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Frequently Asked Questions

The History of Indian Residential Schools and the Church’s Apologies

1. What was a residential school? How was the United Church involved?

During the 19th and early 20th century, federal policies were undergirded by a conviction that First Peoples needed to be assimilated into Western European culture. Residential schools, which removed children from their families and communities and often discouraged the language and practices of First Nations cultures, played an important role in carrying out this policy of assimilation. There were day schools in some communities, but due to isolation and seasonal movements of First Peoples, it was often deemed more suitable to establish a large residential school in a stable settlement.

During the 19th century, both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches were highly committed to universal public education (for example, noted Canadian educator Egerton Ryerson was a Methodist minister). At the same time, there was little corporate understanding of the importance of cultural sensitivity in both education and gospel proclamation. Thus a mission goal of providing education and proclaiming the gospel was not tempered by respect for the existing culture and spirituality of First Nations communities.

With rare exceptions, the national policy of assimilation was not questioned by the churches. This uncritical approach to mission enabled the church to become an agent of government in promoting the schools. Between 1849 and 1925, the Methodists and Presbyterians opened 12 schools for which, in the process of union, the United Church assumed the responsibility until the last one closed in 1969. A couple of residences were also operated, allowing children from a distance to attend day schools in the immediate community. In addition, the Anglicans and Roman Catholics (and the Presbyterians remaining after church union) operated some 120 Indian Residential Schools.

The number of active residential schools peaked at 80 in 1931. In 1945, there were 9,149 students in residential schools, with over 100 students in grade 8 and none registered in grade 9 or higher. In 1948, there were 72 residential schools with 9,368 students. This would be about half the Indian student population. However, in some regions—the North, B.C., and the Prairies, for example—the proportion was higher. There were communities where all the children were forcibly removed. (sources: Assembly of First Nations, "Canada's Residential School Aboriginal Survivor Series," Fall Edition 2004; Aboriginal Healing Foundation, "The Healing Continues," 2005)

As the school system evolved, it was the federal government that set the standards and provided the funding (often inadequate) for the schools, and legally required children to attend. The church was involved in suggesting to the government potential principals for the schools and also provided Christian Education workers for the schools. The name of The United Church of Canada was integral to the identity of the schools and, aside from a few voices rarely heard by those in power, gave unquestioned assent to the policy of assimilation that informed the school system. Some students speak positively of acquiring an education that allowed them to move forward in the "White man's world," to gain cross-cultural skills, and to provide leadership to their people in transition.

The United Church was involved in the following Indian Residential Schools: Ahousaht, Alberni, Port Simpson, Coqualeetza, Edmonton, Morley, Round Lake, Cote, File Hills, Norway House, Brandon, Portage la Prairie, and Mount Elgin (Muncey), as well as residences in Kitimaat, B.C. and Teulon, Manitoba. (A school in Red Deer was closed before church union in 1920.) Of approximately 80,000 students alive today, about 6.7 percent attended United-Church run schools.

United Church-Related Indian Residential Schools and Residences
Name Province Opened Closed BHM/WMS/UCC
Ahousaht B.C. 1904 1939 WMS
Alberni B.C. 1891 1973 WMS
Port Simpson B.C. 1874 1948 BHM
Kitimaat (residence) B.C. 1893 1941 WMS
Coqualeetza B.C. 1888 1940 WMS
Edmonton Alberta 1923 1966 BHM
Red Deer Alberta 1893 1919 WMS
Morley Alberta 1925 1969 BHM
Round Lake Saskatchewan 1886 1950 WMS
File Hills Saskatchewan 1889 1949 BHM
Cote Saskatchewan 1928 1940 UCC
Norway House Manitoba 1900 1967 BHM
Brandon Manitoba 1895 1969 BHM
Portage la Prairie Manitoba 1886 1970 WMS
Teulon (residence) Manitoba 1912 1996 WMS
Mount Elgin (Muncey) Ontario 1849 1946 BHM

BHM—Board of Home Mission | WMS—Women's Missionary Society | UCC—The United Church of Canada

Related Resources:

  • The video "Residential Schools," of a lecture given by Manitoba history professor Dr. Jane Friesen, provides an excellent overview of the development and implementation of this educational policy (available from the AVEL West outlet *).
  • The virtual exhibit Where Are the Children? * pictures life in the schools.
  • The United Church Archives Network is always ready to help with research requests.

2. When did our church first begin to question its role in the schools?

While the issue of residential schools—beyond a court case—has only recently received attention in the public media, it has been on the agenda of the church for some time. Indeed, prophetic voices in our church have spoken of our relationships with First Nations peoples for generations. For example, a publication of World Vision, Envision (Spring 2000), quotes Presbyterian missionary Hugh McKay as saying in 1903 that the schools were failing spiritually, academically, and vocationally because they were trying to "educate and colonize a people against their will."

This was just one early sign that the experiment wasn't working. The video "The Awakening of Elizabeth Shaw" (available from AVEL) is the story of how one woman tried to report her misgivings in 1898 about the operation of a B.C. residence for First Nations children.

Similar concerns about the impact of residential schools continued to be voiced by a prophetic minority within the church and became more common among United Church persons with knowledge about the system during the post-war period.

A Moderator's Task Group on Residential Schools reporting to the General Council Executive (November 1991) stated: "The archival record indicates that the national bodies responsible for the United Church residential schools knew that something was wrong. Beginning in the late forties, church officials supported the movement toward the provision of schools, at least at the elementary level, which would be accessible to all Native communities and co-operated energetically in the concomitant move toward the closing of the residential schools. In 1947, the Board of Home Missions presented a brief to a Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons recommending that the residential schools be reviewed with a view to replacing them with day schools."

The questioning of residential schools and the role of the church in them became more intense in the 1960s, culminating with the withdrawal of the last remaining United Church involvement in 1969.

By the time of the Moderator's Task Force report in 1991, recognition of the negative impact of the residential school system is reflected in the report's assertion that "overall, the nature and impact of the residential schools can be described as a tragic paradox. While they may have been understood by the churches as a means to 'save' Native people both physically and spiritually, the residential schools were part of a social and economic system driven both by the assumption of European superiority as well as by the desire to take over the land and other resources that were part of the traditional territories of the Native people."

Many ask why someone didn't at least stop the sexual and severe physical abuse that was perpetrated by many in authority on a fairly widespread basis at the schools. As in many situations of abuse, victims are threatened if they tell, are too ashamed to reveal such a secret, and feel very vulnerable as it is. So many people who might have stopped it simply did not know what has happening behind closed doors. The notions of the "standards of punishment of the day" and "that's the way it was" precluded much questioning of the levels of harm that may have been inflicted. Many staff also felt that their positions were jeopardized should they speak out. It was not until the early 1980s that the extent of physical and sexual abuse began to be revealed, and an understanding of the "cycle of violence" was gained.

3. What are the "legacy of residential schools" and the "mission school syndrome"?

The systemic character of residential schools had effects that were devastating for First Nations peoples. In From Our Mothers' Arms (UCPH, 1999), Inex Dieter says, "The most terrible result of my residential school experience was they took away my ability to hold my children." The long-term repercussions of being a part of the residential school experience precluded many former students from becoming the responsible and loving parents they might have been had they continued to be nurtured by their own families and communities.

"Living by bells" in an institutionalized setting and regimented culture, coupled with the threat and reality of punishment by straps, confinement, slapping, cuffing, and name-calling for any misbehaviour or mistakes perceived or real, engendered fear of taking any initiative and stunted the development of a healthy identity in most students. Many tearfully recall the rough cutting of their braids and dousing for lice, censorship of letters, and removal and destruction of their clothes and prized gifts from parents and grandparents. Many came to the schools not knowing any English and were forced to abandon their mother tongues, in time becoming unable to communicate with their Elders and receive their teachings, including an understanding of treaties. Many experienced hunger on a regular basis, and watched staff eat much better meals. Their spirits were crushed. Trust in "White people" and authorities were broken. Many report that it is only in mid-life or later that they have realized they had a will of their own and could make their own choices, including returning to the spiritual traditions of their childhood and learning their Native language and cultural practices. At school, there was little or no opportunity to learn money and resource management. The poor education gained in many of the schools did not allow students to further their education or obtain gainful employment. Graduates with such a negative experience of school generally did not then encourage their own children to do well in school or gain a higher education.

Generations of Aboriginal people today recall memories of trauma, neglect, shame, humiliation, and poverty. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome are evident in many former students. Those who suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are often prone to perpetuating that "cycle of violence." Many have turned to drug and alcohol addictions to drown their grief, confusion, and bad memories. Violence and drinking have often led to legal charges and prison sentences. Some have attempted or completed suicide.

These are the many tragic consequences of forced assimilation, racism, and colonization that constitute "the mission school syndrome" and "the legacy of residential schools."

4. Why has the United Church apologized for its role in residential schools?

In 1986 the Moderator apologized to First Nations peoples within the United Church for the times in which the church had linked acceptance of European culture and the corresponding suppression of First Nations cultures to the sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While there was no direct reference to residential schools in this apology, it is clear that the schools were an important part of the national policy of assimilation and suppression of spiritual ceremonies.

In 1997 the General Council committed the church to a journey of repentance in relation to its role in the residential schools system. In 1998, the General Council Executive formally apologized for its complicity in the system. It did so because the church had heard the stories of suffering wrought by the separation of children from communities and families, the suppression of culture and spirituality, and cases of sexual and physical abuse that occurred in many residential schools. The apology arose out of a sense of a corporate sin of commission for those times in which we had participated in the system. It was also tied to the sin of omission for those times in which we had not spoken out corporately against the national policies and practices that gave rise to the school system.

It is important to note that an acknowledgement of wrongdoing is just the first step in walking the road of repentance. Apologies need to be followed by concrete acts that demonstrate that the church is committed to living in a new way in its relations with First Nations peoples.

It is also important that, wherever possible, words of apology be lifted from the printed text and spoken person to person, church to First Nation. This is a challenging venture for the church, since there is not one First Nation to which the apology needs to be delivered but many. It is for this reason that the General Council in 2000 commissioned past Moderators to deliver words of apology on behalf of the church. Church representatives are also present whenever requested at all out-of-court settlement processes and extend words of apology, along with commitment to ensure that such harm does not occur again.

5. Do I share responsibility for what happened at the residential schools?

Our history as a church is not unconnected to our present reality. As a community we are composed not just of those with us now but also of a "great cloud of witnesses." The gifts of those who went before us are now ours by inheritance. But just as we receive the gifts so also do we carry the burdens of the mistakes made in our past. First Nations have a profound sense of their continuity with those who have gone before. The traditions of Israel and of the Christian church are built on the notion of a communion of saints and sinners, past and present. If we are to claim "our" history at all, we must claim it all.

The individualism of our present age often tempts us to believe that we can live independently of both our history and our community. Our understanding of the nature of the church and our experience of the fact that neither death nor distance can separate us from the gifts and burdens of those who have gone before us leads us to resist the easy conscience of the dominant culture. The church of the past entered willingly and often with good intentions into a relationship with government that seriously harmed our relationship with First Nations communities. We live with that legacy and are called to repair the damage. The church of the present is invited to repent of this past and to build new relationships with First Nations on a foundation of justice and respect.

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