Residential Schools

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Date: 2016
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,040 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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The residential school system was an educational program for Canada's aboriginal population, run by the federal government through church partnerships from the nineteenth century to the 1990s. Its objective was to assimilate aboriginal youth into Canadian society through a combination of Christian conversion and formal education. Long the subject of controversy, Canada's residential school system came under public scrutiny after allegations of systematic abuse surfaced. In 2005, the Canadian federal government announced that it would be offering compensation to aboriginal Canadians who were forced to attend residential schools. The compensation package was delivered in 2007, totaling CAD$1.9 billion.

Conception and Purpose

The residential school system is rooted in Canada's colonial history, as the first such institutions were established by Catholic missionaries in what are now the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick. These initial residential schools failed, as early European colonists did not have the cultural authority to force Canada's still-independent aboriginal population to attend; however, as the British and French colonial presence in Canada continued to develop, aboriginal peoples came under the increasing influence of expanding European civilization. By the 1830s, residential schools had returned with a focused purpose: to assimilate aboriginal youth into the society of Canada's European colonizers.

With the passage of the British North America Act (1867) and the Indian Act (1876), Canada became an autonomous country, and the federal government took on the responsibility of educating its aboriginal population. This marked the formalization of the residential school system under various Christian denominations. By 1930, there were eighty such schools across Canada, with the majority located in Ontario, Quebec, and in the country's western regions. The Roman Catholic Church operated 60 percent of these schools, with a further 25 percent under the administration of the Anglican Church of Canada. The rest of them were run by the United Church of Canada and the Presbyterian Church of Canada.


Prior to the 1950s, funding limitations forced residential schools to operate on a half-day system. Students were compelled to provide labour in addition to attending classes. In theory, this allowed attendees to develop skills that would later benefit them when they entered the workforce; however, in practice, it served only to help the schools overcome their financial restraints. Graduates were beset with high unemployment rates, prompting changes to the system that coincided with the economic boom of the 1950s.

The half-day system was eliminated and replaced with a highly structured daily routine that included prayer, lessons, and physical labour. Recreation time was very limited, and students remained at school for ten to twelve months per year. Classes were segregated by gender, and it was difficult for students to communicate with their parents. All outgoing letters were required to be written in English or French, and many parents of aboriginal students were unable to read either official Canadian language.

Conditions and Abuse Allegations

Conditions at Canada's residential schools generally were of a low standard. Students were provided with poor-quality food and clothing, and teaching materials typically were outdated. School administrators enforced strict discipline and strongly discouraged any continuation of aboriginal traditions. Students also faced ongoing emotional and physical abuse and had to endure severe punishments for even minor infractions. Multiple residential school staff members later were convicted of crimes related to sexual abuse.

Despite the funding increases that began in the 1950s, the majority of residential school graduates were ill-prepared to participate in modern Canadian urban life. Immersed for years in an environment that disparaged their aboriginal heritage, former students also experienced a cultural disconnect when returning to native reservations after completing their studies. Beyond the obvious failure of assimilation objectives, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission later reported that at least 3,200 aboriginal students died while attending residential schools. Other media sources claimed that there may have been as many as 4,000 such deaths.

Decline, Closure, and Compensation for Former Students

In 1969, Canada's Department of Indian Affairs took over the residential school system from the various Christian church denominations. This marked the beginning of the decline of the residential school system, and by the 1980s, most schools had been closed or turned over to the sole authority of local aboriginal tribes. The last residential school, located in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.

Efforts to compensate attendees for the abuses they suffered began in 1990. Phil Fontaine, then the head of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, urged Canadian church authorities to publicly recognize the systematic physical and emotional abuse of residential school students, as well as the sexual abuses suffered by attendees. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended a public inquiry into the abuse allegations. While such an inquiry never took place, the Canadian federal government convened with church representatives to build a compensation plan for affected individuals.

In 2005, the federal government officially announced its compensation plan. The first payments were made in 2007 and were offered to former residential school students who were still alive as of May 30, 2005. Under the terms of the plan, former students were eligible to receive CAD$10,000 for the first partial or full year of attendance at a residential school and CAD$3,000 for each year beyond the first. The total value of the government's compensation package was CAD$1.9 billion, with more than 105,000 people receiving payments.

  • The goal of the residential school system was to assimilate aboriginal Canadians into the Christianized society of Canada's European colonizers.
  • A formal system of residential schools was launched in the 1880s using infrastructure that had been in place since about the 1830s.
  • At its peak in the early 1930s, there were eighty residential schools in Canada.
  • Prior to 1969, most residential schools were operated by the Roman Catholic Church of Canada.
  • The residential school system went into decline in the 1980s, and the last operational school closed in 1996.
  • After the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse endured by students became public knowledge, the Canadian government moved to compensate former students.
  • A CAD$1.9 billion compensation package was announced in 2005, and the first payouts were made in 2007.
  • Former students were eligible to receive CAD$10,000 for the first year spent in a residential school and CAD$3,000 for each additional year.
  • More than 105,000 individual payments were made under the terms of the compensation plan.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2181600506