IRS History

On June 11, 2008, Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, delivered an Apology in Parliament for the Canadian government’s involvement in the Indian residential school system that operated in Canada for more than a century, from the 1840s through 1996. This apology came in the wake of the settlement to the largest class-action law suit in Canadian history, brought by former students and survivors of the schools against the federal government and the churches who operated the schools for address of the abuses they suffered within this system.

Beginning in 1884, attendance at the schools became compulsary for children legally defined as “Indians” under Canadian law. Children were often removed from their families and communities by force and many spent their entire childhoods in the schools, where they suffered many forms of abuse, including systemic malnutrition, harsh physical punishment, sexual abuse, and routinely degrading treatment. The nominal mission of the schools to educate was dominated by the explicit intent to destroy the children’s connection to their families and communities, disrupt the transmission of traditional cultural knowledge, practices, and values, and replace them with mainstream and Christian thinking and values—training for assimilation into a society in which they would never be equals. In reality, many left the schools traumatized and unable to either return to their home communities or establish functional lives in the cities to which they migrated. The result for many was life on the streets, and reliance on alcohol and drugs to contend with traumatic memories of abuse.

The schools were routinely overcrowded, underfunded, and rife with disease, and many children, weakened by malnutrition, did not survive. Mortality rates in some schools at times were in excess of 60%. Families were often not informed of children’s deaths, only to find out about them years later as other children returned. These conditions and the abuses happening within the schools were documented at various times in government reports (e.g., the 1907 Bryce report), and yet nothing was done.

Following WWII, as Canada joined international agreements regarding such things as human rights and research ethics and eventually became an international leader in these fields, the schools and such practices as repeated sexual exploitation by workers, other students, and, at times, those in highest positions of authority in the schools continued.Mosby, Ian. “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952.” Histoire sociale/Social history, vol. 46 no. 1, 2013, pp. 145-172. Project MUSE, Recently, documentation of government sponsored research, in which university-trained researchers exploited the schools as reliable sites of persistent malnutrition for longitudinal studies, has come to light. The researchers and government officials knew, they studied, and yet they did nothing. Survivors frequently recount the experience of being desperately hungry throughout their entire childhoods.

Those who survived the schools and returned to their communities often had difficulties communicating with elders, since most lost the ability to speak the languages spoken in the community—the fulfillment of an explicit aim of the schools. Children who had spent their entire childhood in the schools returned with no parenting skills or experience of family life, and many were unable to show emotion or tolerate human touch. They were often not able to express affection, care for their own children, or protect them from the forms of abuse that had been perpetrated on them. This form of intergenerational trauma has had devastating effects in many families and communities that persist to this day and has made the process of recovery from the more than hundred-year history of the schools prolonged and difficult.


A pivotal moment came on October 30, 1990, when Saskatchewan Chief Phil Fontaine spoke out on national media about the abuses he and others experienced, and about his own subsequent actions. You can view this remarkable interview on the CBC website. Fontaine later served, for many years, as the national leader of the Assembly of First Nations. By speaking so publicly, he opened the way for many others to speak.

One of the most lasting effects of the schools and the systems of which they were a part was a profound silence that only recently has begun to be broken. Students returning to communities or migrating to cities were very often unable to talk about their experiences, or, when they tried to, were not met with belief or much willingness to hear. Many felt unable to talk because of the shame they felt in reaction to the abuses they experienced. The personal silences they endured were replicated at every level of social policy. The Indian Act of 1884 also prohibited all expressions of Indigenous culture, and especially all forms of spiritual or political practice, and prohibited Indigenous people appearing in public in traditional clothing, gathering for political purposes, or seeking legal redress against the government. These policies were designed to make Indigenous people effectively invisible. These restrictions continued until 1951, when they were partially lifted, and many other aspects of the Indian Act continue to this day as elements of Canadian law and policy, though there are currently signs that that may begin to change.

The silence surrounding the Indian residential schools, Indigenous culture, and the experiences of Indigenous people extended to the Canadian educational systems as well. Until very recently, almost nothing in primary or secondary school curricula addressed Indigenous history or contemporary circumstances in any form, and in advanced education, with some notable exceptions, very little addressed them in meaningful ways that did not reinforce highly prejudicial ways of thinking. For much of the twentieth century, while training the teachers, church leaders, government officials, and politicians who operated the schools, universities were effectively closed to Indigenous students, who, having attended the residential schools, would have had little chance of academic success.

That silence is a profound legacy that has left most Canadians with very little information with which to interpret contemporary events in an informed way. In the absence of accurate information and better ways of understanding, as a society, we are left with the formulations of the past—exactly the unconscious ways of thinking that produced and allowed for the Indian residential schools. Though the Indian residential school system closed completely in 1994, without conscious and deliberate effort to acknowledge and understand the history and find adequate language and ways of thinking to address it, as a society, we have only the legacy of ways of thinking that produced and allowed those systems to continue. This is a situation that we can and must address.

The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada concluded in 2015 with an extensive Final Report, and with the statement of 94 Calls to Action, and this work has provided a way for many people to begin to approach this complex history and think about actions to be taken in the present, and the prospects for the future. For the more than five years of its operation, the TRC held hearings and events throughout Canada in which former students and survivors testified about their experiences, and formed an extensive set of records. Though some of those records are encumbered in the complex legalities of restitution processes and may never be shared, many were made publicly and will be made available, and the TRC was able to gather many other forms of documentation. Those will be made available through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation established by the TRC in Winnipeg as part of its mandate, and through other centres, such as the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC. They will give people access to the history of the schools, and of the emergence of the activist movements among survivors that resulted in this history coming to light. They are a resource for everyone.

Although the history of the Indian residential school system is among the darkest in Canada, its documentation does provide a way for all Canadians and others who come here to understand what has happened in Canada, and to join in the process of rebuilding our practices, relationships, and country in far better terms. The history recounted on this page is just a preliminary view, and there is much more to be considered and understood. Please visit our Resources page for more information about the ongoing legacy of residential schools in Canada.