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Residential Schools: Canada's Great Shame

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In May 2021, the remains of 215 children were discovered in a mass grave outside a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. This was the latest evidence of the appalling treatment received by Native People at the hands of the Canadian government. A number of similar reports were made over the following months, and there will likely be further grisly discoveries in the years to come.

Children's shoes, stuffed toys, and flowers form a memorial to the 215 children who died in a residential school in Kamloops.

Children's shoes, stuffed toys, and flowers form a memorial to the 215 children who died in a residential school in Kamloops.

Residential School Background

Many atrocities against Indigenous People were committed by colonial powers in various parts of the world. Canada, a country that prides itself on inclusiveness, tolerance, non-violence, and humility, is as guilty of human rights abuses as those countries painted as villains.

For more than 140 years, the country embarked on a systematic program of forced assimilation of Native People into the Eurocentric society. One mechanism was the residential school system; 139 such institutions were built. The first were operated by Methodist missionaries in the 1850s and the last one did not close until 1996.

It's thought that 150,000 children passed through the residential schools and former Canadian Senator and Aboriginal Murray Sinclair estimates as many as 25,000 died while in the care of these institutions.

Students and staff of a residential school.

Students and staff of a residential school.

Sir John A. Macdonald Founded Residential Schools

Born in Scotland, Sir John A. Macdonald was the leading politician in the campaign to make Canada an independent country rather than being a colony of Great Britain. In 1867, the Dominion of Canada was created and Macdonald became the country's first prime minister. As such he has been held in high regard by Canadians, but not so much in recent years.

In 1883, Macdonald rose in the House of Commons and gave a speech that raised no eyebrows at the time. It is a classic of the paternalistic view of the white community that it was their destiny to “civilize” the First Nations people of Canada.

“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

So, the schools were set up, the children taken from their parents, and taught how to be good little white folk.

This statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island has been removed in the wake of the discovery of children's remains in Kamloops.

This statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island has been removed in the wake of the discovery of children's remains in Kamloops.

Residential School Run by Religious Orders

Canada's government sub-contracted the operation of the residential schools to Christian churches. Sixty percent of the schools were operated by the Roman Catholic Church, 25 percent by the Anglican Church, and the rest by Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

Most of the schools were in Western Canada, but there were some in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces.

Here's The Canadian Encyclopedia: “The attempt to assimilate children began upon their arrival at the schools: their hair was cut (in the case of the boys), and they were stripped of their traditional clothes and given new uniforms. In many cases they were also given new names.”

Students were forced to accept Christianity and abandon their Indian spirituality. They were punished, sometimes severely, for speaking their native languages.

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Students spent half the day in classrooms learning the three Rs. The rest of the day was spent working as a way to help the finances of the schools. The education was mostly limited to the elementary level and was dispensed by teachers who had little or no qualifications for the job.

Abuse of the Children

(Warning: What follows may prove difficult for some people)

This is testimony from residential school survivors:

  • “They used to give us shock treatments for bedwetting . . . They used to bring in a battery—a motor of some sort or some kind of gadget, and he’d put the girl’s hand on it and it would jerk us and it would go all the way through us from end to end—it would travel. And we would do that about three times” Lorna, Mohawk Institute, Ontario.
  • “I wasn’t even allowed to talk to my brothers, and I had three brothers there. Two of those brothers committed suicide. Yeah, it really hurt not to be able to, and I couldn’t even talk to my sister . . . It was really lonely not having my mom, and not having my brothers or my sister.” Beverley Anne Machelle, St. George's School, British Columbia.
  • “I was thrown into a cold shower every night, sometimes after being raped” Sue Caribou, Guy Hill institution, Manitoba.

“The line between punishment and abuse was frequently crossed. Many in the schools’ administrations believed that the students’ independent spirit had to be broken in order for them to accept a new way of life”


  • “A sister, a nun started talking to me in English and French, and yelling at me. I did not speak English, and didn’t understand what she, what she was asking. She got very upset, and started hitting me all over my body, hands, legs, and back. I began to cry, yell, and became very scared, and this infuriated her more. She got a black strap and hit me some more” Marcel Guiboche, Pine Creek School, Manitoba.
  • “There was no support, no one to tell that this is all happening in this building. A lot of girls must have experienced it, what the priest was doing and you’re not to tell anybody. I always hate that priest and then I had to live like that for two years, even though I didn’t want to. It’s like I had no choice, put myself in that situation. Him, putting his hand underneath my dress, feeling me up, I felt so disgusted. Even though I didn’t have no words for what I was feeling” Clara Quisess, St. Anne's Residential School, Ontario.
Study time at Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.

Study time at Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories.

Genocide in Canada

In 1904, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce was appointed Chief Medical Officer of the Department of the Interior with responsibility for First Nations people. He compared the death rates of children in residential schools with those of children in the general population. What he discovered was that between 1892 and 1908, the death rate among Aboriginal children in the schools was 18.6 times higher than among Canadian children not in the schools.

In May 2015, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin addressed the issue of the residential schools.

Justice McLachlin gave her opinion that what happened in the residential schools amounted to “cultural genocide.” She called the treatment of Aboriginal children “The most glaring blemish on the Canadian historic record relates to our treatment of the First Nations that lived here at the time of colonization.”

Then, she added “The objective—I quote from Sir John A. Macdonald, our revered forefather—was to 'take the Indian out of the child,' and thus solve what was referred to as the Indian problem. 'Indianness' was not to be tolerated; rather it must be eliminated. In the buzz-word of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.”

A rather sad little group of residential school children holding letters that spell “Goodbye.”

A rather sad little group of residential school children holding letters that spell “Goodbye.”

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued 94 “calls to action” with regard to the residential schools and the effects they had on former students. As of this writing—June 2021—fewer than a dozen have been fully implemented.
  • Officially, 6,000 children died while in the “care” of residential schools. Some died as a result of illnesses that were not properly treated. Some took their own lives because they found the conditions intolerable. Some died from injuries sustained in beatings. And, some died when they ran away and exposure to bad weather took them. It will never be known exactly how many children lost their lives. In 1920, the government stopped collecting data because the number of fatalities was so alarming.
  • “Catholic entities, which ran the majority of these schools, have still not shared historical records, estimated to be in the thousands, with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), despite years of efforts to obtain them and a long-standing obligation to provide them” (Tavia Grant, Globe and Mail, June 2021).


  • “Residential Schools in Canada.” J.R. Miller, Canadian Encyclopedia, June 1, 2021.
  • “John A. Macdonald Was the Real Architect of Residential Schools.” Sean Carleton, Toronto Star, July 9, 2017.
  • “Punishment and Abuse.”, undated.
  • “Canada Confronts its Dark History of Abuse in Residential Schools.” Mali Ilse Paquin, The Guardian, June 6, 2015.
  • “The Survivors Speak” A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015.
  • “Chief Justice Says Canada Attempted ‘Cultural Genocide’ on Aboriginals.” Sean Fine, The Globe and Mail, May 28, 2015.
  • “Catholic Church Ran Most of Canada’s Residential Schools, yet Remains Largely Silent About Their Devastating Legacy.” Tavia Grant, Globe and Mail, June 5, 2021.
  • “Dr. Peter Bryce (1853–1932): Whistleblower on Residential Schools.” Cindy Blackstock et al, Canadian Medical Association Journal, March 2, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 08, 2021:

That's shameful and awful.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on June 08, 2021:

Rupert I saw on the news when the found the remains. This is a terrible tragedy. Similarly in Australia, aboriginal children were taken from their parents, especially if they had pale skin, put into schools run by the church, and later adopted out to white families (often never to see their natural families again) so they could assimilate into accepted society. We now call this “The Stolen Generation.”

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 08, 2021:

I came back to watch the videos when I got home from work today. The stories of the survivors and especially the children of the survivors made my bones chill. The quotes that were included in that video are beyond my comprehension. How can anyone want to eradicate a tribe or any group of people (think Hitler and the Jews) because they have different ways of living, of worship? What galls me is the global movement today is to go back to the land. To cultivate it. To nurture it. To respect it. Isn't that what Indians have done all along?

When Mike Loft said that his father went back to the residential school at age 16 because he couldn't relate to his people, well I can't even find the words for how that affected me. The daughter who has never known her language and is ashamed of her people... that's just wrong and a sacrilege to her heritage and so much more.

Mr. Happy, if you're reading this, I know how you've been welcomed into the Indigenous People because of your beliefs, efforts, and willingness to fight for their rights. I applaud you and admire you more than you'll ever know. I also love that you pretty much live the life of the native. I don't know anything about Romania, but my French teacher in high school was from Romania. She was a lawyer there. When she came to America she could no longer practice law because of her immigration status and was reduced to teaching high school French. So sad. It must have been unbearable in her home country for her to embark on such a journey and accept the reduced parameters within which she had to live in order to escape Hell.

I've often said if America is the best country in the world in which to live, the world is a pretty f&%^ed up place.

Again, Rupert, kudos to you for posting this article. It needs to be read, spread, heard, and acted upon.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 08, 2021:

As I remarked to another commenter, the mistreatment of Indigenous People in Canada has been going on for a long time. I see little evidence that, apart from the hand-wringing and pious statements, those with the power to do something substantial will actually act decisively.

After numerous pleas to do so, several Popes have not been able to bring themselves to apologize for the horrific mistreatment of children in Catholic-run schools.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 08, 2021:

This story appeared in my local paper this past Sunday. I was absolutely appalled. I don't understand the extreme prejudice and why White Man has always felt so superior to Indigenous People. My ancestors on my mom's side are Cherokee, so I've always felt a kinship to Indians and rightly so; their blood runs thru my veins.

Thanks for writing this article, Rupert. This disrespect, mistreatment, abuse, and warfare must come to a stop!

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on June 08, 2021:

You know, this " I've been writing similar stories since the 1970s" really hit home here. I do not like it one bit, to be perfectly plain.

Roughly ten years ago, or a bit less, I was sitting in Mr. Bob Rae's office, on Parliament St. showing him photographs I had taken in Attawapiskat, Ontario (the Cree fly-in community, up on James Bay) when he said: "I was up there in the 80s ... nothing's changed." I was stunned!

This only emboldens me though. The more outrageous the situation becomes, the more extreme the reaction will be. From a personal experience, when the situation in Romania became so extreme, people all went-out on the street and the dictatorship fell. I was there and lived through that. Thus, I believe change is always possible and if it hasn't arrived yet, then we just have to fight harder.

All the best!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 06, 2021:

Sadly, Mr. Happy I've been writing similar stories since the 1970s. Every time a ghastly event is revealed there is Oh-my-gosh reaction and this-is-a-wake-up-call. Then the snooze button is hit.

I hope this time will be different but experience suggests that after the hand-wringing is done we will return to normal.

It's no use saying it all happened in the past so it's not my fault. It is our/my fault, because the abuse of Native children has been known about for decades and we have done nothing about it.

And still there are scores of reserves that have inadequate housing and undrinkable water.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 06, 2021:

The treatment met out to all the native children is what I now called white wickedness. It is child abuse in the form of religion. The picture obviously on comparison, the white man's number one colonial mission is to steal the natives and they land, and not to export education or religion, or commerce. Let justice be done in all such cases world wide.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on June 06, 2021:

Thank You for this article, Mr. Rupert. I appreciate it.

It is no secret I lobby for the First Nations. I also have carried the Ganienkeh Flag for over ten years now. There is no stopping until the truth comes out and until the wrongs are righted. Then, we'll be at peace. For now, the battle is still on and on many fronts: from the need to recognize unceded territories, to treaty rights, to self-governance and so on.

All the best to You and once again: Chi Miigwetch! (Big Thank You!)

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