Research Papers

The Impacts of the Canadian Residential School System


“Attending a residential school exposed many Aboriginal children to separation from family; physical and sexual abuse; and suppression of their language and cultural identity” (Kumar & Stats Canada, 2016, p. 4), which has been shown to have a variety lasting implications for this population; and to what end? For years before the Europeans landed, and even many more after their arrival, the aboriginal population was striving (Neeganagwedgin, 2014). They had their own unique methods of both taking care of, and educating their peoples that, although different from the European norms, allowed them to survive for years past without outside intervention (Neeganagwedgin, 2014). Initially, the Aboriginal peoples were respected among the community and were relied upon for trading purposes (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). However, this partnership did not last long and as early as 1842 the Eurocentric views began to take hold as one of the first official documents, The Bagot Commission report, was established to “recommend education as a means of ridding the Canadian colonies… of Indigenous peoples” (Neeganagwedgin, 2014, p. 32). From there, this desire continued to grow, and the Canadian residential school system was born (known as Indian residential schools; or IRSs).

This paper aims to assess the effects that the Canadian residential school system has had on both the First Nations community, and the Aboriginal community as a whole. What has been discerned from the research thus far is that things like: the destruction of the Aboriginal way of life, trauma caused by various forms of abuse, and the development of social issues and inequalities, have been a direct result of the residential school system, and has had lasting negative effects on Canadian Aboriginals. Therefore, following the introduction, this paper will look at the three areas mentioned above: (1) the destruction of the Aboriginal way of life (which will look further into the history of these schools, and specific examples of cultural assimilation), (2) the trauma from various forms of abuse (which will include things like: specific examples of certain abusive practices, and suicidal ideation, addiction, etc., that may have been a result of the abuse, or a way to cope with it), and (3) the development of social issues and inequalities (which will focus on unjust policies, and inequalities that developed during and after these residential schools were developed). Finally, before everything is wrapped up in the conclusion, this paper will discuss the implications for the child and youth care (CYC) practice. An anonymous quote was found in one of the articles that states: “memories have a long life. My people, they never forget” (as cited in Neeganagwedgin, 2014, p. 32); and further education around aboriginal affairs such as this will ensure that we as a society, also never forget. This is one way to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

The Destruction of the Aboriginal Way of Life

The destruction of the aboriginal way of life- or “cultural genocide” as some favour (MacDonald & Hudson, 2012)- is no doubt the most apparent negative impact caused as a result of the Canadian residential school system, and is likely due to it’s intentionality. “According to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (2006), it was a deliberate systematic effort to remove generations of Aboriginal children one by one from their family, community, language, culture, and aboriginal way of living and being in the world” (as cited in Neeganagwedgin, 2014, p. 34). Those involved in the development of the IRS system had in no way attempted to keep their intentions of cultural assimilation secret and, in some instances, actually publicly promoted them. Take for example a quote published by the Indian Affairs Superintendent T. G. Anderson in 1846, that was directed towards the general Council of Chiefs: “your children shall be sent to schools, where they will forget their Indian habits and be instructed in all necessary arts of civilized life, and become one with your white brethren” (as cited in Neeganagwedgin, 2014, p. 32).

As it was seen in the introduction, the use of education as a means of assimilation can be traced back as far as 1842 (Kumar & Stats Canada, 2016), but the colonial IRS system didn’t officially start until 1892 when it became more apparent that this process would be better off beginning with children (Elias, Mignone, Hall, Hong, Hart, & Sareen, 2012; Neeganagwedgin, 2014). In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Aboriginal children were taken from their families and communities and sent to schools operated by the Roman Catholic Church, United Church, Church of England, or Presbyterian Church- and later by the Government of Canada- with the intent of assimilating them to the European culture by determining the limits and boundaries of the social and cultural identities of aboriginal children and their communities (Elias et al., 2012; Neeganagwedgin, 2014; Petoukhov, 2013). The idea behind this concept was that by severing ties between the children and their communities, teaching them trades important to European economies, and by forcing the Christian religion on them, that they could “civilize” the “savages” and create a better society as a whole (Charles & DeGagné, 2013; Neeganagwedgin, 2014; Elias et al., 2012). However, this process of assimilation was not approached with a compassion for society but rather that of Eurocentric methodologies and punitive measures. As a result, many IRS survivors experienced: changes to their appearance (e.g., the cutting of hair, mandatory uniforms, etc.), a loss of their native language(s) (English and/or French were imposed upon them), a loss of religious freedom, severed ties to their elders, cultural disintegration, the removal of identity-defining relationships with their lands, and isolation from their traditional values, families, and communities (Charles & DeGagné, 2013; Elias et al., 2012; MacDonald & Hudson, 2012; Neeganagwedgin, 2014; Petoukhov, 2013).

In 1920 a revision to the Indian Act made IRS attendance for children seven to fifteen years-of-age mandatory, and it became punishable by law for parents to withhold their children from the authorities; or for children to be caught outside of these schools (Neeganagwedgin, 2014). A common theme that will be seen throughout this paper is that the negative effects of the IRSs extend beyond just the survivors of these schools and “the loss of language and ties to Elders and traditional and spiritual teachings further isolated children from their cultural and spiritual roots. This loss disrupted the transmission of indigenous knowledge to subsequent generations” (Elias et al., 2012, p. 1561), and many of these things (language, traditions, etc.) became extinct over the years (Petoukhov, 2013). Although the Europeans had tried to assimilate the Aboriginal peoples of Canada in many ways, in the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People it “states that, of all the steps taken to achieve the assimilation of indigenous peoples, none was more obviously a creature of Canada’s paternalism toward aboriginal people than its stern education program” (Neeganagwedgin, 2014, p. 32).

Trauma Caused by Various Forms of Abuse

In contrast to the destruction of the Aboriginal way of life, the trauma caused by various forms of abuse that was used in this assimilation process is a much less documented area of IRSs- although it appears to be an expanding area in recent years- and is most definitely a negative impact that can be attributed to the time spent in these schools as well (Charles & DeGagné, 2013; MacDonald & Hudson, 2012). The school buildings themselves and the living conditions within them were far less than adequate, and were oftentimes not large enough to fit the vast number of children that were being taken in; which resulted in overcrowding (Neeganagwedgin, 2014), and, because the sick were not being properly quarantined, outbreaks of communicable illnesses were being transmitted throughout as well (MacDonald & Hudson, 2012).

Just as the living conditions were hardly adequate, so to was the level of care being provided by the staff in these facilities, and survivors of these IRSs have reported numerous instances where abuse was present. Some abusive practices that came up in research include, but are not limited too: starvation or lack of nutritious diets, ill-conceived experiments (e.g., electric shock), poor cleanliness and sanitation, disfigurement, neglect by health care professionals, forced abortions, and various forms of cultural, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse being carried out by staff (Charles & DeGagné, 2013; Elias et al., 2012; MacDonald & Hudson, 2012; Neeganagwedgin, 2014; Petoukhov, 2013). Further, specific examples as to how these abusive practices were carried out was not well documented in peer reviewed literature, however, the Anishinabek Nation (2013) has provided some shocking details into some of the events that took place in these IRSs. The staff at these schools, as acts of punishment, would: stick needles into the tongues of children for speaking their native language, lock students in cages and closets, whip them with leather straps, burn and scold their hands, and conduct many other severe and unnecessary acts of what they considered to be retribution (Anishinabek Nation, 2013; MacDonald & Hudson, 2012).

However, it was not only the staff that students had to fear, and due to the inhumane conditions that these children found themselves in, abusing one another was not uncommon; “the schools were near ‘perfect storms’ for the turning of young people against each other in a struggle to survive” (Charles & DeGagné, 2013, p. 347). Young people are impressionable, and it is likely that in their search for power over one another the children looked at the behaviours of the role models around them- their authority figures- which used abusive practices to enforce their doctrine (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). It is “estimated that thousands of children died in these schools, and the death rate in some schools was as high as 64%” (Neeganagwedgin, 2014, p. 34), and “around 42% of children died shortly after being sent home when they became ‘critically ill’” (as cited in Petoukhov, 2013, p. 48). As expected, these abuses are not without both short-term and long-term consequences, and survivors of these schools have reported residual symptoms of: anxiety, overly suspicious behaviour (Neeganagwedgin, 2014), substance abuse, high incarceration rates, increased violence, increased suicide rates (Petoukhov, 2013), feelings of hopelessness, gambling, homelessness, isolation, abuse, low self-esteem, various forms of mental health, and prostitution (Elias et al., 2012).

Unfortunately, this violence and abuse does not end at the doors of the IRSs, and oftentimes “they took their vulnerability to abuse and their susceptibility to aggressive behaviours home with them and begun to duplicate in their own communities the types of relationships they had experienced in the residential schools”; which affected new family life in these communities (Charles & DeGagné, 2013, p. 353). In a study done by Elias et al. (2012) on the affects of residential schools in a Manitoba First Nation community, the duo found that poor parenting practices from residential school survivors resulted in their descendants displaying psychological issues similar to that of their own. Further, some members of these communities who have had no direct connection, or share no familial ties to the IRSs, were also connected to poor mental health outcomes due to indirect trauma operating at a community level (Elias et al., 2012). Thus, representing the influence that both multigenerational trauma, and trauma at a community level, can have on the lives of Aboriginal peoples regardless of whether or not they, or a family member, have had a history with IRSs.

The Development of Social Issues and Inequalities

            During the process of attempting to destroy the Aboriginal way of life by means of education and coerce methods, certain governances were placed into effect to keep the Aboriginal peoples dejected which- when paired with IRSs- presented clear social inequalities and aided in the development of some of the social issues that can be observed in many of the Aboriginal communities even today (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). For instance, one of the desired outcomes of the IRS system was that “by Christianising, civilising, and then re-socializing these children, the federal government hoped that these children, and subsequent generations, would contribute economically to a modernizing Canada” (Elias et al., 2012, p. 1561). Ideally, once this process was complete the children would be reintegrated into mainstream society (primarily as servants or workers), but were not supposed to compete with the European settlers for employment opportunities (MacDonald & Hudson, 2012). Economically, their spot was intended to be on the lower rungs of the ladder where they would likely remain (MacDonald & Hudson, 2012), because even if they could advance, they were never taught how to find a job in a society dominated by white privilege.

Historically, one of the more prominent inequalities that occurred was the creation of the Indian Act, which is a government imposed publication created in 1876 that, at the time, worked to ban Aboriginal spiritual and cultural practices (Neeganagwedgin, 2014), and dispute many other areas of the aboriginal peoples lives as well. For example, racist exclusionary government policies made it possible for Aboriginal peoples to “lose their status” (Charles & DeGagné, 2013), however, they were unable to fight back legally because, under the Indian Act, Aboriginal peoples could not hire lawyers (Neeganagwedgin, 2014).  The Indian Act is still very much present in the lives of Aboriginal peoples, and examples of inequalities such as this one can be found in the Indian Act even today. For instance, the Indian Act (2016) states that “lands in a reserve shall not be sold nor title to them conveyed until they have been absolutely surrendered to Her Majesty pursuant to subsection 38(1)” (p. 25). After years of upheaval, it seems to remain challenging for the Canadian government to give up this publication for good, due to a variety of complicated social factors.

During the time of IRSs, the “education” put in place for Aboriginal children was said to have been “plagued by chronic underfunding” (Charles & DeGagné, 2013, p. 346). Further, the Aboriginal parents had no control over what was happening to their children or what they were learning in these schools, and many of them spoke about a desire for these schools to be abuse free, and for them to teach valuable life skills, such as parenting practices, just as the non-Aboriginal children received. This lack of skill building, more specifically the parenting practices, are thought to have aided in a lot of the social issues that are prevalent in Aboriginal communities today; such as abuse histories, histories of suicide or suicidal ideation (Elias et al., 2012), violence (Elias et al., 2012), poverty, and crime (Petoukhov, 2013).

Finally, after the eventual closing of the last IRS in 1996, the institutions put in place that were meant to help address areas of social welfare (i.e. the justice system, the education system, and the child welfare system) were not providing adequate levels of care to the Aboriginal peoples (Neeganagwedgin, 2014). These institutions were systematically designed to undermine and deny the Aboriginal communities of their intrinsic rights as first peoples (Neeganagwedgin, 2014). The Healing Foundation (2002) found that “where the residential school system left off in the effort to solve the ‘Indian problem’, the Indian Act and the Child Welfare, Reservation, and Justice systems took over” (as cited in Neeganagwedgin, 2014, p. 34); a process that no doubt continues to plague these communities to the present day.

Implications for Future CYC Practice

Although Aboriginal people only made up approximately 3.8% of the Canadian population in 2006, this number continues to increase at a steady rate, and in 2011 Aboriginal peoples accounted for 4.3% of the total population in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2015). Additionally, with an exponential growth rate that exceeds that of non-aboriginals by an astounding fifteen percent, it is likely that this number will continue to rise, adding to the already large number of Aboriginal children and youth in these communities; which has a lot to do with higher fertility rates and shorter life expectancy in this demographic (Statistics Canada, 2015). So, what does this have to do with the CYC practice? Aboriginal communities lose more children and youth to the system than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, and in a household survey conducted by Statistics Canada (2015) in 2011 it “revealed that just over 14 000 Aboriginal children aged 14 and younger (almost 4% of aboriginal children) were living in foster care, 10 times the proportion for non-Aboriginal children” (p. 13). Further, of the off-reserve First Nation Aboriginals 12 years-of-age or older, 35% of them reported heavy drinking at least once a month in the previous year, compared to that of 23% for non-aboriginal individuals (Statistics Canada, 2015). Therefore, because such a large number of Aboriginal children exist within the child welfare system, and because a large number of these children have histories of abuse, addictions, and suicidal ideations (Elias et al., 2012; MacDonald & Hudson, 2012; Statistics Canada, 2015), CYC’s in both a child welfare setting and a clinical setting may run into Aboriginal youth seeking their assistance, and it is important that these practitioners understand the histories that may have lead to these unfortunate circumstances so that they can address the potential effects of trauma, intergenerational trauma, or community level trauma that these children and youth may be experiencing as a result of the IRS system from years past.


            As it can be seen throughout this paper, the Canadian residential school systems have had direct and lasting negative impacts on the Aboriginal Communities that are native to this land. Beginning with the intent to destroy the Aboriginal peoples’ way of life, they built these residential schools as a way of condensing this population to specific areas, as well as isolating the children from their families and cultures to make matters easier in terms of mass cultural genocide (Charles & DeGagné, 2012; MacDonald & Hudson, 2012). To help with the assimilation process within these schools, staff used various forms of abuse which- when paired with unjust policies and social inequalities- aided in the development of some of the traumatic experiences that can be seen creating social issues in these communities today (Charles & DeGagné, 2013; Elias et al., 2012; MacDonald & Hudson, 2012; Neeganagwedgin, 2014; Petoukhov, 2013).

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation found an interesting model to describe how violence radiates through communities as a result of trauma (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). It views the Aboriginal communities as ponds, the initial trauma as a rock being dropped into the centre, and the ripples as the social issues that occur as a result of this trauma (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). MacDonald and DeGagné (2013) found that:

In these residential schools the real harm was first the destruction of culture, the destruction of traditions, language and the breakdown of social order. In the next circle we see the violence necessary to maintain institutional life between adults and children- adults as figures of authority and children who had to learn a new system of learning. In the next circle then, this violence transmits and radiates outward until the children are violent between each other, whether emotionally, physically, or sexually. (p. 354)

Some people argue that the schools began on partially benign terms where there was a balance between Western and Aboriginal worldviews, and some believe that a hidden agenda was always present even in the earliest forms (MacDonald & Hudson, 2012). No matter the case, it didn’t take long before the coercive systems that plagued the Aboriginal community for so long prevailed (MacDonald & Hudson, 2012), and it should be noted that “throughout Canadian history it was only Aboriginal children who over an extended period of time were required to live in institutions because of their race” (Charles & DeGagné, 2013, p. 346). Yet another example of the extent to which this population was, and continues to be, marginalized by the Canadian systems and governance.



Anishinabek Nation. (2013). Indian Residential Schools Educational Resources.  Retrieved February 25, 2016, from

Charles, G., & DeGagné, M. (2013). Student-to-student abuse in the Indian residential schools in Canada: Setting the stage for further understanding. Child & Youth Services34(4), 343-359. doi:10.1080/0145935x.2013.859903

Elias, B., Mignone, J., Hall, M., Hong, S. P., Hart, L., & Sareen, J. (2012). Trauma and suicide behaviour histories among a Canadian indigenous population: An empirical exploration of the potential role of Canada’s residential school system. Social Science & Medicine, 74(10), 1560-1569. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.01.026

Government of Canada. (2016). Indian act. Retrieved from

Kumar, M. B., & Stats Canada. (2016, January 19). Lifetime suicidal thoughts among First Nations living off reserve, Métis and Inuit aged 26 to 59: Prevalence and associated characteristics. Retrieved January 31, 2016, from

MacDonald, D. B., & Hudson, G. (2012). The genocide question and Indian residential schools in Canada. Canadian Journal of Political Science45(02), 427-449. doi:10.1017/s000842391200039X

Neeganagwedgin, E. (2014). “They can’t take our ancestors out of us”: A brief historical account of Canada’s residential school system, incarceration, institutionalized policies and legislation against Indigenous peoples. Canadian Issues, 31-36. Retrieved from

Petoukhov, K. S. (2013). Transforming the Legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada into a Public Issue: A Critical Analysis of Michael Burawoy’s Public Sociology. CGJSCRCESSC2(1), 45-57. doi:10.15353/cgjsc-rcessc.v2i1.20

Statistics Canada, issuing body. (2015). Aboriginal statistics at a glance (978-1-100-25663-4). 1-34. Retrieved from


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