Residential Schools in Canada: The Current Issue and Historic Challenge


The painful legacy of residential schools for Aboriginal peoples is still haunting Canada. Originally introduced as places where indigenous children were supposed to learn skills and trades, these institutions became a weapon aimed against the Aboriginals. The promises of peaceful integration resulted in ruthless assimilation into a “superior” culture. Approximately 150,000 thousand children passed through the system from the end of the19th century to the 1980s. Harsh living conditions and constant psychological pressure had devastating consequences for the students. The current struggles of Aboriginal populations are directly linked to the legacies of the residential school system. Many people graduated from those brutal educational institutions in a mentally broken state; their lives often ended in poverty or were cut short by drugs, alcohol, and violence. In the end, the system created to integrate Aboriginal peoples into society turned them into one of the most vulnerable population groups in Canada.

In this regard, the bitter history of residential schools puts modern Canadians in front of a historic challenge. Canadians must learn and remember what are the consequences of forceful cultural assimilation. The truth about residential schools’ role and day-to-day functioning may be unpleasant, even painful and shocking. However, society must preserve it in order to prevent the repetition of past mistakes that took a heavy toll on the Aboriginal civilization. A historiographical analysis allows determining three main domains of oppression routinely practiced in residential schools. Firstly, students and their families were discriminated against on cultural grounds. Secondly, the Aboriginal students fell victim to deliberate socio-economic exploitation. Finally, students were constantly exposed to physical and mental violence. Overall, the contemporary historiography exposes the traumatizing nature of residential schools in detail and makes modern Canadians aware of the anguish suffered by the Aboriginal students and their families.

The Roots of Cultural Assimilation at Residential Schools

Religion was a significant factor in relationships between the Aboriginal peoples and White settlers even before Canada became a sovereign state. The newcomers tried to influence the native population via Christianization; however, the Aboriginal communities embraced Christianity while maintaining internal control and minimizing missionary interference. An example of such hidden spirituality can be found in the syncretic beliefs of Secwépemc people, who embraced Catholic rituals but filled them with the meaning of their culture. For instance, the Secwépemc interpreted holy communion as reciprocity between hosts and guests rather than seeing it as the blood and body of Christ. On certain occasions, religion was smartly used for practical purposes. The Six Nation elites considered Christianity a potential means for brokering alliances with influential fur traders and the military. Overall, the Aboriginals saw the potential dangers of Christianization and tried to reap the benefits of formal conversion without sacrificing their communities’ native beliefs and culture.

As the number of settlers grew and their society overwhelmed the indigenous civilization, it became harder for the Aboriginals to protect their lifestyle. The settlers no longer saw the reason to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with Indigenous peoples. With a decline in fur trade and Canada’s transition to an agricultural economy in the second half of the 19th century, the Confederation’s government decided to assimilate the Indians in order to improve the management of their lands. The residential school system was introduced as one of the key elements of cultural assimilation.

The new invention was designed for a relentless assault on Indigenous peoples’ religion, language, and lifestyle. The Catholic Church had significant control over both government policies and the schools, thus playing a direct part in the eradication of Aboriginal values and beliefs. For instance, students immediately received a new Christian name instead of the Indian name given by their parents. One of the Kamloops Indian Residential School students remembered how the teachers taught the class that “all other churches are wrong” and anyone who is not a Catholic goes to hell. Even the finer institutions, such as the Coqualeetza Indian Residential School, where the principal George Raley created a more comfortable environment for students, aimed to remove Native children from their families and culture. Overall, modern historians agree that cultural assimilation stemmed from the Canadian government’s desire to seize the lands from the “inferior” Native peoples. With that intention in mind, Native children were taught that the “wrong” beliefs and languages of their ancestors must be forgotten.

The Roots of Socio-Economic Exploitation at Residential Schools

From its very beginning, the residential school system suffered from a constant underfunding. This situation turned life in most of the residential schools into a highly unpleasant, often dangerous experience. For example, schools usually could not afford decent food for children. Many Kamloops Indian Residential School students remembered that morning porridge was usually lumpy and burnt. However, the poor food quality was not the worst feature of a residential school. The lack of funding and overcrowding led to the regular outbreaks of infectious diseases. For instance, twenty-four percent of residential school students died from tuberculosis in the early 20th century. In addition, children were barely protected from outside dangers, such as sexual crimes. Even worse, the victims were often treated as liars and troublemakers. The government and education system were aware of these issues but did not undertake any meaningful actions to address them.

Instead, the authorities resorted to direct socio-economic exploitation of Aboriginal children in order to mitigate the chronic lack of funding. Until the 1950s, schools worked under the half-day system, in which students’ day was divided between classes and so-called vocational training. In fact, vocational training usually meant free manual labor for the school’s needs. For example, boys farmed, raised animals, did repairs, or made shoes. Girls were engaged in domestic labor, such as dusting, sweeping, mopping, laundering, ironing, washing windows, and washing dishes. One can confidently claim that this daily regimen hardly combines with academic achievements. The residential school system needed unpaid student labor for survival and disguised it as professional training. In the end, the generations of Aboriginal children got neither a good education nor sufficient skills for a decently-paid job. The problem of underfunding was solved at the student’s expense — generations of Native children did unpaid, monotonous work, so the system that was destroying their future could survive.

The Roots of Physical and Mental Violence at Residential Schools

Residential schools had a notoriously strict discipline upheld through the harsh measures. The discipline exceeded the government’s guidelines even by the standards of the late 19th century when the saying “spare the rod and spoil the child” was popular in childhood education. Various forms of physical and mental punishment were liberally used to persecute the Aboriginal children for unacceptable behaviors. For instance, the Kamloops Indian Residential School graduates remembered getting strapped for such “violations” as chewing bubble gum or speaking their native language. The several days-long bread and water diet was another popular way of keeping the strict order. Such cruelty can hardly be justified even by understaffing, typical for residential schools.

However, the suffering of the Aboriginal students was not limited merely to physical violence. School staff frequently combined forms of corporal punishment with the public humiliation of children. For instance, the students were regularly undressed and strapped in front of their peers. A more severe form of public humiliation included complete head shaving so that other children could see the consequences of unacceptable behaviors for a long time. Overall, the level of disrespect to human dignity in residential schools was astonishing.

In this regard, one can wonder: why was the system so brutal to children if it was created to indoctrinate the Aboriginal youth into the Euro-Canadian lifestyle? Historiography gives a plausible answer: physical and mental violence was a cost-effective and important component of the destructive mechanism. The Canadian government did not intend to integrate the Aboriginals as proper citizens. On the contrary, the residential schools aimed at turning the Aboriginals into an obedient population group. From this perspective, physical violence and public humiliation perpetrated against many generations of young Aboriginals worked as intended. Combined with poor living conditions and aggressive assault on Indian identity, violence contributed to systemic destruction of Aboriginal civilization.


The historical contextualization of residential schools in Canada makes it possible to establish a link between past events and Aboriginal Canadians’ vulnerable status in the modern era. The Aboriginal children suffered from three types of oppression embedded into the residential school system design. Firstly, the system discredited the religious beliefs and cultural values of Native peoples so that the government could seize their lands. Secondly, the system exploited the unpaid labor of Aboriginal children and doomed them to a place in a lower social stratum. Lastly, the residential schools utilized physical and mental violence to deprive the Aboriginals of human dignity and self-respect. Non-Aboriginal Canadians must remember the painful lessons of history so oppressive policies cannot come back to life.

Residential Schools: A Summary

The dark legacy of residential schools for Aboriginal peoples is still haunting Canada. There is a direct linkage between the vulnerable status of the Aboriginal Canadians and the decades of cultural, socio-economic, physical, and mental oppression perpetrated by the residential school system. The non-Aboriginal Canadians must preserve the knowledge about the damage done by unfair, disrespectful, and discriminatory policies so that history cannot repeat itself in the future.

From the cultural perspective, the Canadian government conducted a relentless assault on the indigenous culture, religious beliefs, and values. Initially, the Aboriginals and White settlers lived in mutually beneficial relationships based on the fur trade. However, the Confederation took advantage of the Native nations as the settlers’ influence spread. Several generations of Aboriginal children were forced to abandon the “inferior” lifestyle of their ancestors.

In addition, the residential school system introduced socio-economic exploitation of Aboriginal children. The issue of chronic underfunding was resolved via unpaid child labor disguised as vocational training. Furthermore, the routine physical and mental violence against the residential school students resulted in intergenerational trauma for Aboriginals. Canada must remember the terrible mistakes of the past in order to prevent similar situations in the future.


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