Here are some facts about the IRS system

  • boys on St. Paul's steps 1St. Paul's hockey team - with names of playersBand members sign on to new St. Paul's
  • By the time the Canadian system of federally-funded Indian Residential Schools was established in 1883 — 16 years after Confederation —  there were already 19 residential schools for Indigenous children operating in Canada, those schools having been established and run by various Christian denominations (primarily Roman Catholic, Church of England, and Presbyterian).
  • Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister and arguably a key figure in the creation of the new nation, was in favour of residential schools for Indigenous children, but when his government created the IRS (Indian Residential School) system, enrolment was voluntary. Attendance at some sort of school – day, residential or provincial) did not become mandatory for Indigenous children until 1920, long after provincial governments had made school attendance for non-Indigenous children of a certain age compulsory.
  • While the Indian Act spelled out a punishment for failure to attend (a fine of $10 or two weeks in jail), the Act permitted students to remain at home when there was a good reason. There is very little evidence of Indigenous families facing this punishment during the IRS period.
  • The motivation behind the creation of the Indian residential school system — a network of schools primarily funded by Ottawa and administered by “the Churches” — appears to have been a mixture of Victorian benevolence (as many Aboriginal children were living in conditions of deprivation and ill health), practical considerations (how to provide education to native children living in small, remote communities), and a belief that assimilation of Indigenous people into the general population was the best way to (a) help them survive and even thrive, and (b) eventually reduce the drain on federal coffers that financial support for Indigenous communities represented.  (Public statements and correspondence from Indian Affairs officials reveal a belief that removing native children from their home communities (and culture) and giving them a form of the education that non-Aboriginal children received would eventually transform the native population into Canadians “like the rest of us” and thus eliminate the need for an Indian Affairs Department.)
  • The phrase “kill the Indian in the child”, a term often used to describe the motivation behind the Canadian residential schools, was in fact uttered by an American general who was instrumental in creating his country’s network of residential schools for Indigenous children. The creation of residential schools in the United States was a strong influence in the decision to create a similar system in Canada.
  • Although there have been many published statements that young Indigenous children were “forced” to attend an IRS institution, the use of physical force was rare. The Indian Act and its legal authority compelled enrolment and attendance by force of law, just as provincial Education Acts “forced” parents to send their children to school. The impossibility of providing a day school for every scattered Indigenous community necessarily meant that, for many parents, residential school enrolment was the only option. And in many parts of the country, Indigenous families sent their children to a residential school, not because it was “the law” but because they believed it was the very best thing they could do for them.
  •  As the last of the Indian Residential Schools closed in 1996, the IRS period lasted 113 years — 76 years if you count the years in which school attendance was compulsory — with the total number of schools peaking at 96 in 1940. then decreasing fairly steadily over the next 56 years. Several schools, like the Mohawk Institute in Ontario and St. Michael’s/Duck Lake in Saskatchewan, operated for more than a century, but others closed after only a handful of years. On average, an Indian Residential School remained open for about 50 years.
  • It has been reliably estimated that only about 1/3 of school-aged Indigenous children during the IRS period were ever enrolled in a residential school, while about a third attended one of the dozens of federal day schools, and at least 25% received no formal education at all. By 1961, there were 20,896 federal day students enrolled, compared to 8,391 students enrolled in an Indian Residential School.  
  • A good many IRS students were enrolled in an IRS institution for 9 or 10 years, but as the average length of enrolment of a residential school student has been reliably estimated at 4.5 years, just as many children spent only 1 or 2 years enrolled. 
  • Attendance figures show that, on average, about 10% of enrolled IRS students were not attending classes on any given day during much of the IRS period. But absentee figures were much worse in the federal day schools, often topping 40% in the years prior to 1946. One of the main reasons for establishing the residential school at Shubenacadie in Nova Scotia (the only IRS institution in the Atlantic provinces) was the failure of two previous day schools due to poor attendance.
  • It was not unusual at some IRS institutions serving remote communities for students to spend a full year at the school or in a neighbouring community without an opportunity to return home. But in other schools, students were able to spend weekends and holidays with their families who lived nearby.
  • Quite a large number of former IRS students have testified publicly that they were subjected to physical and/or sexual abuse during their time enrolled, and those testimonies have rightly angered Canadians who cannot imagine their country operating a residential school system that allowed such things to take place. But the special reparations process (….) set up to financially compensate abuse survivors received …. applications from former students — approximately …% of the ….. former IRS students still alive.
  • Accusations of cultural denigration — even genocide — have been made against the IRS system, and it is certainly true that in some schools, the speaking of a native language was vigorously discouraged, often through physical punishment. Native cultures were certainly regarded as “heathen” and “backward” by many IRS administrators and staff members. But the Indian Act never specified that the speaking of native languages should be banned, and in some schools, students were free to speak an Indigenous language whenever they were not in class. In some schools, native culture was respected and celebrated.
  • Little mention is made of the many Indigenous staff members who worked at the schools, and at least one IRS Principal was Indigenous. The presence of their own people in an IRS institution must have helped the students feel that they were being looked after, and that the school was truly a part of the Indigenous community.
  • While enrolment in a distant residential school deprived many young Indigenous of the daily activities and pleasures their life “at home” provided, it nevertheless compensated for that loss in a good many ways. For children and youths living in scattered and very remote communities, the chances of companionship with other young people were normally slim. A good number of former IRS students have admitted that just being with boys and girls of their own age was a benefit of IRS enrolment. And a good many IRS institutions provided athletic activities, recreational opportunities, and uniformed groups like Cadets, Cubs, Scouts, Brownies and Girl Guides. Social activities like dances and movie screenings enlivened the days spent at an Indian Residential School, and celebrations like Christmas were high points of the year.  
  • One occasionally sees an accusation that the Indian Residential Schools forced the Christian religion upon young children, but the evidence shows that most families who sent their children off to an IRS institution were already converted to Christianity. 
  • In a number of cases, the Indigenous community’s residential school was supported by that community’s residents in a number of ways. And if things that went on at the school were not to the community’s liking, parents and elders did not shy away from voicing protest and taking other action.
  • Much has been made of the number of Indigenous children who died while enrolled at an IRS institution — more than 3,000 deaths that were verified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — but that apparently horrifying figure masks the fact that many of the enrolled students died while at home — their school having sent them home when they became ill —  and a large percentage of the deaths occurred during periods when the entire country was battling an epidemic that killed hundreds of thousands. By the 1950s — some 30 years after school enrolment became compulsory — many schools had infirmaries and medical help to give students the appropriate attention — attention that they would not have received at home.
  • Claims that students in IRS institutions were used as guinea pigs in medical experiments have been used to demonize the residential schools, but a close examination of the “experiments” reveals the fact that no harm was done to any students by the various nutritional trials that were conducted in some IRS institutions. Preventing some students from receiving dental care during the course of the trial appears to be the most harmful aspect of the medical research program, conducted in the 1940s, and the fact that parents were not informed of the nutritional variations has been condemned as the most high-handed aspect of that research.

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The Full Story

This is a blog for everyone who thinks the current narrative about Canada’s Indian Residential School system is incomplete, misleading and, in some cases, totally in error. It’s also for those who have information and views of their own about the IRS system.  Courtesy and respect are strongly encouraged.

Disclosure:  I am the son of the Rev. J.E. (Ted) DeWolf, an Anglican minister from Nova Scotia, who in January of 1953, took his young family to the Blood (Kainai) Reserve in southern Alberta, there to serve the Bloods for 10 years as Principal of St. Paul’s Indian Residential School.  I attended classes at St. Paul’s for six years and, beginning with Grade 8, took the bus into nearby Cardston with the Kainai kids to complete my secondary education in the public (provincial) system.  Having pursued post-secondary education in Nova Scotia, I became a teacher and literacy coach in the Halifax system (as well as spending six years teaching English in Singapore) and am now retired, occupying myself with volunteering and putting together a book that brings together memories of my childhood on the Reserve, facts about the residential school system, and important issues facing indigenous Canadians, both in the past and in the present.