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The two earlier existing schools, industrial schools and boarding schools, were united into residential schools by the Canadian Government in 1864 (Reimer, 2010:36). Miller (1996) has explained “the governing of the schools had the form of joint venture between state and church (Roman , Anglican, Methodist or United Church) where the state was responsible for the financing (Miller, 1996:25). ’’ The Canadian Government was responsible directly when it came to establishing residential schools for Aboriginal children.
In order to attend residential schools, Aboriginal children were taken away from their families and communities. The proper definition of Aboriginal people or Aboriginal includes Métis, Inuit, and First Nations regardless of where they live in Canada and regardless of whether they are “registered” under the Indian Act of Canada (Stout and Kiping, 2003:5). Throughout history First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people have faced centuries of colonial suppression which has disrupted the process of Aboriginal cultural identity formation. One of the tools of suppression is through the formation of residential schools. At the schools, the children suffered from emotional, physical, sexual and psychological abuse (Stout and Kipling, 2003:8). The trauma to which Aboriginal people were exposed in the past by residential schools continues to have major negative effect to the generations to follow.
By the 1840s, the attempts by the churches to “civilize” Aboriginal people became a matter of official state policy (Claes and Clifton, 1998). This was an era of westward expansion and the government was anxious to prevent any Aboriginal interference with its colonization plans. Subscribing to an ideology that constructed Aboriginal people as backward and savage, government officials believed assimilation was in the population’s best interests (1998; Culture and Mental Health Research Unit, 2000). For example, in 1847, the chief superintendent of education in Upper Canada indicated in a report to the Legislative Assembly that “education must consist not merely of the training of the mind, but of a weaning from the habits and feelings of their ancestors, and the acquirements of the language, arts and customs of civilized life” (cited in Claes and Clifton, 1998:15).
The 1884 amendments to the Indian Act served as a particularly important impetus for growth. On the one hand, they made boarding school attendance mandatory for Native children less than 16 years of age. On the other hand, the revised Act gave authorities the power to arrest, transport and detain children at school, while parents who refused to cooperate faced fines and imprisonment (Claes and Clifton, 1998).
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However, by the end of the first decade of the 20th century it was clear that the industrial school model was not working. As Claes and Clifton state, students were “not fitting into white society, nor doing well back in their home communities” (1998:12). This, in turn, led the government to shift the focus of its Aboriginal education policy from assimilation to segregation. In the new framework, students would be supplied with basic rural skills after which they were expected to return to their First Nation community (Claes and Clifton, 1998).
With the period since 1969 being marked by a growing trend towards Aboriginal self-determination in matters of education, most remaining residential schools ceased operations by the mid-1970s. Only seven such schools were still open at the end of the 1980s and the last federally-run residential school closed its doors in Saskatchewan in 1996 (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, n.d.). Many thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their families and enrolled in the residential school system during its existence (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, n.d.; Claes and Clifton, 1998; Culture and Mental Health Research Unit, 2000). While the majority of these children were status Indians, attendance also included many Inuit, Métis and non-status Indians (Claes and Clifton, 1998). However, regardless of the precise number of children involved, Aboriginal people across the country have paid a high price, both individually and collectively, for the government’s misguided experiment in cultural assimilation.
The harmful impacts of residential schools have forever altered the traditional ways of First Nation’s people of Canada. These impacts have affected First Nation’s ability to flourish as a successful community in the Canadian society. The Assembly of First Nations has been stated saying,
“Residential schools served to disconnect them from their culture, families and communities and left them feeling “ashamed” of being born native”. “They tried to kill the Indian in the child, to eradicate any sense of Indian-ness from Canada. It was two cultures clashing, one dominant and imposing its will on the other, and the other suffered (Stout and Kipling, 2003:11).”
Although residential schools closed around 1970, the negative impacts caused by these schools still haunt the lives of many Aboriginal individuals (Stout and Kipling, 200:15). These impacts are visible while looking at the poor socio-economic structures of Aboriginal’s in Canadian society.