50-year-old Sue Caribou contracts pneumonia once a year, every single year. The illness, she says, emerged as a result of the physical abuse she had faced at a Canadian residential school: “I was thrown into a cold shower every night, sometimes after being raped.”
Caribou continued being sexually assaulted and tortured routinely until 1979 when she finally left the Guy Hill institution, a residential school run in Manitoba by Catholic missionaries. Among the abuses she and countless other students had faced were being forced to eat rotten food, being punished for speaking in their native tongue, and constant physical and sexual humiliation. After graduating, Caribou recalls, many of her classmates committed suicide.
A child of an indigenous tribe, Caribou had been stolen from her family in 1972 at a very young age and forced to attend one of the church-operated Indian Residential Schools established across Canada. These schools were the Canadian government’s response to “the Indian problem” and were specifically intended to “assimilate” indigenous kids through violence and humiliation. These residential schools have been called one of the “darkest, most troubling chapters” in Canada’s collective history. From the late 1800s to 1997, over 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend these boarding schools, and the estimates of the total death toll among students range from 4,000 to 6,000. In May 2021, just a few weeks ago, the remains of 215 more children were discovered on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School in unmarked graves. And then again, just a few days ago, on March 24th, 751 more unmarked graves were found at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan. These horrifying — yet sadly, not surprising — discoveries have sparked renewed discussion about Canada’s history of these brutal, violent schools and their lasting legacy on indigenous communities.
These boarding schools were created in the late 1800s by Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, with the expressed goal of “killing the Indian in the child.” Almost 100 of these schools were established, each one deliberately placed far away from indigenous tribal land in order to make it difficult for families to contact children.
“The greatest hurt was being separated from my parents, cousins and uncles and aunties,” said Joseph Maud, an indigenous man who had been snatched from his family at the age of five and taken to a residential school. “I [used to cry] going down on my knees, and my thoughts were ‘when is this going to end? Somebody help me,’ calling out for my parents.”
One of the core missions of these schools was to remove students from their native Indian heritage and convert them to Christianity as a way to “civilize” them. To accomplish this, students were forbidden from speaking their native tongue or practising any native customs, or observing any aspect of their own culture at all. Most of these schools were run by religious organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Church of England. Countless indigenous parents refused to turn over their children to such schools and often hid them away when government officials arrived to abduct the kids, but through violent means, children were snatched from their families and taken to the schools, never to be seen again.
“The whole point was to erase their Indigenous identities. These Indian residential schools have often been compared to prisons,” said Crystal Gayle Fraser, a University of Alberta professor. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee officially released a report which condemned these residential schools for committing “cultural genocide.”
Indigenous students routinely faced physical, psychological, and sexual abuse within the walls of such residential schools. Children were beaten and humiliated as forms of punishment. Electric chairs were used to torture students. Poor sanitation, overcrowding, and lack of medical care led to the rapid spread of diseases, especially influenza and tuberculosis. The death rate reached 69% in one school. According to some reports, sick students were forced to eat their own vomit as punishment. Students were forced to do manual labor to maintain the school buildings since the facilities were in horrible condition.
Students were even used in experiments without their consent or knowledge. Scientists conducted nutritional studies by deliberately underfeeding certain children, using them as a control group. Students were also tricked into consuming certain chemicals and being subjected to experimental vaccines and food supplements without their permission.
So many indigenous children died at these schools that the administrators buried hundreds of them, mostly in unmarked graves and without reporting the deaths. The schools did not even keep consistent records of the students who died. Many schools had their own cemeteries full of bodies of indigenous children who had passed away as a result of poor conditions or abuse. Many of these cemeteries were later intentionally hidden or built over.
“Sometimes kids would not show up in the classroom, they would disappear for the next day, and we knew that they were gone, but we didn’t know where they were gone,” said Garry Gottfriedson, an indigenous survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. He also spoke on the lasting personal trauma that attending the school caused him: “We were made to feel ugly because we were told we were ugly. We were made to feel like we were nothing but dirt, and that has remained with me to this very, very day is it’s you know, I’ve never felt that I was good enough for anything.”
Survivors of such schools continue to suffer from physical and psychological trauma from the abuse they faced within such institutions. Many of the social issues within modern indigenous communities of Canada can be traced back to such trauma, including poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, suicide, and more. A 2012 report of the First Nations Regional Health Study showed the stark relationship between attending residential schools and a lifetime of mental and physical illness. Survivors of such schools were far more likely to have some chronic medical condition; 65% have PTSD; 21% have major depression; anxiety disorders were also more common among survivors.
Recognizing the destruction these residential schools have caused, the Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally issued a formal apology in 2008. Several religious organizations, including the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches, issued formal apologies for their role in running these schools as well. The Vatican has yet to offer an official apology despite its officials’ significant involvement in the atrocity. Several of the buildings formerly used as residential schools have been transformed into educational centers showcasing the history of indigenous communities.
Despite this, indigenous populations continue to fight for justice. The legacy of centuries of abuse and oppression continue to shape life in their communities — high rates of poverty, violence, and disease continue to hinder their progress relative to the rest of Canada. Hundreds of children who died as a result of these residential schools, too, have yet to be identified. The effort to recognize the true extent of the damage caused by such schools and genuinely repair the destruction caused is far, far from over. The countless indigenous children buried under Canada’s schools, nameless and perhaps never to be named, serve as a silent but deafening reminder of that history and reality.