Education, Trauma and Indigenous Identity
The Indian residential school system was established by the Canadian government to assimilate indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture and mainstream society, so as to remove their indigenous identity (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). Such schools disrupted lives and communities and caused long-term problems among indigenous people. After contextualising the historical background, this article will examine the impact of the residential school experience on the survivors and their families, further focusing on the implications of the post-school period. Lastly, the school case will be evaluated in the context of modernity, colonialism, and racism.
Historical background of residential schools
The history of residential schools for indigenous people in Canada began not long after the arrival of British colonisers. The contact between the natives and British missionaries was largely a result of the need for trade. In this period, indigenous people had numerical superiority over Europeans and the trade benefited both groups, fostering a climate of interdependence (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). As arriving British people achieved numerical superiority and after the establishment of Canada, the aims and objectives of the colonisers changed. The British government sought access to all kinds of natural resources that Canada has, but such resources were on native lands.
Rather than initiate a war against the natives, the administration - headed by John A. Macdonald - decided to eliminate the native people. Indigenous education was conceived in partially benign terms to help natives to adapt to living in a white-dominated country (Macdonald & Hudson, 2012). The goals of elimination and assimilation are evident in the words of Prime Minister Macdonald on the aims of residential schools: "secular education is a good thing among white men, but among Indians the first objective is to make them better men, and, if possible, good Christian men by applying proper moral restraints, and appealing to the instinct for worship that is found in all nations, whether civilized or uncivilized" (Miller, 1996, p.103). Hence, educational institutions were created in the interest of the Canadian nation-state to assimilate, Christianise and civilise indigenous children: from all three groups of indigenous communities in Canada, i. e. First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, the youngest generations were forcibly taken to residential schools, a coercive system that lasted over 100 years (Logan, 2017). Such institutions were based on historical models of industrial residential schools used to accommodate and reform "poor" children in Europe and its empires (Ibid.).
Residential schools were oppressive environments where children were forced through severe treatment to adopt alien religious and cultural beliefs (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). As Macdonald and Hudson notice (2012.), the Canadian government worked closely with Catholic and Anglican Churches, so religious institutions ran approximately 90 per cent of the schools. Until the 1950s, the Indian Act, which governed the relationship between the Government of Canada and Indians, made attendance for children from five to sixteen years old compulsory (Miller, 2004). The school day consisted of a half-day of study and a half-day of trade-related activities (Macdonald & Hudson, 2012). Thus, such institutions functioned as an attempt at integrating indigenous people into the growing North American economy (Milloy, 1999). They were however also seen as a means of introducing them to a virulent and aggressive form of Christianity, forcing assimilation into both Christian and European ways of life (Charles & DeGagné, 2013; Miller, 1996).
Students were often sent to other regions to attend school, which was intended as a means of assimilation by breaking their ties to their traditional communities and to their parents (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). Such strategy was a cornerstone of government policy: hence, it appears that the residential school system was not merely intended to educate children but, more importantly, sought to "deculturate" them (Miller, 1996; Milloy, 1999). When children started residential school, they were removed from everything related to their material and spiritual culture or social values, such as their hairstyles, clothes, language, and traditional practices. Even when indigenous children were exceptionally allowed to visit their families, children found that their relationship with them had been compromised: as they had been alienated from their own culture, their communities did not understand and accept their new societal characteristics (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). This alienation not only affected the children and their families, but further had an effect on the future generations within the scope of historical trauma.
The shift away from the residential school system and its lasting effects
By 1950, the federal government began to shut down residential schools, but some continued to operate for several decades (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). Astonishingly, in fact, such institutions remained functioning until 1996, when the last one was eventually closed. Over 150,000 indigenous children attended the schools while the system was in existence (Barkan, 2003). Since the activities of boarding schools were kept secret by the government and church officials for years, the criticism and resistance from the indigenous people started to be heard and investigated only after the 1940s (Miller, 1996).
In addition to the social and cultural effects of forced displacement, such as the breaking up of families and communities, the schools are now notorious in Canada for having alarmingly high incidences of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse and high death rates that often went unchecked by the Church and the state (Corrado & Cohen, 2003; Logan, 2017). In 1922, public official Peter Bryce was commissioned to study the health conditions in residential schools: he found that between 14% and 24% of students had died by being killed by school officials and because of health conditions. Today, it is believed at least 6,000 children perished at residential schools (Truth and Reconciliation Commision, 2012). Some estimate that total casualties could be 3 times that number (Rafael, 2017). It is also well established that indigenous people in Canada experience a disproportionate burden of ill-health compared to the non-indigenous population (Wilk, Maltby, & Cooke, 2017).
The mention of residential schools in dates prior to 1970 was only to record the achievements of the Canadian Churches and to observe the lives of indigenous peoples, and records and documents that were conducted by officials were not released to the public: thus, the federal and the parliament officials didn't include the issue of residential school in the agenda for review and discussion (Logan, 2017). The pressure from interest groups opposed to change began to hinder government action in the 1940s (Miller, 1996). During such decade, the oppression and abuses started to be heard in the public thanks to the increasing criticism and resistance from indigenous communities, initiated through residential school historiography among indigenous historians. In this process, the government commissioned The Special Joint Committee of the Senate to re-examine The Indian Act and the institutions it established, and this step was the first one taken by the state officials to change the colonial practices. The minister responsible for Indian Affairs acknowledged in 1944 that "the whole Act needs a thorough revision" (Miller, 1996).
Survivors launched a class-action lawsuit against the government. However, it could not be successful until the mid-1990s, when the federal courts and the Supreme court finally ruled to sue the government and the churches for the abuses. (Rafael, 2017). As part of that case, the Canadian government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2008. The term genocide entered the Canadian public consciousness via the TRC in unprecedented ways. Previously, in fact, the idea of genocide was rarely applied to Canada other than by indigenous people, and it was not as publicly debated as much as after the establishment of the Commission (Logan, 2017). The TRC was able to initiate the reconciliation process: it prepared detailed reports on the colonialist historical process and the boarding school system based on archives and interviews with survivors. Such reports, as well as related policies, were realized through the joint efforts of the state and indigenous communities (TRC, 2012). Such work was not only directed toward the natives as a form of resistance, but was further aimed at the recognition, reconciliation, and creation of a peaceful and free life for the next generation.
The residential school case in the context of colonialism and racism
Since the French and British colonial administrations established mission schools in the 17th century, residential school systems have been accepted as a tried mechanism of colonial expansion (Logan, 2017). In a simple definition, "colonialism", which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the exploitation practised by establishing settlements in a distant territory (Said, 1994). The Eurocentric colonial discourse has been shaped by the idea of race and subjects. British forces needed separations intertwined with power relations in order to be colonial and to construct their own story as universal. In this context, the colonial establishment required a process of "othering" (Ibid.). Thus, the colonial mentality and its justifications have led to the foundation of a superior-inferior relationship between Western people and indigenous ones, the latter being labelled as undeveloped and foreign civilizations.
Western colonial powers had seen a right of sovereignty and exploitation over the values they promoted, on the basis of the inconsistency between them and other peoples' socio-cultural visions. Hence, indigenous people, being non-Western, were marginalized, otherized, and excluded. In this context maternalist politics, though professing a concern and sisterhood with all women, did not promote equality but reaffirmed class, racial, and religious hierarchies (Jacobs, 2005). As the historian Margaret D. Jacobs describes, maternal colonialism is based on white women maternalists who sought to use their association with motherhood to gain greater power over indigenous people by serving colonial aims, and these white women were simultaneously engaged in dispossessing indigenous mothers of their children. The most diffuse practice in which maternal colonialism was effective has been residential schools.
In the context of the racist modernisation mentality, as emerged from the above analysis, the dynamics of the residential school system can be described with three Cs: Christianization, Civilization, and Commerce (Ottuh, 2022). European powers started using the civilising discourse to justify their actions and interests. Civilisation insights were based on racist mentality, which was in turn founded on white supremacy. In this sense, indigenous people were seen by white colonizers as desiring to be dominated and oppressed (Miller, 1996). Their existence was either denied or articulated to the dominant subjectivity as if they were an anachronistic human community, displayed, shown (but not named), thought to have no history, and constantly asked to pay penance.
In this scenario, inferior groups such as the indigenous communities in Canada have been viewed as those that needed to be civilised, modernised, and developed, as emerges from the Canadian prime minister Macdonald's discourse mentioned earlier in the article. Thus colonisation, which was allegedly enacted for the purpose of modernisation and civilisation, was conceptually associated with a non-humanist approach, the Western people’s efforts to Westernize and Christianize by accepting no other reality than their own understanding of civilization (Miller, 2004). Civilizing development projects were defined as the white man’s burden, and these were reflected as gratuitous and well-intentioned missions of European states and missionaries (Ottuh, 2022).
As Jean-Paul Sartre (2001) states, "colonialism is a system". As it is argued, the main systematical dynamics, aims, and practices of colonialism can be observed in the residential school system that was in Canada as a case of maternal and settler colonialism. Indian residential schools in Canada were part of an international network of colonially run residential schools. Eliminating thousands of indigenous people was essential in building the Dominion of Canada, or, in other words, the colonial nation. The forced removal of indigenous children on that scale indicates a process of genocide, as well as a mixture of governmental and religious colonial power. Approaching the history of residential schools means investigating settler colonialism, with the related allegations of assimilation and genocide.
The reality of residential schools only became relevant in the Canadian public discussions after a long and difficult process, but the ability of survivors to disclose their experiences demonstrated their resilience and their hopes for future generations (Charles & DeGagné, 2013). These revelations marked the beginning of a vigorous healing process occurring in several indigenous communities in Canada. The integration of indigenous people's resistance and recognition processes with state and public support is effective in rewriting both indigenous and Canadian history, and in establishing a new constructive unity within the public with the acknowledgement of racist and undemocratic practices. Making recognition visible and looking at it constructively does not completely reject Western ways of knowing, but fosters reparation among different ethnic communities.
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Figure 1: Unknown. (1950). Boys pray on bunk beds in a dormitory at the Bishop Horden Memorial School, a residential school in the indigenous Cree community of Moose Factory. [Photography]. Retrieved from:
Figure 2: Unknown. (c.1890). Nuns with Indigenous children in Port Harrison. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://allthatsinteresting.com/residential-schools-in-canada
Figure 3: Unknown. (1941). The Kuper Island Indian Residential School is seen on Penelakut Island, British Columbia [Photograph]. Retrieved from:
Figure 4: Unknown. (c. 1940-60). Photographs of students at Ermineskin Indian Residential School. [Photography]. Retrieved from:
Figure 5: Gable, B. (2015). Residential School survivor Lorna Standingready, left, is comforted during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada closing ceremony in Ottawa. [Photograph]. Retrieved from:
Figure 6: Unknown. (1940). Students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake. [Photography]. Retrieved from: