Residential Schools in Canada

By Ann C. Macaulay CM MD FCFP FCAHS FRCPC (Hon)

Family Physician in Kahnawá:ke, Quebec and Professor of Family Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Students of the Metlakatla Indian Residential School, B.C. William James Topley. Library and Archives Canada, C-015037.

One of the dark chapters of Canadian history is that of the Residential Schools. These schools were started by the Canadian government in the 1800’s to forcibly remove young Indigenous children from their families, place them in residential schools, which were often far from home, for 10 months of the year. The schools were run by the Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and Roman Catholic churches, ostensibly to better educate Indigenous children for better employment. But the real overarching goal was assimilation of Indigenous peoples by removing the children, starting as young as 6 years of age, from the influences of their families, culture, spiritual beliefs, and language, and to indoctrinate them into Christian and Euro Canadian ways. As a government official infamously stated – the system was designed ‘To kill the Indian in the child.’ It is estimated that 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their families, and that the school conditions of cold buildings, poor nutrition, influenza and tuberculosis and children trying to escape from the schools in remote places caused as many as 6000 deaths. Some schools suffered death rates up to 60% of children and some schools were even built with accompanying cemeteries. Some children were victims of atrocious nutritional and vaccine experiments. The last residential school only closed in 1996.

For a long time, Canada remained ignorant of these schools. Although I was a family physician working in the Mohawk Indigenous community of Kahnawá:ke, I too was ignorant. Indigenous peoples did not talk about them until 1990, when the Obijway leader Phil Fontaine became one of the first people to speak publicly about the physical, psychological, and repeated sexual abuse he received while incarcerated in a residential school. “In my grade three class… if there were 20 boys, every single one of them… would have experienced what I experienced”.

In 1997 Phil Fontaine was first elected as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations which is a national advocacy organisation representing the 634 First Nation communities and 900,000 First Nation citizens of Canada – a position he held until 2009. In this position he successfully negotiated with the Federal government to fund the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which in 2007 resulted in significant funds being made available to compensate survivors and fund programs – both traditional and western based – to facilitate healing. This settlement also launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to fully evaluate the experiences in and damages resulting from the residential schools.  He also negotiated for a national apology, which took place on June 11th 2008, when prime minister Steven Harper made an official apology to Indigenous peoples of Canada with the words “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country”. Today these words sound very hollow because former Senator Murray Sinclair, who was Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recently said that the Harper government refused to provide additional funds to investigate the stories of unexplained deaths and missing children – such as those bodies now being recovered from the sites of many former residential schools across Canada.

Bentwood medicine box used by TRC Canada, by Coast Salish carver Luke Marston.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission included hearings across the country open to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. These hearings offered residential school survivors the opportunity to tell of their experiences either in public or in private. These hearings included endless testimonies of horrendous abuse of the children at the hands of the priests and nuns who ran the schools. Children were not allowed to speak their languages, siblings were separated and not allowed to speak to each other, rules were strictly enforced with cruel punishments. Harsh physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse by both priests and nuns was rampant. Their stories of survival have all been saved in a specially carved wooden bentwood box, now on display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

The stories also included descriptions of fellow students who after release from the schools had died after turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of the memories. They also told of having no sense of self worth, of great anger, having difficulties in making and keeping relationships, of struggling to parent because they themselves had never experienced love, praise, or respect. This has all resulted in the multigenerational trauma where the effects of the residential schools have passed down through Indigenous families and communities. Survivors also spoke about the challenges of healing from these childhood experiences and how many years of struggle it took to find any level of peace. Often the best healing practices came from traditional healers and medicine men, traditional ceremonies of burning sweet grass and cedar, of sweat lodges and spending time with elders.

After Phil Fontaine told of his experience, some of my patients – for the very first time – told me about their Residential School experiences. It was very humbling for me, when I thought that I knew my patients quite well, to hear of their horrible experiences of being made to scrub endless floors, of the beatings with straps and buckles, psychological and sexual abuse, of always being hungry and of not really learning how to read or write very well. The numbers of children taken away in Kahnawá:ke was much fewer than many communities, but the churches that ran the day schools in the community were very strict, so children had not escaped the Christian indoctrination and strict environments. My admiration grew daily learning how everyone had first endured and then overcome these horrors to cope the best they could after they had been released.

About 20 years later, when I had been invited to start the Indigenous Health Curriculum at McGill University that became mandatory for all medical students across the country, I heard more stories.  Brave residential school survivors from Kahnawá:ke and other communities were willing to risk re-traumatisation of themselves to educate the medical students about their experiences and their healing journeys. Although very painful they also found it sometimes helped them in their healing – knowing that they were making future doctors aware of this dark Canadian history. At the end of the class the speakers were always surrounded by students wanting to express their sincere gratitude, and the evaluations were almost universally positive- “One of my greatest learning experiences in medical school.”

Canada should do so much more for Indigenous peoples – including supporting all the requests   for further investigations of the Residential Schools and implementing all ninety-four recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Calls to Action.

This article is based, with permission, on an earlier one published in The Townships Sun, Quebec, Canada Vol 48. No.8, June 2021.