The History of Canada’s Residential Schools

Are the religious organizations who operated the residential schools the real culprits, as many suppose? A careful examination shows that supposition to be flawed.

Indigenous girls attend a first Communion ceremony at the Spanish Indian Residential School in Ontario in 1955. (CNS photo/Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Handout via Reuters)

‘Sentiment is a dangerous thing. Truth and reconciliation both suffer when it is weaponized.’

Over the past fortnight, some dozen churches in Canada, many serving indigenous people, were torched. A dozen more, most in non-indigenous contexts, were vandalized. “Burn it all down,” tweeted the director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, to supportive cheers even in the legal community.

The chaos ensued after discovery of the remains of hundreds of indigenous youths, buried near the residential schools in which they were enrolled under a policy backed by the Indian Act of 1876, amendments to which in 1894 and 1920 made attendance at residential or industrial schools compulsory for those who lacked access to day schools. The last of the former, many of which were operated by the Catholic Church, closed its doors in 1996. Over more than a century, about 140,000 children passed through these schools. Upward of four thousand—perhaps as many as ten thousand—passed away while attending them or expired soon afterward.

How could this be? Who is responsible? Are the religious organizations who operated the residential schools the real culprits, as many suppose? A careful examination shows that supposition to be flawed. The tragedy, as we shall see, and the crimes it involved—crimes some are falsely characterizing as genocide—began with government-mandated violation of parental rights, an error gaining currency again today.

A progressive policy

At the time of its establishment, the residential schools policy was seen as a progressive one. A Methodist minister, Egerton Ryerson (1803–82), was appointed chief superintendent of education for Upper Canada in 1844. He introduced school boards, standardized textbooks, and free education for all. The Department of Indian Affairs quickly sought his advice and began to employ his methods in order to integrate native children into the new world in which they were to live. He held that indigenous peoples should receive an education in denominational English-only boarding schools, a system that entailed uprooting children from their tribal homes and customs.

The first residential school, the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, had opened in 1831. It was still imbued with the spirit of the first bishop of New France, St. François de Laval (d. 1708), who labored long before the Ryerson era to supply a complete system of education for the peoples in his care, as also to protect them from the liquor trade and other threats to their welfare. (In those days, schools were brought to the natives rather than the natives to the schools.) By Confederation in 1867, there were eight such establishments, but things were beginning to change.

State support for mission schools, Catholic and Protestant, became available in 1874. With the advent of compulsory education, the schools multiplied. By 1931 there were eighty in operation. Funding was enrollment-based and (given the parlous state of the economy) very parsimonious. Living conditions became crowded and less healthy. Children arrived already suffering from tuberculosis or other illnesses. When children died at the schools, they were seldom sent home for proper burial. The government wouldn’t, and the churches couldn’t, pay for that; nor could the families. So instead it was shallow graves and wooden crosses in fields outside the schools. And though the education was generally good and gratefully received by some, record-keeping (or the successful preservation of records) was remarkably bad. The little wooden crosses and cemetery fences, of course, are long gone. Hence the uncertainty as to numbers and names and even locations of those buried.

Recently, however, ground-scanning devices have begun to supply locations and numbers. On May 28, we learned that there were 215 unmarked graves at the site of the residential school in Kamloops, B.C.; on June 25, that in Saskatchewan there were 751 where the Marieval Residential School had been; on June 30, that 182 had been “discovered” at St. Eugene’s Mission near Cranbrook, where I grew up.

An irresponsible campaign

On a recent Sunday, when we arrived at Mass in our picturesque Quebec parish, there at the end of the drive stood a lone protester, holding up a sign reading 751. A small pair of shoes, the symbol of genocide, lay at his feet. I enquired of this young man what he knew of all this and what he hoped for as a response from ordinary Catholics. He had not been misled by the scurrilous suggestion, planted early in the irresponsible press, that these were mass graves, as if there had been mass murder. But even he did not appear to have much grasp of the requisite details.

How did these children die? Who was responsible for their deaths and why are their graves (these are not mass graves) unmarked? What attempts have been made at redress? What are churches and governments doing or not doing? To such questions he had no ready answers. He hoped that Pope Francis and the Canadian bishops would apologize rather than merely express regret; and that the putatively wealthy Catholic Church would sacrifice some of its properties in order to help indigenous peoples get things they are still lacking, such as potable water.

We began discussing these things, which are complex enough that we never arrived at those rotten apples in the staffing barrels—clerical, religious, and lay people who traumatized the children in their care emotionally, physically, or sexually, as if the trauma of being taken from their homes and homelands were not trauma enough. In the public mind, naturally, these things tend to run together: child seizure, child neglect, child abuse, child deaths. They need to be separated out if each is to be given the attention it deserves.

Unfortunately, the present campaign seems more interested in manipulating public sentiment than in achieving public clarity. Information on local gravesites has been dropped piecemeal into the collective psyche, as if these finds represented new and shocking knowledge rather than confirmation of things already established. Little effort has been made to explain that what Professor Scott Hamilton called for six years ago, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, is finally being undertaken. Indeed, the ignorant are being left to think that we are only now discovering that a great many children died during the course of their residential school education.

Lines are being blurred, categories confused. The term adopted by the commission to describe the context and effects of that education, “cultural genocide,” has begun to appear without its adjective. Even the careful statement on June 24 by National Chief Perry Bellegarde, which wisely avoided the noun itself, was released under the header, “Horrific discoveries of unmarked graves demands urgent action.” That header left more than a hint of wanton and, indeed, deliberate destruction of young lives. By contrast, Chief Sophie Pierre (who preceded me at our local high school after attending the St. Eugene’s school and who knows the strengths and weaknesses of each) spoke the plain truth: “There’s no discovery, we knew it was there, it’s a graveyard. The fact there are graves inside a graveyard shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”

Perhaps the intention of the exercise is to capitalize on Bill C-15 (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act that received royal assent on June 21), driving home the point that the country must now act in more concerted fashion to effect changes. If so, the end does not justify the means. The fires this campaign has provoked and the hatred for Christians (especially Catholics) it has fanned cannot be deemed so much unfortunate collateral damage. Sentiment is a dangerous thing. Truth and reconciliation both suffer when it is weaponized.

Take, for example, the call for a papal apology. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was signed in 2006. The process of formal apologies for which it called had already begun in 1991. This was culminated, observes Raymond de Souza, by Prime Minister Harper in 2008 and by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, when he received a native delegation and “expressed his sorrow and anguish for the ‘deplorable’ conduct of those Catholics who caused immense pain and suffering to those in residential schools.” According to Fr. de Souza, “that this was a suitable counterpart to the federal government apology was understood by everyone—Indigenous media, Catholic media, secular media.”

In 2015, however, the TRC completed its six-volume Final Report on the residential schools, based primarily on a patient hearing of many heartbreaking stories. (Such was its mandate. It was not tasked with a full analysis of the historical record or even with an unbiased sampling of indigenous responses to residential school experience; nor was it given unfettered access to federal archives.) Among its ninety-four recommendations was a demand that the new pope, Francis, be summoned to Canada more or less immediately to make an apology in situ “for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” While this may tell against Fr. de Souza’s reading of the situation, it is being reiterated today as if nothing at all happened in 2009. Even C-15 trades in myth as much as history.

A perfect storm

Back to our story: In the era of the residential schools, medicine was relatively primitive while pandemics were common. Smallpox was deadly. The Spanish flu took people in the prime of life at a ten percent fatality rate. Tuberculosis was slower, but for natives still more lethal. According to The Globe and Mail, documents in the National Archives reveal that children were dying from it “at alarming rates.” The Department of Indian Affairs sent its chief medical officer, Peter Bryce, to investigate. His visits to fifteen schools in western Canada found that “at least 24 per cent of students had died from tuberculosis over a 14-year period.” He informed the department in 1907 that the schools were failing to separate the healthy from the sick.

Two years later Bryce submitted a second report, recommending that the government take responsibility for administering the schools. For his troubles his position was abolished; only in 1969 would his advice be followed. After retirement in 1922 he authored The Story of a National Crime. The pleas of other doctors were likewise ignored. “Evidently somebody has mistaken our residential school for a TB sanatorium,” complained Dr. MacInnis in a letter from Nova Scotia to Indian Affairs. This he thought “very unfair to the children who are clean and well.”

Today, in our own pandemic, we seem to be getting all this backward, treating the healthy as if they were sick rather than the sick as if they were healthy, leading to new national crimes. But my point is that the old national crime was indeed national; that is, political and economic, not primarily religious. Life expectancy in those days was generally much lower and child mortality much higher. Bryce, however, made clear to Indian Affairs that the mortality rate was far greater for natives than for the general population and that immediate action must be taken to address the problem. In 1914, as The Globe points out, “the most influential senior Indian Affairs official of the period,” Duncan Campbell Scott, allowed that “it is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.” Yet no effective action was taken until after the Second World War, by which time medical measures had much improved.

Scott’s assessment cannot be generalized to the entire history of the schools, or confined to the schools for that matter. It captured the pitiful prospects of the native population as such. The schools, however, found themselves at the heart of what Hamilton aptly describes as a perfect storm: “a very, very poorly developed public health infrastructure”; an epidemiologically vulnerable population; children drawn from disparate communities, bringing sickness with them, then being crammed into buildings with poor heating and ventilation while offered an inadequate diet. Of course, says Hamilton, under such conditions diseases “are going to explode like wildfire.”

The question that must be pressed is why this storm, which waxed and waned, was allowed to last for the better part of a century, at the expense of so many young lives. And why neither the state nor the church mustered the courage to turn and face it, or to extract themselves from it.

Responsibility and repentance

Let us be clear: For the physical or mental abuse of those in their care, all who have power to prevent it are responsible, together with (if differently from) those perpetrating it. For policies that seduce or compel communities to send their children to schools where disease rages or where their culture is wrongfully suppressed, all who produce or perpetuate them are responsible. No party is responsible for everything, nor can blame be distributed equally. To distribute it justly is something of which only God is ultimately capable, but man has an obligation to try. It is part of learning to live justly.

Those who pretend that we have a new instrument for doing so are far too optimistic, however, or at least much too hasty. What we are presently learning from the ground scans is new only in certain modest particulars. Specific gravesites have been mapped or will be mapped. But we do not yet know, and may never know, whose remains they contain or which in life were well-treated and which mistreated. What we do know is that we are now in a better position, not to blame the living, but to honor the dead. And so we must, bearing in mind that, while most were victims of disease, not all were victims in the moral sense. Some were in the right place at the wrong time, and some, whether students or staff, were there quite voluntarily. (That schooling was compulsory does not prove otherwise; nor can stories of suffering be said with confidence to outweigh stories of benefit, since the latter have not been sought and the former are sometimes compromised by exploitation of the reparations system.)

To honor the dead was and is the whole point of cemeteries, a burial tradition introduced to North America by Christians and welcomed by indigenous peoples. The cemeteries in question were a final resting place not only to school children but also to other poor folk from the local community. Yet we are hampered in the salutary work of honoring the dead by the smoke of burning churches, which tells us that the question of responsibility for that protracted “perfect storm” has not been answered as it ought to be answered.

No answer to the question of responsibility can retreat from official confessions of grave culpability, whether on the part of government or on the part of the religious organizations that ran the schools. The prime minister’s despicable posturing notwithstanding, however, the former must bear the brunt of any further censure. For it was the state that determined the policy—forced assimilation by remote education—and held the purse strings that controlled its implementation. A fatally flawed scheme, conducted with a deadly combination of ambition and parsimony, was made worse by dereliction of duty by parties on both sides. Even the native side cannot avoid scrutiny. But the scheme itself had devastating effects for which national repentance was and is requisite.

Repentance for what? For just that, our collective and our particular failures. Not for Western civilization as such, though it has become the target of the cynical and the self-loathing. Certainly not for Christianity or the Catholic Church as such, which from the days of Canada’s patron saints—Jean de Brébeuf and his colleagues, who shed martyrial blood on behalf of abandoned natives in the face of tribal genocide—has done so much to temper our excesses and heal our diseases of body and soul, as it must now do again, despite its own shame and disgrace. Not for genocide either, for there was here no genocide, though there was no shortage of negligence, cruelty, disaster, and untimely death.

The charge of genocide

In conclusion, something more must be said about this charge of genocide, which stirs up an irrational hatred. Article II of the Genocide Convention defines genocide by reference to five kinds of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” These are:

  1. Killing members of the group;

  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In the present context, the fifth is the one most fixed upon by those who employ this term. It must be remembered, however, that all five are qualified by the intent clause, for which evidence is wanting.

The aforementioned Globe article highlights the judgment of John Milloy, “the only outsider to have accessed the locked vault of Indian Affairs records” and author of a book that harks back to Bryce’s. In that book, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, Milloy rightly eschews the language of genocide, for no one was actually trying to make children ill or to erase the indigenous peoples. The unconscionable assault on their families and culture by the state, and the complicity of the churches (will we ever learn?) with the state, led to tragedy. But the school deaths “were primarily due to the policy of paying churches on a per-capita basis” that incentivized over-crowding and the dangerous admission or retention of sick students. It was inexcusable, but it was not genocide.

Moreover, the bare fact of compulsory remote education does not amount to what is specified in the fifth subsection, though it tends in that direction. I am strongly opposed to such education. Indeed, I am against most laws—today, ironically, such laws are again proliferating, promoted by powerful international organizations including the United Nations—that permit agents of the state to violate the sanctity of the family, doing things to the minds or bodies of children that their parents believe harmful. But I do not think Canada guilty of genocide, or the churches complicit in genocide. The failures of both, past and present, are sufficiently serious without resorting to that term.

Those who speak loosely of genocide do not discourage but encourage the kind of act that in the course of time leads to genocide; acts that do nothing for national repentance and do not honor, but rather disgrace, the dead. Honoring the dead should begin with prayer, for those still able to find a house of prayer. From there it should move to self-examination, contrition, and penance or reparation, so that there may be reconciliation between man and man and, by divine mercy, God and man.

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in First Things. It is republished here, by permission, with minor additions.)


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About Dr. Douglas Farrow 21 Articles
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Ethics at McGill University, and the author of several books including Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Baker Academic, 2018) and a new commentary on Thessalonians (Brazos, 2020).

15 Comments

  1. Well written article. Today, people read three paragraphs of an article on the internet and feel like they need to make a judgement and condemn someone. We cannot compare today’s world with the world of 150 years ago. What diseases were uncontrollable at that time? What resources were available to control diseases? What food supply was available? What help was available when problems appeared? What kind of communication system was available to the missionaries? How exactly did the missionaries respond to death at these schools? If problems got out of control, who could be called on to help? There are too many unanswered questions to make any kind of logical judgement or condemnation. I am convinced the missionaries had a sincere motive to help the native population adjust to a new world.

    • “We cannot compare today’s world with the world of 150 years ago”

      Sixty years ago
      Church Fete tea and cake, sixpence a plate
      Tombola fun, smiling Nun, prizes for everyone
      One shilling a go, five tickets to show
      Make a match, you have a catch
      Toy for every girl and boy
      Soap and scent, can we tempt?
      Whisky and smokes with the men she jokes
      Late in the day, less of an array, many have gone away
      The Sheppard to the Nun, have we had a good one?
      In the palm of her hand, the whiskies ticket did stand
      With a smile on her face as if reflecting grace
      We know who will be having a taste
      Collusion at play having its day
      Although this may seem small in the scheme of it all
      Sin is sin from the very begin
      Whatever its face, in any time or place
      To those that should know better, it brings disgrace

      kevin your brother
      In Christ

  2. Oh my heart. In the early 1970’s worked for 4 years with the Department of Indian Affairs where my responsibility was hiring teachers and dealing with employee / Band Council relations for schools and student residences. In this capacity I was at a number of Student Residences (Christie in BC, Watson Lake in the Yukon, Alberni, – to name a few – and numerous schools such as Prince Rupert, Terrace, Mission, Qualicum, and others in BC and a few in Alberta, Manitoba and Northern Ontario (Manitoulin Island). I once counted that I have been to exactly 90 reserves. Wherever I went I saw happy students and caring teachers. If a problem happened with an Indian Affairs employee, I had the authority to remove them, but more often resolve the problem by working with Band Councils. I also, in support of the Mission Reserve, fought the Public Service Commission in Court for the right of Band to select and have their Roman Catholic Sisters to teach their children (The Public Service Commission felt that was preferential hiring). I dealt frequently with the Department of Indian Health Services of Health Canada and noted their dedication in dealing with health problems on reserves, which were extensive. And, I need to add, the health problems of non-Indians in remote locations were as bad as those that might have been found on reserves and in residences. The stories I read now do not ring true. Not only do I remember the joy of many Aboriginal Canadians at having discovered Christianity, having discovered the teachings of a Middle Eastern Jew, but I remember the deaths and destruction of individuals in the traditional Smoke Houses, which, while illegal, proved difficult to redirect into more humane practices, as many of the leading Natives were trying to do. Now I see a hate motivated rewrite of the things that I experienced. I know that many Bands and Band members now cringe at the current depictions of history but their voices are suppressed as if the road of hate is preferable. I am sure that in time the matters will be viewed differently … well, I hope.

    • Thank you for posting that. It is good to hear from someone who was there and can testify that the schools weren’t unmitigated malevolence. What I’ve been reading looks an awful lot like a caricature.

      (Though I’m left wondering what a “Smoke House” is and why it would be illegal, since the only smoke houses I know are for making bacon and such).

      • A smoke house, often called a sweat house or long house, is a structure in which members of a tribe would literally torture a tribe member as a test of endurance and physical tolerance with smoke, heat, drugs and physical and verbal abuse until the candidate would scream out, or sing his song, and thereby prove worthiness. The result was sometimes death, sometimes insanity, and always a confused victim who believed that something was achieved by the goings-on. Such practices appear in news stories from time to time even to this day.

  3. From Anti-Christian Hysteria Has Grown Into Church-Burning Terror, And People Might Be Next, by Christopher Bedford.

    July 13, 2021

    The article concludes:

    There’s no getting around that sad history, but history is not what this is about. The terrorists don’t care about it, and the government doesn’t want to talk about it either. They have literally found a cemetery, said there are bodies in it, and decided “genocide.” There were no Nazi death camps — these are once-marked victims of a government education system and the harsh realities of disease.

    And where is the government anyways? Where are the “Hug A Catholic” posters or the “Hate Is Not Welcome Here” stickers? Where are the TV ads and the speeches calling out and condemning these barbarous attacks on the innocent faithful?

    Anti-Christian terrorists have turned their rage on poor First Nation and Canadian communities, accused us all of blood debt, and decided that they will burn our sacred buildings to the ground. It’s explicit, and the government responsible for both the program then, and defense of its citizens now, largely watches on.

    Over the past few years, across the West anti-Christian rhetoric has been tolerated, spread, and spoken in the highest stations of power. Emboldened, anti-Christian hate crimes rose across Europe and the United States, from Boston to San Francisco, and from Youngstown to El Paso. Now, even when a widespread campaign burns churches to the ground in Canada over conspiracies, exaggerations, and slanders, too many of our leaders stand idly by murmuring awkward nothings.

    Can there be any doubt people will come next? If you don’t believe in the devil, you should.

  4. Charles E. Flynn above (and Christopher Bedford) – Maybe a good time to put in a plug for the (Canadian) Catholic Civil Rights League.

  5. Power corrupts as history repeats itself; we see the ongoing subjugation/dehumanization of the weaker by the stronger, reflected in the information given on the back of Will’s Cigarette cards 1908. Time & Money series.

    Palestine: A country lying to the southwest of Syria and governed by Turkey it has a population of 700,000 of whom about 100,000 are Jews and 80% are Mohammedans. The area is 11,000 sq. miles. Capital Jerusalem. The exports consist chiefly of fruit, olive oil, and maize…..

    Indian Territory: One of the States of North America kept in reserve for Indians. It has a total area of 31,400 miles and a population of nearly 400,000. Unsuited to the restraints of civilized life and showing inability for agricultural pursuits the ‘Red Race’ is slowly dying out…

    Australia: The first English to visit Australia was in 1688. Port Jackson was founded in 1788 as a penal station for English criminals. In 1851 the colony made a fair start in free, industrial progress. Gold was discovered in 1851. At present, it has a population of nearly 4 million and an area of 2,972,575s. miles. Capital Melbourne; pop., 502,610…The indigenous people are not even mentioned but then it was to ‘some degree’ still part of the British Empire…The moral of these tales; we hide (Runaway) from the reality of every broken heart and wail.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  6. It is painful to see Catholic church buildings under attack, but the fact of the matter is that millions of Catholics, from the loweliest to the upper hierarchy, even those considering themselves as “practicing Catholics,” have become so perverse and godless that the only thing that can bring them back on course is persecution. It’s the same old story in every age. It was true in the Old Testament, true in the history of the Church, and it’s still true today.

  7. The teachers and workers at these residential schools left lives of comfort in Europe and Eastern Canada and moved to a life of privation in the remotest areas. They did this for the love of God and to improve the lot of Indigenous children. It was, and is, an altruistic lifestyle.

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