How did residential schools begin?

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This article was published 2/6/2015 (2255 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

How did residential schools begin?

The first boarding school for aboriginal people was established near what is now Quebec City. Catholic missionaries aimed to "civilize" aboriginal boys, but parents didn’t want to send their children and those kids who did go ran away. Similar attempts were made by protestant missionaries in the Atlantic and in the Red River area but also failed.

Many more schools popped up after 1850, after the superintendent of schools in Upper Canada called for their creation.

The Canadian government began offering small per-student grants after Confederation in 1867, but it was the colonization of the west and northern Quebec and northern Ontario that predicated the need to expand the system greatly.

In 1878, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald was advised educating the indigenous population in farming, raising cattle and mechanical trades would pave the way "for their emancipation from tribal governemnt, and for their final absorption into the general community."

At the same time as the government was signing treaties with indigenous people for land, it was working to assimilate the population through education.

The schools were largely modeled on reformatories and industrial schools in Europe for the children of the urban poor. The first three federal schools opened in 1883 and 1884 - three industrial schools in Saskatchewan and Alberta. It wasn’t compulsory for First Nations to attend residential school until 1920, but that didn’t stop Indian Agents and others from acting as if it were compulsory before that.

Residential school enrolment peaked in 1956 at 11,539, but the federal government stopped reporting annual enrolment in 1966. There were 139 residential schools, mainly in northern Ontario, and the west.

Didn’t aboriginal kids have a choice in whether or not to attend?

Technically yes, for the first several decades. But even before compulsory attendance rules were implemented in 1920, the government worked around the law and compelled aboriginal kids into attending by making them and their families believe they had no choice. Between 1894 and 1920, the law stated Indian agents could order the child placed in a school if it was felt they were not being properly cared for or educated.

Students who ran away or didn’t return to school following a break (usually just brief periods in the summer) would be forcibly returned, a practice which continued even after a court ruled it was illegal.

Survivors tell stories of families hiding their children in the bush when the school calendar was set to start up again, hoping to keep them out of the sight of the Indian agents.

Some students were enrolled voluntarily by their parents who wanted their children to receive an education but if parents ever wanted to change their minds they could not. Once a child was enrolled, the federal department of Indian Affairs had to approve all discharges from residential schools, and Ottawa gave itself this power by including a provision that parents were signing over guardianship of their children to the school when they signed the enrolment form.

Did every aboriginal child attend residential school?

No. There were still significant numbers of First Nations children who attended Indian Affairs day schools instead. Until the 1940s, there were more children in the day schools than in residential schools but by 1944, the number of residential school enrolments exceeded day school enrolments for the first time. About one-third of school-aged First Nations children were enrolled in residential school in that year.

When were they closed?

Initially residential schools were supposed to pay for themselves, once the students were trained properly in farming, raising animals and industrial trades. But they never became self-sustaining and chronic underfunding left the entire reisdential school system on the verge of collapse by the middle of the 20th century.

Theodore Fontaine Manitoba survivor Ted Fontaine says the “biggest thing taken away from us was the capacity to realize we were just as good.”
The schools, says Ted Fontaine, embarked on an approved course of teaching to ensure Aboriginal kids were taught they and their culture were inferior beings


Theodore Fontaine Manitoba survivor Ted Fontaine says the “biggest thing taken away from us was the capacity to realize we were just as good.” The schools, says Ted Fontaine, embarked on an approved course of teaching to ensure Aboriginal kids were taught they and their culture were inferior beings

The federal government began opening more day schools, which were cheaper, and in 1951 began working with provincial governments to have First Nations students educated in public schools. This was known as "integration policy" whereby aboriginal children would be educated with non-aboriginal children.

In 1969, Ottawa took over from the churches control of the schools in Southern Canada and began to close them down. There were 60 schools operating at that time, a number that was cut to 45 within two years. The last seven of the schools were closed between 1995 and 1998, though by then the number of students was very low.

Weren’t the schools at least a place for aboriginal children to receive an education?

No, not really. Although called "schools" the commissioners found little evidence education was the main goal of the system and few kids ever actually graduated from high school.

Records show between 1940 and 1960, more than four in 10 grade one students in residential schools would not be promoted to grade two, and only half of the students who ever made it to grade two would make it all the way to grade six.

Documents show principals who believed aboriginal children had inferior intellect, and others believed educating aboriginal kids was dangerous.

Manitoba survivor Ted Fontaine spent 12 years in residential school from the age of five to 17. But it wasn’t until he was 32 years old that he returned to school and completed the requirements for a high school diploma.

Overcrowded, understaffed classrooms left little room for proper education. One school reportedly had 75 students in one classroom with just one teacher. Another school had 120 students in a class with two teachers.

The churches hired the staff and there was little in the way of standards for teaching skills or training and because the pay was so low, the jobs were not highly sought after and there was high turnover.

Teaching often boiled down to having the students repeat back facts in memory drills, with little analytical thinking or deductive reasoning required.

Students often reported being beaten or otherwise punished for not being able to provide the correct answer to questions, which scarred many.

Much of the curriculum belittled the aboriginal culture.

Manitoba survivor Ted Fontaine says the "biggest thing taken away from us was the capacity to realize we were just as good."

The schools, says Fontaine, embarked on an approved course of teaching to ensure aboriginal kids were taught they and their culture were inferior beings.

The students also spent at least as much time out of the classroom as in it, raising and growing their own food, sewing their own clothes, and helping maintain the school buildings.

Were residential schools all bad?

No. While overall the residential school system was deplorable, there were some schools, and some teachers that bucked the trends. There were many students who succeeded in careers with the churches, the government, and even the law. Schools, particularly in the north, were spoken of highly by former students for the education they received.

Other former students spoke of certain staff members with great affection, remembering having them as confidantes and surrogate parents who genuinely cared about their welfare.

By the 1960s, bans on aboriginal language and cultural practices appeared to diminish and a few schools even taught aboriginal language classes.