Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at                        1-866-925-4419.

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’” 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, 2015

The personal and historical trauma of residential schools lives on in Canada. As survivors look to heal, with whom does the blame lie: with the government who funded the schools, with the churches who ran them, or with the living individuals that perpetuated the crimes? The impact of residential schools can be measured, at least in part: An estimated 150,000 children were separated from their families between the 1840s and the 1920s; Estimated total of 4,100 dead, yet indigenous leaders estimate 6,000 dead, especially after gruesome discoveries including two hundred fifteen bodies, some as young as three, found in British Columbia’s Kamloops Indian Residential School, which closed only in 1976; One thousand one hundred unmarked graves. Before fully understanding who is liable for what, it is important to understand whether the residential schools were ever legal and whether the schools were operating under their legal purview. 

A brief history of residential schools 

“…[I]f anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions.” 

– Nicholas Flood Davin, Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, 1879

Canada took on the responsibility of managing indigenous people and the land granted to them from the Crown upon confederation in 1867. At that time, the Canadian government gave grants to church-run missionary schools, which would later evolve into industrial schools and eventually into residential schools aimed at assimilating indigenous children. Funding for these schools came from the paltry budget of the Department of Indian Affairs established in 1880. Other than residential schools, the Department of Indian Affairs’s role was to negotiate treaties with tribes in the Prairies, hold indigenous land in trust, and subsidize the lost way of survival for many indigenous people after the disappearance of the buffalo. Prime Minister Macdonald, who tasked the Department to begin the schools, cut the Department’s budget that same year, leaving little to fund the expansive project. Meanwhile, indigenous people already had their own means of education appropriate for their culture and way of life. These traditional practices were not considered when designing residential schools given the goal of Euro-Canadian assimilation. A major component of indigenous education, as observed by missionaries, was the educational role of parents to children; missionaries often made note of the close bond between parents and their children which seemed consistent across many different tribes and ways of life.

Funding became the recurring issue amongst the schools. Despite having sanctioned the schools, the Canadian government failed to provide funding to feed and care for the children. A lawyer who reviewed the schools in 1907 told the government that  “[d]oing nothing to obviate the preventable causes of death, brings the Department within unpleasant nearness to the charge of manslaughter.” Yet in 1913, Deputy Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs wrote: “It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education, which they had received therein.” 

Statistically, disease was the primary killer in residential schools. Tuberculosis and influenza appear to have been the most common diseases. However, record-keeping was poor, and abuse was common. The conditions within the schools were partly a result of poor funding, and partly the result of the abuse experienced by the children. However, this abuse would have exacerbated any unhygienic conditions leading to illness or disease. It is therefore difficult to say with certainty what truly was the primary killer: illness or abuse.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church operated most of the residential schools, with the peak at 60 percent of schools being operated by the Church. The next largest operator was the Anglican Church, operating about 25 percent of the schools. The rest of the schools were operated by the United Church, about 15 percent, and the Presbyterian Church, 2 or 3 percent of the schools. Additionally, a United States-based Baptist church ran one school in the Yukon, and a Mennonite evangelical congregation operated three schools in northwestern Ontario. As such, the nuns and priests were the primary educators and caregivers of the children at these residential schools. Funding may have crippled efforts to provide sufficient food and housing, yet the abuse experienced by the children at the hands of their caregivers was, arguably, not linked to funding but rather the colonial and racist idea that these children were less than human, as evidenced by the traumatic memories of the survivors.

How has Canada responded?

“Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

– Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, 1920

In 2007, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history commenced, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. In addition to monetary restitution for residential school survivors and their families, the Agreement also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to research and record the lasting legacy of residential schools. The TRC completed its report in 2015 and concluded that Canada had committed cultural genocide against the indigenous, the Metis, and the Inuit people of Canada. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology on behalf of Canada to former students of residential schools. 

As part of the TRC’s conclusions, it issued 94 Calls to Action. According to an analysis by the Yellowhead Institute, a First-Nation run research center, as of 2019 only nine of those actions had been completed by either the government, churches, or non-profits. 

How have the churches responded?

“…[V]arious types of abuse experienced at some residential schools have moved us to a profound examination of conscience as a Church.”

-Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Brief submitted to Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1993

In the 1990s, the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches issued apologies for their roles in the residential schools. But the TRC and Prime Minister Trudeau have called for an apology from the Vatican which has yet to be issued even in light of the recent discoveries of unmarked graves. The Argentinian Pope Francis asked for forgiveness from the indigenous people of Bolivia and from Chilean victims of abuse at the hands of the Church, and for the role of the Church in the Rwandan genocide. However, Pope Francis has only expressed “sadness” in regards to the role of the Catholic Church in residential schools.

The official stance of the Catholic Church is that each Diocese is a separate entity and that the Vatican is not responsible for the actions of individual Diocese; therefore the apology, according to the Church, should come from the local Diocese. But the indigenous people of Canada have specifically requested an apology from the Pope for the church’s role in running up to sixty percent of all residential schools. It is not beyond imagination or reason that at least some of the avoidance to apologize stems from fears of the Church having to take on legal responsibility for the residential schools, especially given the standard the Canadian government has set for monetary relief. Some local Catholic leaders have issued apologies, such as the Ottawa-Cornwall Archbishop Marcel Damphousse, yet even the Archbishop urged the Pope to issue a formal apology. 

Regardless, Canadians are already building cases to pursue criminal charges against the Canadian government and the Catholic Church under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. Successful litigation would further affirm to the estimated 80,000 survivors that the abuses they experienced were, and forever will be, unacceptable in a modern and tolerant society.

To learn more about individual experiences with residential schools, visit the Collection of Survivor Statements

Author Biography: Danielle Barnes-Smith is a deputy moderator-in-chief for the International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) at The George Washington University Law School. She is a JD candidate at The George Washington University Law School and has a degree of Master Public Administration from the University of Montana.