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Overview. About residential schools

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The arrival of Europeans to North and South America marked a major change in Native society. Millions died due to sickness, programs of slavery, and extermination. 1 Europeans and their missionaries generally looked upon Native Spirituality as worthless superstition inspired by the Christian devil, Satan. 

"During the colonial period, the 650 aboriginal nations in Canada were relegated to reserves, usually in isolated, unproductive regions of the country. Native populations declined drastically until the 1940s, languages were lost, and traditional ceremonies were outlawed."

Native spirituality was actively suppressed by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Spiritual leaders ran the risk of jail sentences of up to 30 years for simply practicing their religious rituals. This came to an end in the U.S. when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 was passed (later amended in 1994). 3,4 Canadian Natives obtained a guarantee of religious freedom with the rest of Canadians in 1982 when the Canadian Charter of rights and Freedoms was passed.

During the late 19th century and much of the 20th century, the Canadian and American governments goal for their Native populations was assimilation. Sometimes this is referred to contemptuously as "Making apples" -- changing the culture and religion of Native peoples so that they become "white" on the inside, even as their skin remained red. The goal was to force Natives to disappear within the larger, predominately white, society. A key component of this policy were the residential schools, which were operated for over a century, from 1879 -- shortly after Confederation -- to 1986. About 160,000 Native students passed through the school system. About 91,000 claim that they were physically and/or sexually abused. 5

The end result of various assimilation processes can be seen in the current mental health of First Nations people. A rough indication of this is mirrored in their suicide rates. Canada's overall suicide rate is typically about 14 per 100,000 people -- a little higher than the U.S. Suicide rates in the First Nations populations are two or three times higher. 6 An extremely high rate of 80.2 has been observed among 10 to 19 year-old Native males living on the northern coast of Labrador

According to Glen Coulthard of the University of Alberta, The Canadian government's policies included the destruction of much of Native culture, values and religion. 7 With the help of the Christian churches, these traditions were largely replaced with versions of western Christianity. The main players were the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church of Canada, and the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The government financed residential school systems; religious institutions ran them. Sometimes, children were kidnapped and taken long distances from their communities in order to attend school. Once there, they were held captive, isolated from their families of origin, and forcibly stripped of their language, religion, traditions and culture. Many native children grew up with little knowledge of their original culture.

Not mentioned in Coulthard's essay was the extremely high level of physical and sexual abuse suffered by Native children at the religious schools. The result has been that, as adults, many suffer with depression, have difficulty in parenting, and live with a loss of culture. Some commit suicide.

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The residential schools:

They were operated over the period 1879 to 1986. "Department of Indian Affairs that between 1890 and 1965 an average of 7,100 native students attended residential schools compared to 11,400 who attended day schools in the same period." 8  

Author Jim Miller has commented: "Writing about the 'Basic Concepts and Objectives' of Canada's Indian policy in 1945, an official of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs put his finger squarely on the motivation behind residential schools. Noting Ottawa's desire to promote self-sufficiency among the indigenous population, and rightly zeroing in on Canada's systematic attack on traditional Indian religion and cultural practices, the observer concluded that the dominion's purpose was assimilation. As important as the push for self-support and Christianization [sic] among the Indians was in its own right, it was 'also means to another end: full citizenship and absorption into the body politic.' Clearly, Canada chose to eliminate Indians by assimilating them, unlike the Americans, who had sought to exterminate them physically. 'In other words, the extinction of the Indians as Indians is the ultimate end' of Canadian Indian policy, noted the American official.8 Some definitions of the term "Genocide" would encompass such assimilation. 9

Students were often beaten if they spoke their native language, or practiced their faith's rituals. There are allegations that the students were often poorly fed and clothed. Sexual and physical abuse was widespread. Individual natives and native communities continue to suffer the after-effects of students' brutal and criminal treatment in these schools. 

References used:

  1. Ward Churchill, "A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present," City Lights Books, (1998). Read reviews and/or order this book
  2. Mark Bourrie, "Rights: Canada Apologizes For Abuse of Native Peoples," at: 
  3. Text of the "American Indian Religious Freedom Act," at:  
  4. Text of the "American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994," at:
  5. "Judge throws out lawsuits against Anglican Church seeking redress for abuse," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, 2002-OCT-25, Page A15.
  6. "Suicide in Canada," at:
  7. Glen Coulthard, "Colonization, Indian policy, suicide and Aboriginal peoples," 1998-JAN, at:
  8. "Response to Recent National Post Articles on Residential Schools," 2001-MAR-23, United Church of Canada, at: 
  9. Dan Lukiv, "Aboriginal Education in Quesnel Now, Cultural Genocide in Canada Then," at: 

Copyright ? 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-JUN-3-
Latest update: 2001-OCT-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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