Residential education was at the centre of the federal government’s policy of assimilation of First Nations peoples. Residential schools were first established by religious communities, before Confederation. However, in the 1880s, the federal government decided that these schools would become the model for Aboriginal children’s education and began funding them. In 1897 attendance became compulsory. The government began closing schools in the 1960s, but continued to operate some as residences or hostels. The last school closed in late 1996.
Compulsory attendance at residential schools meant First Nations children were removed from their homes and communities. The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples characterized the process this way: “Aboriginal languages, customs and habits of mind were suppressed. The bonds between many hundreds of Aboriginal children and their families and nations were bent and broken, with disastrous results.”1 As Trent University professor John Malloy states in A National Crime, the concept was violent and abusive in its intent.
The schools were desperately underfunded, which led to a level of care and education far below an acceptable standard. Many students were physically and sexually abused by school administrators and staff. A lack of medical care and sanitation led to disease and death.
In the 1980s students began disclosing the abuse they had experienced at residential schools. By the late 1990s they had begun to launch lawsuits against the churches and the federal government. A settlement agreement included compensation for residential school survivors and provided for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As well, on June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology on behalf of the federal government.2 He apologized to former students, their families, and communities for both the excesses of residential schools and the creation of the system itself.
2. The full text of the Prime Minister's apology can be found at ainc-inac.gc.ca/ai/rqpi/apo/index-eng.asp.