Brief History of Indian Residental Schools
Catholic involvement in the foundation and operation of Indian residential schools is part of a long tradition of Catholic engagement in education, health and spiritual ministry, both to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
The Indian residential school system was consolidated by the federal government in the nineteenth century, sustained from then on mostly by government funds, overseen by government officials and run primarily by various Christian churches, including some dioceses and religious communities within the Catholic Church. The Indian residential school system was rooted, in principle, in the government’s obligation to provide education to Indigenous children; in practice, however, the policy was often aimed at assimilating a population often misperceived as merely an obstacle to the nation’s progress.
In recent decades, the human costs of the Indian residential school system have come to light, even if they are not yet fully understood. While many former students have spoken positively of their experiences at specific schools, many others speak today of far more painful memories and legacies, such as prohibitions about Aboriginal languages and cultural practices as well as cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Despite these sufferings, many former students, such as David Frank, continue to search for and find ways to heal the wounds caused by the abuse experienced in certain schools: “I remembered that when you love all peoples, you have no enemies… I realized that I needed to … love the person that hurt me,”1, he has said.
An example of a person who had a positive experience at a residential school was Rose Prince, who is featured in the 2011 message for the National Day for Aboriginal Peoples.
The experiences of former staff also range from very positive to very negative. “Though many Catholics dedicated their lives to provide a good education in these schools, they faced ‘terrible challenges’ that included cultural differences, inadequate funding, human failings and ‘instances of exploitation and cruelty.’”2 Ultimately, the “shocking revelations about the various types of abuse experienced at some residential schools have moved us to a profound examination of conscience as a Church,”3 and as a nation.
Addressing a 1969 gathering of staff working in residences for children attending the former Indian Residential Schools, Father Yvon Levaque, O.M.I., spoke words that still resonate today. Using the language of the time, he declared:
“The fallacy in our present way of thinking is that we assume we are right, that our way is better because we are white, educated and members of the dominant society. Right here and now, purge your mind of this cancer. … The Indian and the whiteman are two distinct parts of the just society which must work together and interpenetrate with reciprocal aid. Therefore it is not only the white man who must help the Indian, but also the Indian who must help the whiteman. … Up till now the evolution of Canadian society has come about solely around the wish of the white man. … And because of this our progress may be compared to that of a man trying to advance on one leg instead of two.”4
“In the encounter between the non-Natives and Aboriginal Peoples, much was gained and lost. The missionaries lived among the Aboriginal Peoples, sharing their lives, their joys and their pains and helping to teach and heal. Many missionaries made significant contributions to the retention and revitalization of these same cultures and languages. There is much in the historical relationship between the Catholic Church and Aboriginal Peoples to celebrate and build on. However, we are currently very aware of what was lost and this is of great concern to us.”5
1Peter Tockland: "David Frank's healing journey", Times Colonist, p. D10, November 7, 2010
2Deborah Gyapong: Canada's First Nations leader hopes meeting with Pope is turning point, Catholic News Service, http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0901760.htm, April 17, 2009
3CCCB (1995): Let Justice Flow Like a Mighty River, p. 16
4From a talk addressed to an August 1969 gathering of child-care workers employed in Indian residences and hostels by Father Yvon Levaque, an Oblate missionary, former Indian Residental School principal, and the Director of the Oblate Indian and Eskimo Council, reproduced with the permission of Archives Deschâtelets.
5CCCB (1995): Let Justice Flow Like a Mighty River, p. 19