Colonial Education and Residential Schools

Federally funded “Residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada date back to the 1870s. Over 130 residential schools were located across the country, and the last school closed in 1996. These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to minimize parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children. During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents' wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, "Summary of the Final Report," 3.) 

The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada - Vol. 1-6 | Gladue Rights Research Database (

Canada's Residential Schools


Not all Indigenous youth attended residential schools. Some attended Indian day schools, some attended provincial public schools alongside non-Indigenous students, and some avoided formal western education entirely. But attending Residential Schools was prioritized by the federal and provincial governments for the cultural ‘reformation’ and assimilation of Indigenous children. Parents and guardians who refused to allow their children to be taken to residential schools were at risk of arrest by Indian Agents and/or RCMP. Children were forced to attend and those who ran away from the schools were brought back. Some children who fled the schools did not return home to their communities, as many children died from exposure in their attempts to escape the institutions and return to their homes. 

Residential schools were designed eradicate Indigenous cultures and peoples. Taking children from their families and replacing their culture with the culture of the colonizing society is an act of genocide. In addition, children in Residential Schools were tragically subjected to extreme abuse from teachers and school staff (including by nuns, priests/pastors, teachers, and custodial staff), and the mistreatment of students was extremely common in all areas of their life. Children also died from neglect, disease, malnourishment and starvation, sexual, physical, mental, and spiritual abuse/assault. Some children were even victims of homicide at the hands of staff.

For instance, food in Residential Schools was of poor quality with no nutritional value, in certain cases governments used Indigenous children as test subjects for nutritional programs that developed the lowest quality food using additives (such as bone marrow) to stave off starvation. Hunger and malnutrition was just one reality children had to survive at their time in Residential schools, poor nutrition along with small and unsanitary living quarters resulted in poor health making the frequency of infection, sickness, or disease (such as tuberculosis) statistically high.

While nearly 80 000 survivors are living today, nearly 1 in every 25 children died in Residential Schools (CBC) due to the inhospitable environmental, social, and spiritual conditions. In comparison, there was a 1 in 26 chance of dying in the line of duty serving Canada's military during WWII. Original federal estimates recorded 6000 deaths in Residential Schools, but it is has now been proven after the unearthing of Indigenous children's graves that the death toll was much higher. The recorded number of deaths also does not account for the retroactive deaths of former students/survivors who had since left school but died of complications caused by Residential Schooling. Eg: widespread experiences of trauma and PTSD, physical ailments and mental illness, substance related deaths, or any further complications due to poor nutrition and initial illness originally contracted in the schools.


Saskatchewan Residential Schools

Each link contains a summary profile on a Saskatchewan Residential School authored by Shuana Niessen and published by the University of Regina. Succinct research features general descriptions, interviews with survivors, archival documents and images, and additional resources:


Day Schools

General Information

Zoe McDaniel, “What are Indian Day Schools?” University of British Columbia   

“Indian day schools initially preceded Indian residential schools and later ran in tandem with them. Like residential schools, day schools were used as tools of assimilation and cultural genocide by the federal government [….] The children that attended day school were allowed to return home in the evening as they did not live at residential schools like their counterparts. However, they were also denied their culture and language, and were subject to the same forms of physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse."

Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean, "Child-Targeted Assimilation: An Oral History of Indian Day School Education in Kahnawà:ke," MA Thesis, Concordia University, 2019. 36. 

“All forms of schooling for Indigenous children in Canada were notoriously underfunded and poorly staffed and did not provide an adequate education by any standard. Day Schools became the primary educational institution for Indigenous children in both Canada and the United States because they were “cheaper educational programs.” According to Raptis (2011), ‘The main argument in favor of such establishments was that in addition to educating individual learners, they could positively influence entire communities to adopt ‘western ways.’ In Canada, Day Schools existed over a longer period of time and in greater numbers than Residential Schools (since the early 1600s) and operated with the same colonial intent of erasure of identity and assimilation into Western society as the Residential Schools. Miller (1996) found that after the year 1900 there were far more Day Schools than Residential Schools, 241 Day Schools ‘for which Indian Affairs was responsible served 6784 students, while the boarding schools were home to 2229 and the industrial institutions a further 1612’. At the time, there were 19,528 status Indians between the ages of six and fifteen but only about half were registered in ‘Indian schools.’ By 1927, the number of Day Schools under Indian Affairs supervision increased to 250 for Indian and Inuit children [and Métis].”   

There is an ongoing class action lawsuit against Canada to compensate Day School Survivors for the abuse and harm they endured while attending schools.


Looking for a Map or List of Day Schools? Check out these links:


Colonial Trauma and Residential Schooling


Familial, Personal, or communal attendance of a Residential School or Day School is a prominent Systemic Factor which affects the lives of Indigenous peoples. The following is a selection of summaries from peer-reviewed scholarship on the relationship between colonial trauma and residential schooling. They aim to explain how IRS or Day School attendance can impact the psychological, social, physical, and cultural wellbeing of a person, including social determinants of health (SDH). 

Colonial Trauma from Residential and Industrial Schooling


  • “The early definition by Evans-Campbell (2008) described colonial trauma as an active process of political aggression involving ‘both historical and contemporary events that reflect colonial practices to colonize, subjugate, and perpetrate ethnocide and genocide’ (p.335). This understanding of colonial trauma recognizes that the psychological, social, and cultural impacts of colonialism extend far beyond the level of the individual to the collective. The concept of colonial trauma presents the persistent, systemic intrusions of colonization as responsible for the oppression of an entire cultural group (Lloyd, 2000) and the related social and health disparities at the population level.”[i]
  • “Residential schooling and its long term effects on families and communities is an example of the cumulative and compounding impact of colonial trauma. Residential schools were undoubtedly one of the most pernicious and powerful practices of cultural genocide; through the removal of children from their cultures, their communities and their families. The impact of this personal, family and community level trauma has proven to be cumulative ’becoming more severe as it is passed onto subsequent generations’ (Duran, 2006, p 16) ….. No other cultural groups have endured the long term removal of its children followed by the cataclysmic impact on a culture of adult parents who have grown up in severe institutional industrial school settings, designed to “kill the Indian in the child” (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2008).... The systematic and institutionalized removal of Indigenous children away from the love, protection, and socialization of their families and communities appears historically unique, beyond other examples of ethnocide, illustrating the contemporary brutality of racism with the deliberate intent to destroy cultures and communities.”[ii]
  • Colonial trauma has disrupted Indigenous identity contributing to the current situations of poor health because Indigenous people have been intruded upon, and removed from their collectivities and territories. This is evident within Indigenous reserve communities in Canada today. Within Indigenous communities, individuals may live as a group of Indigenous people that live in the same location while separated from their cultural traditions. This has resulted in a reduction in the fulfilling of ancestral roles, duties and responsibilities that are essential to the sustainability and wellbeing of Indigeneity and Indigenous collectivities. The assimilation policies have created Indigenous individuals, with profound disruption to the sense of belonging to a collective Nation, as evident in current levels of lateral violence.”[iii]
  • “The circumstances of impoverished Indigenous peoples are intimately interwoven from birth with historical and contemporary government policies [residential school policies and intergenerational trauma; Child and Family Services; ineffectual short-term addictions treatment] and the resulting consequences of poverty, addiction, trauma, mental illness and entrenched structural violence. In today’s political climate, positive reforms to government policies and programming are limited and social welfare benefits have not kept up with inflation, forcing more people into highrisk lifestyles with no meaningful way out of poverty. In remote and northern communities, the lack of voluntary sector supports such as food banks, shelters and transitional housing adds to the vulnerability of the poor and marginalized. Women with chronic substance abuse and mental illness are at high risk of dying prematurely (10,40,41). Their health and social needs reach far beyond basic outreach services and unless forms of intensive, culturally safe therapy is offered in a place where they feel safe to begin to rebuild (or build for the first time) their lives, and unless this support is provided for extended periods of time (possibly the rest of their life), it is unlikely that their lives will improve. The question for Canadian society is therefore, not one of ‘‘efficiencies,’’ ‘‘quality improvement’’ and ‘‘accountability,’’ rather, when we consider the lives of vulnerable peoples in our society we must ask, ‘‘What are our moral values as Canadians?’’, ‘‘Are we as a society, morally driven to prioritize our most vulnerable citizens; those most difficult to help, and who require our commitment of both time and resources?’’, ‘‘Do we expect our governments to work towards beneficence and away from maleficence in each and every policy that targets our most vulnerable?’’. Unfortunately, even with a commitment to ethically driven policies and services there are no guarantees that individuals will fare better if they remain in neighbourhoods and communities where poverty is endemic and only limited options exist for them to transform their lives.”[iv]


Residential School Attendance as a Social Determinant of Health 


  • The likelihood of being in worse self-perceived health and mental health, as well as experiencing self-reported mental distress, suicidal ideation and having a suicide attempt in the past 12 months, increases conditional on familial attendance of RS [Residential School]. Conceptual constructs developed in the intergenerational trauma literature have been used to estimate the impact of familial RS attendance on health and empirically evaluate the presence of intergenerational trauma. RS family member attendance acts as a mediator for various present-day stress experiences, especially in frequency of exposure to stress and the appraisal thereof. This lends support to the mediating mechanism of survivor stress impacting the stress responses of children of survivors to current stress responses. ... We find that controlling for a variety of structural and SDH [Social Determinants of Health], the effect of RS attendance on subsequent generations remains importantly and statistically significantly associated with lower self-perceived health and higher odds of suicide attempt within the past year.” [v]
  • Coping with traumatic experiences has been shown to include the use of harmful substances such as alcohol and drugs in Indigenous populations and in populations suffering from PTSD more broadly. Health behaviours which have a more direct association with health outcomes are shaped by biological, psychological and social factors. Results from the RHS, a data set capturing health and SDH indicators for on-reserve First Nations peoples, reveal poorer health outcomes in survivors and children of survivors of RSs (see ... It is striking that even when controlling for structural covariates—health behaviours, food security issues and whether shelter is adequate or in need of major repair—individuals whose ancestors attended RSs report lower likelihoods of being in excellent SPH [Self-Perceived Health] and are more likely to have attempted suicide in the past year. As noted above, suicide attempt is the strongest predictor of death by suicide.”[vi]


[i] Mitchell, Terry, Courtney Arseneau, and Darren Lecturer. "Colonial Trauma: Complex, Continuous, Collective, Cumulative and Compounding Effects on the Health of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and beyond." International Journal of Indigenous Health 14, no. 2 (2019): 82.

[ii] Mitchell, Terry, Courtney Arseneau, and Darren Lecturer. "Colonial Trauma: Complex, Continuous, Collective, Cumulative and Compounding Effects on the Health of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and beyond." International Journal of Indigenous Health 14, no. 2 (2019): 84.

[iii] Mitchell, Terry, Courtney Arseneau, and Darren Lecturer. "Colonial Trauma: Complex, Continuous, Collective, Cumulative and Compounding Effects on the Health of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and beyond." International Journal of Indigenous Health 14, no. 2 (2019): 85.

[iv] Tait, Caroline. “Resituating the Ethical Gaze: Government Morality and the Local Worlds of Impoverished Indigenous Women.” International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 72, (August 2013): 5. doi:10.3402/ijch.v72i0.21207

[v] Hackett, Christina, David Feeny, and Emile Tompa. "Canada's Residential School System: Measuring the Intergenerational Impact of Familial Attendance on Health and Mental Health Outcomes." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 70, no. 11 (2016): 1103.

[vi] Hackett, Christina, David Feeny, and Emile Tompa. "Canada's Residential School System: Measuring the Intergenerational Impact of Familial Attendance on Health and Mental Health Outcomes." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 70, no. 11 (2016): 1103.