Imagining the Residential Schools—Dialogues & Monologues 1744 – 1931

Posted on March 13, 2011


Separating Aboriginal children from their parents, training them up in the ways of the Europeans:  that was scarcely a new idea when it was adopted as Canadian policy late in the nineteen century.  However the earlier efforts had stumbled over two realities.

The first was that Aboriginal people were in the beginning an independent people who made up their own minds about what they wanted for themselves and for their children.  The second was that Aboriginal people doted over their children and permitted their children’s personhood and autonomy as a matter of right.  Discipline was by teasing and teaching and love was always unconditional.

Aboriginal parents and communities thus found the school’s and the church’s harshly disciplinarian attitude towards children profoundly shocking, and refused to send their children back to such places once they found out what they were like.  Many early residential schools were essentially orphanages, where Aboriginal children went who had no protectors.

And, if anybody had bothered to examine the record, the graduates of these schools did poorly right from the beginning.  Always.

Residential School Policy Timeline


  • But you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same as yours.  We have had some experience of it.  Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the Northern Provinces:  they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods…neither fit for hunters, warriors nor counsellors, they were totally good for nothing.
  • We are, however, not the less obliged by your kind offer, though we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them
  • Six Nations response to a suggestion that they send some boys to a Virginia college, 1744. (Brody, ix)


  • I suggest that they be called industrial schools; they are not then schools of manual labour; they are schools of learning and religion; and industry is the great element of efficiency in each of these…as to the objectives of these establishments I understand them not to contemplate anything more in respect to intellectual training that to give a plain English education adapted to the working farmer and mechanic…but in addition to this, pupils of the industrial schools are to be taught agriculture, kitchen gardening and mechanics so far as mechanics is concerned with making and repairing the most useful agricultural equipment.
  • Reverend Egerton Ryerson, Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada(Milloy, 16)

1871 – 1877

Treaties 1 through 7 are signed in what is to become Western Ontario and the prairie provinces.  One of the central issues from the Aboriginal viewpoint, a matter that takes up much of the discussion in the treaty negotiations, is the preservation of Aboriginal communities, their way of life, their culture.  They also knew that they were going to have to adapt to new things and insisted on a schoolhouse clause in their treaties as well.  It is one of the tragic ironies of Canadian history that the education provision of the treaties was used as an excuse to create residential schools.


The heads of the Catholic and Methodist churches in Canada contact Sir John A. McDonald, the Prime Minister, about fulfilling the education clauses of the recently negotiated treaties.  McDonald hires N.F. Davin to look into the experience of Aboriginal residential schools in the United States.

  • The experience of the United States is the same as our own as far as the adult Indian is concerned.  Little can be done with him….The child, again, who goes to a day school learns little, and what he learns is soon forgotten, while his tastes are fashioned at home, and his inherited aversion to toil is in no way combated.
  • N.F. Davin, 1879


  • 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.
  • Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, 1883


  • The circumstances of Indian existence prevents him from following that course of evolution which has produced from the barbarian of the past the civilized man of today.  It is not possible for him to be allowed slowly to pass through successive stages, from pastoral to an agricultural life and from an agricultural one, to one of manufacturing, commerce or trade as we have done.  He has been called upon suddenly and without warning to enter upon a new existence….
  • The white child may be educated in the affairs of life and life’s duties to a great extent without ever entering the doors of a school.  The examples and precepts of its elders, the contact of its fellows, all the circumstances of its existence are educational agencies, indeed, it is from these far more than from instruction in schools that it learns its duties to God, to the State and to itself.  All such circumstances in life equally educate the Indian child at home but its parents, fellows and existence being Indian, it is trained in Indian life not in the life of the white man upon a knowledge of which its future existence depends….
  • J.A. Macrae, Indian Affairs Departmental School Inspector, 1886 (Milloy 26, 27)
  • In trying to secure recruits we are met with the objection that if parents send their children to School, the children are not allowed to leave the School for a visit to their old home for many, many years and that their children might as well be dead for all they see of them.
  • Reverend A.J. Macleod, Principal, Regina Indian Industrial School(Milloy 30)


  • Give me the children and you may have the parents, or words to that effect, were uttered by a zealous divine in his anxiety to add to the number of whom his Church called her children.  And the principle laid down by that astute reasoner is an excellent one on which to act in working out that most difficult problem – the intellectual emancipation of the Indian, and its natural sequel, his elevation to a status equal to that of his white brother.  This can only be done through education…. Only by a persistent continuance in a thoroughly systematic course of educating (using the word in its fullest and most practical sense) the children, will the final hoped and long striven for result be obtained.
  • Lawrence Vankoughnet, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs (Milloy 7)


  • Every effort should be directed against anything calculated to keep fresh in the memories of children habits and associations which it is the main objects of industrial institutions to obliterate.
  • Hayter Reed, Indian Affairs Departmental Official (Milloy 43)


  • The more remote from the Institution and distant from each other are the points from which the pupils are collected, the better for their success.
  • Hayter Reed, Indian Affairs Departmental Official (Milloy 30)


  • no system of Indian training is right that does not endeavour to develop all the abilities, remove prejudice against labour, and give courage to compete with the rest of the world. The Indian problem exists owing to the fact that the Indian is untrained to take his place in the world. Once teach him to do this, and the solution is had….
  • So long as he keeps his native tongue, so long will he remain a community apart.
  • Indian Affairs Annual Report, 1895 (RCAP, Vol. 1. Part 2, Chap. 10) (Milloy 38)
  • Instructions should be given, if not already sent to the Principals of the various schools, that children are not to be whipped by anyone save the Principal, and even when such a course is necessary, great discretion should be used and they should not be struck on the head, or punished so severely that bodily harm might ensue.  The practice of corporal punishment is considered unnecessary as a general measure of discipline and should only be resorted to for very grave offences and as a deterrent example.
  • Lawrence Vankoughnet, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs (Milloy 45)


  • All the people in the north with whom the matter of Indian education has been discussed agreed as to its importance not only as an economical measure to be demanded for the welfare of the country and the Indians, themselves, but in order that crime may not spring up and peaceful conditions be disturbed, as that element which is the forerunner and companion of civilization penetrates the country and comes into close contact with the natives.
  • J.A. Macrae, Indian Affairs Departmental School Inspector, 1900 (Milloy 32,33)

1908, January 28

  • I hope you will excuse me for so speaking but one of the most important commandments laid upon the human by the divine is love and respect by children for parents.  It seems strange that in the name of religion a system of education should have been instituted, the foundation principle of which not only ignored but contradicted this command.
  • Frank Oliver, Minister of Indian Affairs (RCAP 1996, Vol. 1, Part two, Chapter 10: 1.1)


Attendance at residential schools becomes involuntary.  Aboriginal parents who attempt to keep their children out of the schools are liable to imprisonment.

  • I want to get rid of the Indian problem.  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 Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (Milloy 46)


  • All true civilization must be based on moral law, which christian religion alone can give.  Pagan superstition could not … suffice to make the Indians practise the virtues of our civilization and avoid its attendant vices.  Several people have desired us to countenance the dances of the Indians and to observe the festivals; but their habits, being the result of free and easy mode of life, cannot conform to the intense struggle for life which our social conditions require.
  • Memorandum of the Convention of Catholic Principals, Lebret, Saskatchewan, 1924 (Milloy 36,37)


By 1931 there are 44 Roman Catholic, 21 Church of England, 13 United Church and 2 Presbyterian Indian residential schools operating in Canada.