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Residential Schools: Truth and Reconciliation in Canada

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Subject(s): Canadian History, Canadian Social Studies, Criminal Justice & Law, English, First Nations Studies, Geography, History, Social Studies
Grade Level: 9 - 12, Post Secondary

Indian Residential Schools are a part of our shared history in Canada. Prior to European contact, First Nations people had their own education system, governing system, beliefs and customs. While some positive alliances were established, the arrival of missionaries and others kicked off a systematic attack on the traditional customs and culture of native communites.

Through a series of government proclamations, acts and treaties, aboriginal groups across the country began to lose the land they depended on for survival. A major part of the treaty agreements was the establishment of a good education system for aboriginal children. As momentum for settlement of the west and the building of a national railway grew, so did the Canadian governments need to fulfill the obligations of these treaties.

In 1883, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald authorized the creation of three “industrial schools.” Thus began the misguided attempt “to kill the Indian in the child.” Between 1879 and 1986, at least 150,000 aboriginal children in Canada - almost a third of aboriginal children -were forcibly removed and placed into Indian Residential Schools. The assault on Aboriginal identity began the moment children took their first step across the school’s threshold. Their unique culture was stripped away tobe replaced with a foreign European identity. Their family ties were cut, clothes replaced, and children were prevented from returning home.

The telling of Canada’s history is not complete without this story. Some refer to it as a “cultural genocide.”Generations upon generations of aboriginal people have been affected by the abuse and horrors experienced in these schools.The Truth and Reconciliation Summary that was undertaken as an element of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement outlines 94 recommendations for achieving a full reconciliation between Canada’s nativeand non-native people’s.

Interweaving archival footage with poignant interviews, this video, accompanying resource material and bonusmaterial gives students, teachers and administrators an overview of the history and subsequent impact of residential schools in Canada - a timeline of events and crucial moments. It is the story of our first people. It is the story of their struggle to live in Canada. And it is a somewhat modern day story. Many of these people still live among us today. This program will help viewers begin to understand part of that story.

Educator's Package Includes:

Video, 32 page teacher's resource guide in digital format, complete with vocabulary list, viewing suggestions, numerous student activity sheets and event timeline. Also includes four BONUS segments:

  • Justice Murray Sinclair: Survivors Speak Out
  • Paul Martin: Power Play
  • Marie Wilson: Healing Decades - Old Wounds
  • The 60s Scoop

Running Time: 47
Country of Origin: Canada
Captions: CC
Producer: McIntyre Media Inc.
Copyright Date: 2015
Language: English

Additional Resources


  • No one knew before it-- the shared history that we do have as Canadians. And nobody knew about the Indian Residential Schools. And nobody knew about how dreadful an experience it was for all of those little children who went through those as schools. Now that we know this, many Canadians have expressed horror that in our beautiful country, this took place.
  • Indian Residential Schools are a part of our shared history-- a history that is not well understood by many Canadians. Prior to European contact, first nations people had their own education system and their own beliefs about how children learned. They also have their own form of government, health care, spirituality, and education.
  • Children were regarded as gifts from the creator and were treated with love and respect. And then the traditional ways of life and how to interact with nature. Much of what they learned was taught by adults as they all worked together in their community. Elders played a vital role as they demonstrated how to live according to traditional values and practices.
  • When Europeans began to arrive in North America in the 16th century, there were some positive alliances established. However, missionaries kicked off a systematic attack on the traditional religion, beliefs, and customs of native communities. This intensified when both French and British colonial governments took charge of Indian Affairs.
  • The Europeans also brought new diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles that decimated native populations. Long before Europeans arrived, aboriginal people were active traders and had well established trading patterns and alliances throughout North America. When the Europeans offered to trade metal tools, guns, cloth, and beads for furs, trade rapidly expanded, and fierce competition often lead to wars.
  • In 1763, a royal proclamation established British control of all of North America east of the Mississippi River. It was decreed that now only the British crown could deal with the Indians on land issues. From 1764 to 1923, a series of numbered treaties were signed by aboriginal groups. The Canadian government was anxious to settle the west and north and establish a national railroad.
  • Large tracts of land were seated to the crown in exchange for reserve lands, livestock, clothing, hunting and fishing rights, and the education for aboriginal children. The terms of these treaties were not always honored by the government. As more and more treaties were signed, aboriginal people found themselves forced to stay on reserve lands rather than follow their traditional, seasonal migratory roots.
  • Momentum begin to build for an education program that would fulfill treaty obligations. At the same time it would work to civilize, Christianize, and assimilate aboriginal children in the Canadian mainstream. When the British North America Act was passed in 1867, followed by the Indian Act nine years later, the Canadian government was required to provide aboriginal youth with an education.
  • The government pursued schooling as a means of making first nations people economically self sufficient. However, these schools were not the school's aboriginal leaders had envisioned. In 1879, Prime Minister John A. McDonald's sent member of Parliament, Nicholas Flood Davin to the US to meet with government officials and Native American leaders.
  • Davin submitted his report on industrious schools for Indians and half-breeds. This Davin report was the beginning of the residential school system in Canada. Davin had been persuaded by the Americans that day-schools on the reservations would not work, because the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school. This was not the first time residential schools had been mentioned.
  • Years earlier, in 1844, Governor General Sir Charles Bagot had also proposed the separation of children from their parents. And in his report on native education in 1847, Edgerton Ryerson, superintendent for education, reiterated this idea and also recommended that aboriginal education focus on religious instruction and agricultural training. In 1883, Prime Minister John A McDonald authorized the creation of three industrial schools-- two in Saskatchewan and one in Alberta.
  • During the next century, the federal government and churches developed an extensive system of residential schools. They were government funded and church-run they were usually over-crowded, underfunded, and unhealthy. By 1930, there were approximately 80 residential school scattered across the country. Most were in the Western provinces and the territories, but there were also significant numbers in Ontario and Northern Quebec.
  • Only Nova Scotia had residential schools in the Atlantic provinces. The last residential school closed in 1996 surprisingly recently. The government believed aboriginal children should learn English or French and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. They didn't think that the aboriginal culture was important in the modern world. They hoped that native traditions and culture would eventually disappear.
  • The government believed children were easier to mold than adults, so they set up this system of schools. Education was to serve as a means of assimilation. If children were removed from the influence of their family and community, they could be assimilated into Canadian culture. The essential structure of traditional family, community, language, values, and spirituality was taken from them.
  • At least 150,000 aboriginal children, almost a third of aboriginal Canadians, were forcibly separated from their parents and communities. They spent most of their childhood years in these institutions where native languages and cultures were prohibited. Some of these schools were hundreds of kilometers away from their homes. In announcing the plan, Prime Minister John A. McDonald told the House of Commons, when the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his 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. This statement provides an eye-opening glimpse into the prejudice thinking of Canadians of European origin at that time.
  • If we think about how we came to the situation in a country which most of us are still just learning about-- we came here because a Canadian laws and Canadian policies, which aboriginal people had absolutely no say in. And those laws and policies, among other things, apart from creating the reserves and the Indian Act, and all of the restrictions that are built into those things, they created structure and obligations for these residential schools and for children to go there.
  • And so everything that flow out of that-- the good things, but also the things that have created problems and a legacy-- that belongs to all of us.
  • This is one of the stuff straps that was used to inflict punishment on the students here. I remember getting strapped myself. And he asked me how many times I wanted to be strapped. I had a choice. I believe I could only stand five. The assault on aboriginal identity began the moment children took their first steps across the school's threshold.
  • If caught speaking their native language, children would be severely punished. They were usually inadequately housed and fed. Once at school, they were separated by age and gender, and rarely had contact with brothers and sisters. Braided hair, which often had spiritual significance, was cut.
  • My older brother had three braids. And when they cut his braids-- oh, he cried. Embroidered clothing and moccasins were taken from them. New names were given. Former students of residential schools have spoken of horrendous abuse at the hands of residential school staff, including physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse.
  • It brought up flashbacks, and things that I remember that I hadn't thought about for a long time.
  • At first, I didn't understand where they were taking me.
  • It took me away from my parents.
  • I gave up thinking about my brothers and sisters.
  • At an early age, you lose your identity, you lose your culture. Residential schools provided aboriginal students with an inferior education, often only up to grade five.
  • It focused on training students for manual labor and agriculture, light industry such as woodworking, and domestic work such as laundry and sowing. Their education ensured that students could not participate socially or economically in a broader Canadian society, but it also prevented them from fitting into their traditional ways of life.
  • I was looking at [INAUDIBLE], very homesick knowing that we were still there another year.
  • The legacy and impact of residential schooling endures. Its policies and practices have had a devastating effect on individuals, families, and communities.
  • Being called a stupid Indian. You'll be always stupid. You're dumb.
  • The children who returned home brought with them the results of the various abuses they had experienced. That has impacted their families and communities for generations. Those who attended residential school, or those who have family that attended the schools tell a similar story in their personal narratives.
  • It was the most unsafe feeling I had in residential school-- knowing that I won't get to see my parents, my grandma.
  • They recollections reveal a dehumanizing experience marked by isolation, hunger, hypocrisy, the obliteration of Indian culture, and many forms of abuse. Countless students emerge from the schools as lost souls. Since the last residential school closed in 1996, former students have pressed for recognition and restitution.
  • In 1986, Canadian churches began to apologize to aboriginal people, and the government responded with Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2007. It was the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history. A formal public apology from the government was made on June 11, 2008, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons and apologized to these victims on behalf of all Canadians.
  • Mister Speaker, I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential school is a sad chapter in our history.
  • He said the policy was a misguided attempt to assimilate the children into the dominant culture and to kill the Indian in the child, as Canada's first Prime Minister John A. McDonald had said.
  • When people get the impact that we suffered through residential schools and the Indian Act and the cultural genocide, they'll be more open and tuned to bring about real reconciliation. One of the elements of the settlement agreement was the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its findings have been shocking, detail in history even worse than most people imagined.
  • As many as, and perhaps more than 6,000 aboriginal children may have died in these schools.
  • Well there is at least one, if not two or more provisions in the United Nations Convention on genocide that might be applicable to the situation involving residential schools in this country.
  • Between 2009 and 2015, the commission listened to 7,000 people from across Canada. As they told their stories about life in residential schools, the history residential school abuse at the hands of churches and the government is now permanently recorded in this report.
  • They made me scratch my fingers till they bled, because I was dark skinned.
  • I was strapped so severely that when we went to supper, my cousin Ivan had to feed me, because my hands were so swollen.
  • When I was growing up, they tried to knock off the Indianness within us. We were not valid.
  • 30 of those years I splintered into a drunken haze, partly because I wanted to forget what happened.
  • It's just a story for First Nations people, it's a story basically for Canadians.
  • The mandate of the report is to inform all Canadians about what happened in these schools.
  • To share our stories-- to say something that many of you may take for granted who are still here-- we made it.
  • The report was released on June 2, 2015, with 94 recommendations for achieving a full reconciliation between Canada's native and non-native peoples. Justice Marie Sinclair, chair of the commission, introduced the commission's summary report and recommendations and called for changes in policy and programs, as well as commemoration through education and memorials.
  • The truth and reconciliation commission released its long awaited report today, and 94 recommendations for Ottawa, among them, monuments in every province, so what happened is never forgotten. Guarantees on education and health standards equal to the rest of the country, and an immediate reduction in the number of First Nations children in foster care.
  • Collective efforts from all peoples are necessary to revitalize the relationship between aboriginal peoples and Canadian society.
  • Reconciliation is the goal. It is a goal that will take the commitment of multiple generations, and it will make for a better, stronger Canada.
  • It's really extremely important that we restore respectful relationships among each other so that we can have a better Canada at the end of this journey.
  • This is just the beginning of the continuation.
  • What does reconciliation look like? According to Sinclair, reconciliation is always about relationships. It's about bringing balance to the relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. At an individual level, people often ask, what can I do? Sinclair's answer to that is always, look at how you believe, and how you behave, and how you think, and change that.
  • Words are not enough, Sinclair said, to address the cultural genocide that residential schools caused in aboriginal communities.
  • You can feel a sadness in here and the pain. This is one of the main rooms that was used to beat the kids. And people can hear the kids screaming from here.
  • Aboriginal leaders, church representatives, and government all acknowledge that this is just the beginning of the healing process. There's much more to be done by all of us in the years ahead.
  • And I think that with having discovered this truth that survivors who have wandered the [INAUDIBLE] for so long, Canadians are beginning to hear this story, and it's going to be the basis going forward for having mutual dialogue with each other creating deep understanding, that hopefully will lead to transformative relationships based on mutual respect. It's a really important moment in our history.

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