ViewPoint: “To Kill The Indian In The Child” – A National Crime


By Peter Chow

The Canadian government and its involvement with the Indigenous residential school system was a national crime, the full extent of which is coming more to light.

Attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples were rooted in imperial colonialism, which centred around a European worldview  that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves.

The “civilizing mission” rested on a belief of racial and cultural superiority.

Assimilation efforts began as early as the 17th century with the arrival of French colonists in New France.

They were resisted by Indigenous communities who were unwilling to leave their children for extended periods and who came to associate Jesuit priests with the diseases like smallpox and measles and typhus that decimated Indigenous populations.

The residential school network was funded by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs and administered by Christian churches.

The system had its origins in laws enacted before Confederation, but it was primarily active from the passage of the Indian Act in 1876.

An amendment to the Indian Act in 1894 made attendance at day schools, industrial schools, or residential schools compulsory for First Nations children.

The remoteness of many communities meant that for some families, residential schools intentionally located far away, were the only way to comply.

Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued that distance would minimize contact between children and their families would reduce family visits, which he thought counteracted efforts to “civilize” Indigenous children.

Parental visits were further restricted by the use of a pass system designed to confine Indigenous peoples to reserves.

The school system was created to remove Indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilate them into the dominant European-Canadian culture, with the stated aim,

“To Kill The Indian In The Child.”

The parents and families of Indigenous children resisted the residential school system throughout its existence.

Children were kept from schools and, in some cases, hidden from government officials tasked with rounding up children on reserves.

Parents regularly advocated for increased funding for schools, including the increase of centrally located day schools to improve access to their children, and made repeated requests for improvements to the quality of education, food, and clothing being provided at the schools.

Demands for answers in regards to claims of abuse were often dismissed as a ploy by parents seeking to keep their children at home, with government and church officials positioned as those who knew best.

Many of the government-operated residential schools were run by churches of various denominations, with the majority administered by Roman Catholics.

Between 1867 and 1939, the number of schools operating at one time peaked at 80 in 1931.

Of those schools, 44 were operated by Roman Catholics; 21 were operated by the Church of England / Anglican Church of Canada; 13 were operated by the United Church of Canada, and 2 were operated by Presbyterians

For over 100 years, 150,000 Aboriginal children passed through the Canadian residential school system.

Begun in the 1870s, it was intended, in the words of government officials, to bring these children into the “circle of civilization.”

The results, however, were far different.

More often, the schools provided an inferior education in an atmosphere of neglect, disease, and often abuse.

“I am going to tell you how we are treated.  I am always hungry.” –  Edward B., a student at Onion Lake School (1923).”

Students in the residential school system were faced with a multitude of abuses from teachers and administrators, including sexual and physical assault.

They suffered from malnourishment and harsh discipline that would not have been tolerated in any other Canadian school system.

Corporal punishment was often justified by a belief that it was the only way to save souls, civilize the savage, or punish and deter runaways.

Overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate heating, and a lack of medical care led to high rates of influenza and tuberculosis.

In one school, the death rate reached 69%.

Federal policies that tied funding to enrolment numbers led to sick children being enrolled to boost numbers, thus introducing and spreading disease.

The problem of unhealthy children was further exacerbated by the conditions of the schools themselves – overcrowding and poor ventilation, water quality and sewage systems.

Residential schools were severely underfunded and usually relied on the forced labour of their students to maintain their facilities, although it was presented as training for artisan skills.

The work was arduous, and severely compromised the academic and social development of the students.

Teachers at the residential schools were often poorly trained or prepared.

During this same period, 1930-1950, Canadian government scientists performed nutritional tests on students and knowingly kept some students undernourished to serve as the control sample.

Students were included in several scientific research experiments without their knowledge, their consent or the consent of their parents.

These experiments include nutrition experiments which involved intentional malnourishment of children, vaccine trials for the BCG vaccine, as well as studies on extrasensory perception, vitamin D diet supplements, amebicides, isoniazid for Tb, bedwetting, and dermatoglyphics.

Parents and family members regularly travelled to the schools, often camping outside to be closer to their children.

So many parents made the trip that Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed argued that the schools should be moved further from the reserves to make visiting more difficult.

He also objected to allowing children to return home during school breaks and holidays because he believed the trips interrupted the civilizing of school attendees.

Reed said that the problem with day schools was that students returned home each night, where they were influenced by life on the reserve, whereas “in the boarding schools the pupils are removed for a long period from the leadings of this uncivilized life and receive constant care and attention”.

Visitation, for who could make the journey, was strictly controlled by school officials in a manner similar to the procedures enforced in the prison system.

In the early decades, the system grew without planning or restraint.

In 1894, amendments to the Indian Act made school attendance compulsory for Indigenous children between 7 and 16 years of age, changed to children between 6 and 15 years of age in 1908.

The introduction of mandatory attendance was the result of pressure from church representatives, reliant on student enrolment quotas to secure funding.

They were struggling to attract new students due to increasingly poor school conditions.

By the 1930s about 30% of Indigenous children were believed to be attending residential schools.

The actual number of deaths remains unknown due to inconsistent reporting by school officials and the destruction of medical and administrative records in compliance with policies for government records.

Estimates range from 3,200 to 6,000.

N. Walker, Indian Affairs Superintendent (1948):

“If I were appointed by the Dominion Government for the express purpose of spreading tuberculosis, there is nothing finer in existence that the average Indian residential school.”

Compulsory attendance ended in 1948, following the  report of a special joint committee and subsequent amendment of the Indian Act.

Government officials were still able to influence student attendance.

The introduction of the Family Allowance Act in 1945 stipulated that school-aged children had to be enrolled in school for families to qualify for the “baby bonus”, further coercing Indigenous parents into having their children attend residential schools

The last federally operated residential school, Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996.

The residential school system harmed Indigenous children by removing them from their families, depriving them of their ancestral languages, and exposing many of them to physical and sexual abuse and disease.

Disconnected from their families and culture and forced to speak English or French, students who attended the residential school system often graduated unable to fit into their communities but still subject to racist attitudes systemically prevalent in mainstream Canadian society.

The system ultimately proved successful in disrupting the transmission of Indigenous practices and beliefs across generations.

The legacy of the system has been linked to an increased prevalence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide, which persist within Indigenous communities to this day.

On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology on behalf of the Government of Canada and the leaders of the other federal parties in the House of Commons.

Nine days prior, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had been established to uncover the truth about the schools.

The commission gathered about 7,000 statements from residential school survivors through public and private meetings at various local, regional and national events across Canada.

In 2015, the TRC concluded with the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the publication of a multi-volume report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time.

The TRC report concluded that the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide.

Ryerson University law professor Pamela Palmater says that the definition of genocide in the United Nations’ convention on the crime of genocide applies to Canada’s actions.

She said the convention states that a genocide is committed when members of a group are killed, subjected to serious physical or mental harm, put in conditions to destroy them, become victims to measures intended to prevent births or have their children forcibly transferred to another group.

Canada only needs to be guilty of one of the five acts in the UN convention, with the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, to commit genocide under international law, Palmater said, but she argued Canada was guilty of all five.

The actual number of deaths remains unknown due to inconsistent reporting by school officials and the destruction of medical and administrative records in compliance with policies for government records.

Research by the TRC revealed that at least 3,201 students died, mostly from disease.

TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair has suggested that the number of deaths may exceed 6,000.

In 2011, Justice Murray Sinclair reflected:   “Missing children – that is the big surprise for me … That such large numbers of children died at the schools….. That the information of their deaths was not communicated back to their families.”

The TRC concluded that it may be impossible to ever identify the number of deaths or missing children, in part because of the habit of burying students in unmarked graves.

The work is further complicated by a pattern of poor record keeping by school and government and church officials, who neglected to keep reliable numbers about the number of children who died or where they were buried.

While most schools had cemeteries on site, their location and extent remain difficult to determine as cemeteries that were originally marked were found to have been later razed, intentionally hidden or built over.

On May 27, 2021, officials revealed multiple unmarked graves containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children, including some as young as 3, had been found on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia operated by the Catholic Church and Federal Government between 1890 and 1978.

“It is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history,” tweeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in response to the discoveries.

Thousands of children enrolled in the Canadian Indian residential system remain missing and unaccounted for.

Despite direct requests, the Catholic Church has steadfastly refused to formally apologize for abuses that occurred within the residential schools under their charge in Canada.

In 2018, Pope Francis rejected a direct appeal from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for an apology.

In 2007, advocate Cindy Blackstock launched a human rights case against the federal government over its funding of child welfare programs on reserves.

That case, led by Blackstock’s First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations, alleged the federal government discriminates against Indigenous children by providing less funding and poorer services than it does for non-Indigenous children.

It has been five years since the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in their favour, declaring on Jan. 26, 2016, that Canada’s “service gaps, denials and adverse impacts” on Indigenous children amounted to “a prima facie case of discrimination.”

Since then, Blackstock has obtained nine new rulings from the tribunal ordering Ottawa to comply with its original decision — including ordering it “to cease its discriminatory practices and reform the First Nations Child and Family Services Program” and that $40,000 in “compensation be paid to the estates of deceased” children who were denied equal funding, as well as to children apprehended from their reserves since 2006.

But on Dec. 22, 2020, the federal government launched a judicial review of the tribunal decision to expand the eligibility of Indigenous children who would benefit from the decision.

Ottawa counters it has already spent nearly $700 million since the 2016 ruling ensuring “all First Nations children can access the products, services and supports they need, when they need them.”

It’s not over.



  1. I believe there truly could be many more than the upper end of the 6,000 estimate. If each school’s location gave up their secrets like the Kamloops location and we find over 200 slaughtered children, this could easily be almost triple that high-end estimate. How many families were told their children ran away when they were just dumped in an unmarked pit? We could be looking at over 15,000 lost souls that never made it home to their families. Canadian citizens need to be outraged over this and to never, ever forget what this stain on our history has done to the Indigenous.

  2. Why is Canada glossing over and ignoring the fact that Pierre Trudeau the current PMs father was justice minister for Canada and prime minister during some of the worst residential school times.
    If we’re canceling names because of historical wrong doings then Pierre Trudeau’s name should be near the top of the list.

    • ….Talk about making stuff up….

      PET was there in 1967, most of the residential schools were closed by then.

      I can understand not liking Trudeau, but inventing things just ruins your credibility.

      • Talk about you making stuff up…
        Trudeau became PM in 1968 and his government took over that residential school in 1969. From there his government ran at least that school for at least a decade. He was minister of justice for Canada before then.
        Residential schools in Canada operated into the 1990s.
        Pierre Trudeau’s entire political & legal career existed during the era of residential schools.
        What you’re saying is a slap in the face to First Nations.

  3. The catholic church and it’s countless atrocities are pitiful and sickening, it should have been dealt with and shut down permanently a long time ago.

    • Another bigot with blinders. As this piece notes there were other churches that ran residential schools. Some of those were much worse than those run by the Catholic church.
      At the end of the day it is the government of Canada that is at fault as the government was the overseer of the schools.
      But, you don’t want the Liberals to bear any blame even though they ran the government most when the residential schools were operating.
      Keep voting for your beloved Justin.

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