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Why Non-Indigenous Canadians Need to Share the Burden and Historical Legacies of the Residential School System

Kaleigh Bradley on how the legacy of residential schools continues to ripple throughout Indigenous communities, and what must be done. 

Book Cover The Education of Augie Merasty

In Talking History, Canada's foremost historians and history experts show that Canada's history is essential to our understanding of our country and the world today. The series is made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Kaleigh Bradley is a historical consultant and PhD candidate in the Department of History at York University. Her current research examines the environmental history of Indigenous lands and the effects of mining and development on Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario. She’s also a co-editor of the popular history website


In the nineteenth century, near present-day Sault Ste. Marie, Chief Shingwaukonse dreamt of a teaching wigwam where Anishinaabe children could acquire vocational and academic skills. Chief Shingwaukonse wanted children to have these tools so that they could preserve Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language), and easily adapt to a modernizing economy and society. Indigenous peoples, with the help of church missionaries and government officials, sought the creation of the schools for their children, but the schools later became an instrument for cultural genocide.

The Indian Residential School (IRS) system began in the early nineteenth century with the missionary work of different Christian groups across Canada. Government and churches designed the IRS system to assimilate and transform Indigenous children into self-reliant citizens by removing parental involvement in their intellectual, spiritual, and cultural development. Schools were perceived as an ideal solution to the late-nineteenth-century “problem” of incorporating Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian settler society. In 1876, the federal government consolidated the IRS system with the passing of the Indian Act, and by the late 1880s, government-funded schools were operating across Canada, run by Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic missionaries and volunteers. Gordon IRS, last residential school, closed less than 20 years ago in 1996.

Schools were often sites of emotional, physical, and psychological abuse, and the legacy of the schools—language loss, broken families, children alienated from their communities and culture, addictions and mental health issues, intergenerational trauma, health issues due to disease and neglect—continues to ripple throughout Indigenous communities. Institutional life was often unrelenting and traumatic for students, and the education received typically left them ill-equipped for capitalist ways of living. According to historians and government officials, the schools failed to provide an adequate settler education, and they did not lead to the assimilation of Indigenous peoples, although they caused irreparable suffering and damage to Indigenous communities and cultures. Indigenous cultures are no longer as vibrant today as they were prior to the creation of the IRS system.

Schools were often sites of emotional, physical, and psychological abuse, and the legacy of the schools continues to ripple throughout Indigenous communities.

It’s important to note that the history of residential schools is also a story of survival, resiliency, mobilization, and cultural revitalization. Students and communities often resisted assimilation and survivors acquired the tools for political resistance and mobilization. 

In the fall of 2011, I was hired as a research consultant to research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was 24 and eager to work. I had recently graduated from my Master’s program and in this economy, I was grateful to have a job. My project manager told me to show up at a church archive the following Monday. I was sent detailed instructions along with a file that was over four hundred pages, which outlined the history of residential schools and the scope of the research involved. I was never taught this history during elementary school, high school, and even as an undergraduate student in university. I was to uncover links between the schools and Indigenous communities and in particular, I was supposed to flag anything that suggested evidence of abuse, neglect, missing children, or unmarked cemeteries.

It’s important to note that the history of residential schools is also a story of survival, resiliency, mobilization, and cultural revitalization. Students and communities often resisted assimilation and survivors acquired the tools for political resistance and mobilization. 

Along with a few other researchers, I was charged with analyzing the countless photographs and negatives housed at this archive. There was something very different about researching photographs as opposed to textual documents like letters, missionary reports, publications, and various colonial papers. The visual remnants of one of the most brutal forms of settler colonialism proved to be a different and more complicated historical record. In that chilly and artificially-lit church archive, I witnessed only pieces of the traumatic and dark history of settler colonialism that occurred in our country. This was not the Canadian history I had been taught.

Western society places emphasis on material ways of recording history. Archives that house documents are where we store our pasts. But there are silences in the archive. By silences, I am referring to the absence of Indigenous voices in documentary history. Here, in front of me, were documents and photographs that recorded the history of the schools, but they were created by perpetrators. This history was written with their words and it was recorded with their cameras. The archive was an unreliable historical witness. The burden of this traumatic history was placed mostly on documentary history in the archive, and the majority of us non-Indigenous researchers were supposed to adjudicate the “evidence”. It was important to unpack these histories in an attempt at corroborating survivor testimonies. References to abuse were not always explicit in text and evidence of neglect, trauma, or abuse in photographs was almost subjective. 

Missing in front of me was the archive of oral tradition employed by Indigenous communities to record their own histories. I was highly aware of, and almost uncomfortable with, my privilege as a settler. I had grown up in an entirely different context. I was a white settler girl from a French-Canadian working-class family. I grew up on Anishinaabe lands in Northern Ontario and was now undertaking this research on Algonquin territory.  Along with years and decades, an entire culture and historical memory separated me from the stories I unearthed. My ancestors, along with our current government, its policies and its institutions, were the cause of their pain and suffering. I did my best to find evidence of these injustices but at the end of the day I usually left feeling helpless. I was one individual in a giant research cog. What difference could I actually make? On top of this, I was not supposed to analyze the records as a whole, as each document was to be interpreted separately. I was collecting histories and individual stories, but I was not able to paint a larger picture of this history, one that would surely support what survivors had been testifying to over the past few decades.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of the federal government, issued an official apology to survivors. Harper described the history of the IRS system as “a sad chapter in our history,” although about a year later, Harper sadly commented that our country had no history of colonialism. Formal apologies are not enough and they are only the beginning of a long and complex road towards healing and reconciliation.

Today, Canadians are more cognizant of the trauma that occurred in residential schools thanks to the media coverage of the TRC’s closing events this past summer, but more must be done to combat the racist and assimilationist views that led to these abuses in the first place. This can hopefully be achieved by following the recommendations outlined in the TRC’s final report and Calls to Action by educating ourselves about this dark chapter in Canadian history. You can check out #readtheTRCreport, a crowd-sourced series of videos by journalists, academics, activists and many others. The #readtheTRCreport movement was initiated by young Indigenous scholars who wanted all Canadians to be able to access the TRC findings.

The Report tells us that most of the work needed to help achieve reconciliation and truth-telling in Canada must be undertaken by settler Canadians. Non-Indigenous Canadians should take responsibility for the history of residential schools and the existing socio-economic struggles of Indigenous communities, instead of the emphasis being placed solely on survivors and their communities. We must all share this burden.

Most of the work needed to help achieve reconciliation and truth-telling in Canada must be undertaken by settler Canadians.

You can start by reading about the history of residential schools through the works of survivors themselves, historians, and others involved in the TRC. This is after all,ourhistory. It’s up to all of us to work towards reconciliation, by honouring survivors and their descendants, along with the countless treaties and promises to Indigenous peoples that we have broken.

The author would like to thank Crystal Fraser for her comments and feedback. 

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Book Cover Shingwauk's Vision

Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools, by J.R. Miller

About the book: With the growing strength of minority voices in recent decades has come much impassioned discussion of residential schools, the institutions where attendance by Native children was compulsory as recently as the 1960s. Former students have come forward in increasing numbers to describe the psychological and physical abuse they suffered in these schools, and many view the system as an experiment in cultural genocide. In this first comprehensive history of these institutions, J.R. Miller explores the motives of all three agents in the story. He looks at the separate experiences and agendas of the government officials who authorized the schools, the missionaries who taught in them, and the students who attended them.

Starting with the foundations of residential schooling in seventeenth-century New France, Miller traces the modern version of the institution that was created in the 1880s, and, finally, describes the phasing-out of the schools in the 1960s. He looks at instruction, work and recreation, care and abuse, and the growing resistance to the system on the part of students and their families. Based on extensive interviews as well as archival research, Miller's history is particularly rich in Native accounts of the school system.

Book Cover Unsettling the Settler Within

Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation, by Paulette Regan

About the book: In 2008, Canada established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to mend the deep rifts between Aboriginal peoples and the settler society that created Canada's notorious residential school system. Unsettling the Settler Within argues that non-Aboriginal Canadians must undergo their own process of decolonization in order to truly participate in the transformative possibilities of reconciliation. Settlers must relinquish the persistent myth of themselves as peacemakers and acknowledge the destructive legacy of a society that has stubbornly ignored and devalued Indigenous experience. A compassionate call to action, this powerful book offers a new and hopeful path toward healing the wounds of the past.

Book Cover The Education of Augie Merasty

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir, by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter

About the book: Now a retired fisherman and trapper, Joseph A. (Augie) Merasty was one of an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children who were taken from their families and sent to government-funded, church-run schools, where they were subjected to a policy of "aggressive assimiliation."

As Merasty recounts, these schools did more than attempt to mold children in the ways of white society. They were taught to be ashamed of their native heritage and, as he experienced, often suffered physical and sexual abuse.

Even as he looks back on this painful part of his childhood, Merasty’s generous and authentic voice shines through.

Book Cover Up Ghost River

Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History, by Edmund Metatawabin and Alexandra Shimo.

About the book: In the 1950s, 7-year-old Edmund Metatawabin was separated from his family and placed in one of Canada’s worst residential schools. St. Anne’s, in north­ern Ontario, is an institution now notorious for the range of punishments that staff and teachers inflicted on students. Even as Metatawabin built the trappings of a successful life—wife, kids, career—he was tormented by horrific memories. Fuelled by alcohol, the trauma from his past caught up with him, and his family and work lives imploded.
In seeking healing, Metatawabin travelled to southern Alberta. There he learned from elders, par­ticipated in native cultural training workshops that emphasize the holistic approach to personhood at the heart of Cree culture, and finally faced his alcoholism and PTSD. Metatawabin has since worked tirelessly to expose the wrongdoings of St. Anne’s, culminating in a recent court case demanding that the school records be released to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Now Metatawabin’s mission is to help the next generation of residential school survivors. His story is part of the indigenous resurgence that is happening across Canada and worldwide: after years of oppression, he and others are healing themselves by rediscovering their culture and sharing their knowledge. 
Coming full circle, Metatawabin’s haunting and brave narrative offers profound lessons on the impor­tance of bearing witness, and the ability to become whole once again.

Book Cover Indian School Days

Indian School Days, by Basil Johnston

About the book: Indian School Days is the humorous bittersweet authobiography of Basil Johnston, a native Ojibway, who was taken from his family at age 10 and placed in a "residential" school in northern Ontario The book opens in 1939 when the feared Indian agent visits Johnston's family and removes him and his four-year-old sister to St. Peter Claver's School, a boarding school run by Jesuit priests at Spanish, 75 miles from Sudbury, Ontario. In describing the years that follow, Basil Johnston creates marvelous portraits of the young Indian boys as they struggle to adapt to a harsh and strange environment, and of their Jesuit teachers, whose flashes of humour occasionally break through the discipline with which the institution is run.

Book Cover they Called Me Number One

They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival in an Indian Residential School, by Bev Sellars

About the book: Like thousands of Aboriginal children in Canada, and elsewhere in the colonized world, Xatsu'll chief Bev Sellars spent part of her childhood as a student in a church-run residential school.

These institutions endeavored to "civilize" Native children through Christian teachings; forced separation from family, language, and culture; and strict discipline. Perhaps the most symbolically potent strategy used to alienate residential school children was addressing them by assigned numbers only—not by the names with which they knew and understood themselves.

In this frank and poignant memoir of her years at St. Joseph's Mission, Sellars breaks her silence about the residential school's lasting effects on her and her family—from substance abuse to suicide attempts—and eloquently articulates her own path to healing. Number One comes at a time of recognition—by governments and society at large—that only through knowing the truth about these past injustices can we begin to redress them.

Book Cover Broken Circle

Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, by Theodore Fontaine

About the book: Theodore (Ted) Fontaine lost his family and freedom just after his seventh birthday, when his parents were forced to leave him at an Indian residential school by order of the Roman Catholic Church and the Government of Canada. Twelve years later, he left school frozen at the emotional age of seven. He was confused, angry and conflicted, on a path of self-destruction. At age 29, he emerged from this blackness. By age 32, he had graduated from the Civil Engineering Program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and begun a journey of self-exploration and healing.

In this powerful and poignant memoir, Ted examines the impact of his psychological, emotional and sexual abuse, the loss of his language and culture, and, most important, the loss of his family and community. He goes beyond details of the abuses of Native children to relate a unique understanding of why most residential school survivors have post-traumatic stress disorders and why succeeding generations of First Nations children suffer from this dark chapter in history.

Told as remembrances described with insights that have evolved through his healing, his story resonates with his resolve to help himself and other residential school survivors and to share his enduring belief that one can pick up the shattered pieces and use them for good.

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