School, Edmonton, Alberta. Between 1925-1936. United Church Archives, Toronto, From Mission to Partnership Collection. 

The term residential schools refers to an extensive school system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches that had the nominal objective of educating Indigenous children but also the more damaging and equally explicit objectives of indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilating them into mainstream white Canadian society. The residential school system officially operated from the 1880s into the closing decades of the 20th century. The system forcibly separated children from their families for extended periods of time and forbade them to acknowledge their Indigenous heritage and culture or to speak their own languages. Children were severely punished if these, among other, strict rules were broken. Former students of residential schools have spoken of horrendous abuse at the hands of residential school staff: physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological. Residential schools provided Indigenous students with inappropriate education, often only up to lower grades, that focused mainly on prayer and manual labour in agriculture, light industry such as woodworking, and domestic work such as laundry work and sewing.

Residential schools systematically undermined Indigenous, First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures across Canada and disrupted families for generations, severing the ties through which Indigenous culture is taught and sustained, and contributing to a general loss of language and culture. Because they were removed from their families, many students grew up without experiencing a nurturing family life and without the knowledge and skills to raise their own families. The devastating effects of the residential schools are far-reaching and continue to have a significant impact on Indigenous communities. The residential school system is widely considered a form of genocide because of the purposeful attempt from the government and church to eradicate all aspects of Indigenous cultures and lifeworlds.

From the 1990s onward, the government and the churches involved—Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and Roman Catholic—began to acknowledge their responsibility for an education scheme that was specifically designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” On June 11, 2008, the Canadian government issued a formal apology in Parliament for the damage done by the residential school system. In spite of this and other apologies, however, the effects remain.

What led to the residential schools?

The early origins of residential schools in Canada are found in the implementation of the mission system in the 1600s. The churches and European settlers brought with them the assumption that their own civilization was the pinnacle of human achievement. They interpreted the socio-cultural differences between themselves and Indigenous Peoples as “proof” that Canada’s first inhabitants were ignorant, savage, and—like children—in need of guidance. They felt the need to “civilize” Indigenous Peoples. Education—a federal responsibility—became the primary means to this end.

Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald commissioned journalist and politician Nicholas Flood Davin to study industrial schools for Indigenous children in the United States. Davin’s recommendation to follow the U.S. example of “aggressive civilization” led to public funding for the residential school system. “If anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions,” Davin wrote in his 1879 Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds (Davin’s report can be read here.)

In the 1880s, in conjunction with other federal assimilation policies, the government began to establish residential schools across Canada. Authorities would frequently take children to schools far from their home communities, part of a strategy to alienate them from their families and familiar surroundings. In 1920, under the Indian Act, it became mandatory for every Indigenous child to attend a residential school and illegal for them to attend any other educational institution.

Male students in the assembly hall of the Alberni Indian Residential School, 1960s. United Church Archives, Toronto, from Mission to Partnership Collection.

Female students in the assembly hall of the Alberni Indian Residential School, 1960s. United Church Archives, Toronto, from Mission to Partnership Collection.

Living conditions at the residential schools

The purpose of the residential schools was to eliminate all aspects of Indigenous culture. Students had their hair cut short, they were dressed in uniforms, they were often given numbers, and their days were strictly regimented by timetables. Boys and girls were kept separate, and even siblings rarely interacted, further weakening family ties. Chief Bobby Joseph of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society recalls that he had no idea how to interact with girls and never even got to know his own sister “beyond a mere wave in the dining room.”1 In addition, students were strictly forbidden to speak their languages—even though many children knew no other—or to practise Indigenous customs or traditions. Violations of these rules were severely punished.

Residential school students did not receive the same education as the general population in the public school system, and the schools were sorely underfunded. Teachings focused primarily on practical skills. Girls were primed for domestic service and taught to do laundry, sew, cook, and clean. Boys were taught carpentry, tinsmithing, and farming. Many students attended class part-time and worked for the school the rest of the time: girls did the housekeeping; boys, general maintenance and agriculture. This work, which was involuntary and unpaid, was presented as practical training for the students, but many of the residential schools could not run without it. With so little time spent in class, most students had only reached grade five by the time they were 18. At this point, students were sent away. Many were discouraged from pursuing further education.

Abuse at the schools was widespread: emotional and psychological abuse was constant, physical abuse was metred out as punishment, and sexual abuse was also common. Survivors recall being beaten and strapped; some students were shackled to their beds; some had needles shoved in their tongues for speaking their native languages. These abuses, along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and severely inadequate food and health care, resulted in a shockingly high death toll. In 1907, government medical inspector P.H. Bryce reported that 24 percent of previously healthy Indigenous children across Canada were dying in residential schools.  This figure does not include children who died at home, where they were frequently sent when critically ill. Bryce reported that anywhere from 47 percent (on the Peigan Reserve in Alberta) to 75 percent (from File Hills Boarding School in Saskatchewan) of students discharged from residential schools died shortly after returning home.

The extent to which the Department of Indian Affairs and church officials knew of these abuses has been debated by some. However, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) and John Milloy, among others, concluded that church and state officials were fully aware of the abuses and tragedies at the schools. Some inspectors and officials at the time expressed alarm at the horrifying death rates, yet those who spoke out and called for reform were generally met with silence and lack of support.  The Department of Indian Affairs would promise to improve the schools, but the deplorable conditions persisted.

Some former students have positive memories of their time at residential schools, and certainly some might have been treated with kindness by the priests and nuns who ran the schools as best they could given the circumstances. But even these “good” experiences occurred within a system aimed at destroying Indigenous cultures and assimilating Indigenous students.

The Shift Away from Residential Schools

“Sister Marie Baptiste had a supply of sticks as long and thick as pool cues. When she heard me speak my language, she’d lift up her hands and bring the stick down on me. I’ve still got bumps and scars on my hands. I have to wear special gloves because the cold weather really hurts my hands. I tried very hard not to cry when I was being beaten and I can still just turn off my feelings…. And I’m lucky. Many of the men my age, they either didn’t make it, committed suicide or died violent deaths, or alcohol got them. And it wasn’t just my generation. My grandmother, who’s in her late nineties, to this day it’s too painful for her to talk about what happened to her at the school.”

– Musqueam Nation former chief George Guerin,
Kuper Island school
Stolen from our Embrace
, p 62

Church and state officials of the 19th century believed that Indigenous societies were disappearing and that the only hope for Indigenous people was to convert to Christianity, do away with their cultures, and become “civilized” British subjects—in short, assimilate them. By the 1950s, the same officials were doubting the viability of such project. The devastating effects of the residential schools and the needs and life experiences of Indigenous students were becoming more widely recognized.2 The government also acknowledged that removing children from their families was severely detrimental to the health of the individuals and the communities affected. In 1951, with the amendments to the Indian Act, the half-day work/school system was progressively abandoned, conceding power to the provinces to apprehend children, and transitioning from the school system to a ‘child welfare system’. This time is referred to as the ‘Sixties Scoop’ because of the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their families without consent from their parents or authorities.

In the 1960s the drastic overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the welfare system consolidated, and authorities would constantly place Indigenous children with white middle-class families in an attempt to acculturate them. This practice, as well as the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in ‘child welfare systems’ continues today. In 1969, the Department of Indian Affairs took exclusive control of the system, marking an end to church involvement in residential schooling. Yet the schools remained underfunded and abuse continued, and many teachers and workers continued to lack proper credentials to carry out their responsibilities.3

In the meantime, the government decided to phase out segregation and began incorporating Indigenous students into public schools. Although these changes saw students reaching higher levels of education, problems persisted. Many Indigenous students struggled in their adjustment to public school and to a Eurocentric system where Indigenous knowledges were excluded, fostering discrimination by their non-Indigenous peers. Post-secondary education was strongly discouraged for Indigenous students because those who wanted to attend university would have been enfranchised.

The process to phase out the residential school system and other assimilation tactics was slow and not without reversals. The residential school system in Canada lasted officially for almost 150 years, and its impacts continue on to this day. As mentioned above, the system’s closure gave way to the ‘Sixties Scoop,’ during which thousands of Indigenous children were abducted by social services and removed from their families. The ‘Scoop’ spanned roughly the two decades it took to phase out the residential schools, but child apprehensions from Indigenous families continue to occur in disproportionate numbers today. In part, this is the legacy of compromised families and communities left by the residential schools.

Starting in 1969, residential schools in Canada began to decline in numbers. In 1970, the Department of Indian Affairs calculated fifty-six remaining schools, excluding the Northwest Territories. By 1980, the same institution reported sixteen, and one decade later, eleven. In 1996, Gordon Reserve Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, the last of its kind, was closed and demolished. By 1999, the Department of Indian Affairs registered no remaining residential schools in operation.4

Ongoing Impacts

“So why is it important to understand the history of genocide in Canada? Because it’s not history. Today’s racist government laws, policies and actions have proven to be just as deadly for Indigenous peoples as the genocidal acts of the past.”

–Pamela Palmater, Mi’kmaq lawyer, professor, activist, and politician
(National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Canada) et al. 2019, 53).

The residential school system is viewed by much of the Canadian public as part of a distant past, disassociated from today’s events. In many ways, this is a misconception. The last residential school did not close its doors until 1996, and many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of today’s Indigenous communities are residential school Survivors. Although residential schools have closed, their effects remain ongoing for both Survivors and their descendants who now share in the intergenerational effects of transmitted personal trauma and loss of language, culture, traditional teachings, and mental/spiritual wellbeing.

According to the Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, several generations of Indigenous Peoples were denied the development of parenting skills not only through their removal from communities and families but also from the severe lack of attention paid to the issue by school officials.5 In addition, children were taught that their traditional ways were inferior, including their languages and cultures. The residential schools were operational through several generations of Indigenous Peoples so the process of healing from these damages will also take several generations -a process that has already begun, but has not been easy nor has it been simple.

The historic, intergenerational, and collective oppression of Indigenous Peoples continues to this day in the form of land disputes, over-incarceration, lack of housing, child apprehension, systemic poverty, marginalization and violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA peoples, and other critical issues which neither began nor ended with residential schools. Generations of oppressive government policies attempted to strip Indigenous Peoples of their identities not only through residential schools but also through other policies including but not limited to: the implementation and subsequent changes to the Indian Act; the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system known as the Sixties Scoop; and legislations allowing forced sterilizations of Indigenous Peoples in certain provinces, a practice that has continued to be reported by Indigenous women in Canada as recently as 2018; and currently, through the modern child welfare systems which continue to disproportionately apprehend Indigenous children into foster care in what Raven Sinclair has called the Millennium Scoop.6

In 2019, BC ended its practice of “birth alerts” in child welfare cases, which allowed child welfare agencies and hospitals to flag mothers deemed “high risk” without their consent -a practice which disproportionately targeted Indigenous mothers and was found to be “racist and discriminatory” and a “gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother, and the community”.7 One of the findings of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report (MMIWG) asserts that the Canadian State “has used child welfare laws and agencies as a tool to oppress, displace, disrupt, and destroy Indigenous families, communities, and Nations. It is a tool in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples.”8 Child welfare laws and agencies, like the residential schools, effectively aided in the removal of Indigenous children from their families and continue to aid in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples.

Survivors Demand Justice

I have just one last thing to say. To all of the leaders of the Liberals, the Bloc and NDP, thank you, as well, for your words because now it is about our responsibilities today, the decisions that we make today and how they will affect seven generations from now.

My ancestors did the same seven generations ago and they tried hard to fight against you because they knew what was happening. They knew what was coming, but we have had so much impact from colonization and that is what we are dealing with today.

Women have taken the brunt of it all.

Thank you for the opportunity to be here at this moment in time to talk about those realities that we are dealing with today.

What is it that this government is going to do in the future to help our people? Because we are dealing with major human rights violations that have occurred to many generations: my language, my culture and my spirituality. I know that I want to transfer those to my children and my grandchildren, and their children, and so on.

What is going to be provided? That is my question. I know that is the question from all of us. That is what we would like to continue to work on, in partnership.

Nia:wen. Thank you.

—Beverley Jacobs, President, Native Women’s Association of Canada, June 11, 2008

Read the full transcript and watch the video here.

The residential schools heavily contributed to educational, social, financial and health disparities between Indigenous Peoples and the rest of Canada, and these impacts have been intergenerational.9 Despite the efforts of the residential school system and those who created and maintained it, Indigenous Peoples largely escaped complete assimilation and continue to work to regain what was lost, while also seeking justice for years of wrongdoing; including from the Canadian government, the churches, and the individuals responsible for specific cases of abuse.

It was not until the late 1980s that the Canadian legal system began to respond to allegations of abuse brought forward by Survivors, with fewer than fifty convictions coming out of more than 38,000 claims of sexual and physical abuse submitted to the independent adjudication process.10 Notable cases include 1988’s Mowatt v. Clarke, in which eight former students of St. George’s Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C., sued a priest, the government, and the Anglican Church of Canada; both the Anglican Church and the government admitted fault and agreed to a settlement. In 1995, twenty-seven Survivors from the Alberni Indian Residential School filed charges of sexual abuse against Arthur Plintwhile also holding Canada and the United Church vicariously liable. In addition to convicting Plint, the court held the federal government and the United Church responsible for the wrongs committed.

Meanwhile, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had been interviewing individuals from Indigenous communities and nations across Canada about their experiences. The commission’s report, published in 1996, brought unprecedented attention to the residential school system—many non-Indigenous Canadians did not know about this chapter in Canadian history. In 1998, based on the commission’s recommendations and considering the court cases, the Canadian government publicly apologized to former students for the physical and sexual abuse they suffered in the residential schools. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation was established as a $350 million government plan to aid communities affected by the residential schools. However, some Indigenous people felt the government apology did not go far enough, since it addressed only the effects of physical and sexual abuse and not other damages caused by the residential school system.

The St. George and Alberni lawsuits set a precedent for future cases, proving that the churches and the government of Canada could be sued as an entity. As the number of cases grew, a National Class Action was filed in 2002 for compensation for all former Indian Residential school Survivors and family members in Canada. In 2005, Canada and nearly 80,000 Survivors reached the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement in which Canada committed to individual compensation for Survivors, additional funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In September 2007, while the Settlement Agreement was being put into action, the Canadian government made a motion to issue a formal apology. The motion passed unanimously. On June 11, 2008, the House of Commons gathered in a solemn ceremony to publicly apologize for the government’s involvement in the residential school system and to acknowledge the widespread impact this system has had among Indigenous Peoples. You can read the official statement and responses to it by Indigenous organizations here (scroll down to “Choose a topic” and select “Apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools”). The apology was broadcast live across Canada (watch it here). Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper issued a ‘statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools’, noting that

“…the Government of Canada now recognizes that it was wrong to forcibly remove children from their homes and we apologize for having done this. We now recognize that it was wrong to separate children from rich and vibrant cultures and traditions that it created a void in many lives and communities, and we apologize for having done this”.

Echoing Stephen Harper, former Chief Justice of Ontario Warren Winkler also observed that the residential school system removed children 

“from their families and communities to serve the purpose of carrying out a “concerted campaign to obliterate” the “habits and associations” of “Indigenous languages, traditions and beliefs,” in order to accomplish “a radical re-socialization” aimed at instilling the children instead with the values of Euro-centric civilization”(Library and Archives Canada, RG10, volume 6113, le 351-10, part 1).11

The federal government’s apology was met with a range of responses. Some felt that it marked a new era of positive federal government–Indigenous relations based on mutual respect, while many others felt that the apology was merely symbolic and doubted that it would change the government’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Although apologies and acknowledgements made by governments and churches are important steps forward in reconciliation, Indigenous leaders have argued that such gestures are not enough without supportive action. Communities and residential school survivor societies are undertaking healing initiatives and providing opportunities for survivors to talk about their experiences and move forward to create a positive future for themselves, their families, and their communities.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society was formed in 1994 by the First Nations Summit in British Columbia and was officially incorporated in 2002 to provide support for survivors and communities in the province throughout the healing process and to educate the broader public. The Survivors Society provides crisis counselling, referrals, and healing initiatives, as well as acting as a resource for information, research, training, and workshops. It was clear that a similar organization was needed at the national level, and in 2005, the National Residential School Survivors Society was incorporated. 

Recommended resources

Books & Articles

Canada. Royal Commission on Indigenous Peoples. Report of the Royal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, Volume 1: Looking Forward, Looking Back. Chapter 10, “Residential Schools.” Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1996.

Erasmus, George. Notes on A History of the Indian Residential School System in Canada

Fournier, Suzanne and Ernie Crey. Stolen from our Embrace: The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Indigenous Communities. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997.

Haig-Brown, Celia. Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1998. First published by Tillicum Library, 1988.

Manitoba. Public Inquiry into the Administration and Indigenous People. “Indigenous Women.” Vol. 1, chap. 13, in Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. Winnipeg: Public Inquiry into the Administration and Indigenous People, 1999.

This chapter of the  Indigenous Justice Inquiry of Manitoba’s report on Indigenous people in the justice system examines how the residential school system has contributed to the abuse and discrimination that many Indigenous women face regularly.

Miller, J. R. Shingwauk’s Vision. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive, key texts on the residential school system, in Shingwauk’s Vision Miller has included the perspectives of government and church officials, school staff, and students to create a rich history of the residential school system from its original inception to its phasing out. Cree scholar Winona Wheeler calls Shingwauk’s Vision “the most thorough and comprehensive study of Indian residential schools in Canada to date and most noted for its good use of a wide range of Indigenous life histories and personal reminisces” (Wheeler, “Social Relations of Indigenous Oral Histories,” in Walking a Tightrope: Indigenous Peoples and their Representations, 2005. 193)

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Indian Residential Schools: The Nuu-Chah-Nulth Experience. Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, 1996.

Roberts, John. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples: Exploring their Past, Present, and Future. Toronto: Emond Montgomery, 2006.

Secwepemc Cultural Education Society, Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Penticton: Secwepemc Cultural Education Society & Theytus, 2000.


Apologies and Reconciliation


[1] Milloy, John S. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986.University of Manitoba Press, 1999. 91–2; Fournier and Crey, Stolen from Our Embrace. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997. 49.

[2]Royal Commission on Indigenous Peoples, Volume 1: Looking Forward, Looking Back. Chapter 10, “1.2 Changing Policies.” Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1996. 344-353.

[3] Milloy, John S. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986.University of Manitoba Press, 1999. Xvii, 91–2.

[4] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 2 1939 to 2000. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Montreal; Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 103.

[5] Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. 1999. The Justice System and Aboriginal People. Ch. 14 (

[6] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Canada), Marion Buller, Michèle Audette, Brian Eyolfson, and Qajaq Robinson. 2019. Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. 104; Longman, Nickita. 2018. “Examining the Sixties Scoop and Beyond.” Discourse Magazine, 2018.

[7] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Canada), 355.

[8] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Canada), 355.

[9] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Canada’s Residential Schools: The Legacy: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 3.

[10] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Canada’s Residential Schools: The Legacy: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 5. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 7.

[11] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 2 1939 to 2000. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Montreal; Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 574.

To Cite This Article

Hanson, Eric, et al.“The Residential School System.” Indigenous Foundations. First Nations and Indigenous Studies UBC, 2020. Website. [Date accessed].

Hanson, Eric, Daniel P. Games, and Alexa Manuel. “The Residential School System”. Indigenous Foundations. (accessed Month, day, year).

Hanson, E., Gamez, D., & Manuel, A. (2020, September). The Residential School System. Indigenous Foundations.