The recent discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children in a mass grave on the former site of the Kamloops residential school, in British Columbia, has renewed calls for Canada to reckon with its treatment — past and present — of Indigenous people.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children attended residential school, beginning in the late 19th century. These institutions, created by Christian churches and the Canadian government, were designed to separate Indigenous children from their families and strip them of their cultural practices, languages, and ways of life — and were, in effect, an extension of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, which European settlers had for centuries used to justify colonization.
Physical and sexual violence, as well as disease, were rampant. And the effects of this abuse are still being felt today: according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.”
TVO.org provides a historical timeline of Canada’s residential schools — their inception, their operation, and the calls for justice that have followed their closure.
The last residential school closed in 1996.
UPDATE: On June 24, Cowessess First Nation announced that as many as 751 unmarked graves are believed to be on the grounds of Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan.
First Residential School
The Mohawk Residential School is established in Brantford, Ont.
The Ontario chief superintendent of schools advocates for Indigenous children to be educated separately from white children.
Federal Day Schools
Indigenous children attend these government and church operated schools but remain living at home. The schools exist until 2000.
Under prime minister Alexander Mackenzie, the Indian Act becomes law, giving the Canadian government the exclusive right to create legislation regarding status First Nations peoples.
The Davin Report
Nicholas Flood Davin’s report, Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, advises the federal government to create residential schools for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children after he observes similar boarding schools in the U.S.
Residential School System Created
The federal residential school system is created, funded, and operated by the Government of Canada, and the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Churches.
“In order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say this is hard, but if we want to civilize them, we must do that.”
– public works minister Hector Langevin
Residential Schools Grow
Forty-five residential schools are in operation across Canada. Each school is given an allowance per student. The schools become overcrowded leaving students prone to illness.
Residential School Whistleblower
Public-health physician Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce reports on the dire living conditions at 35 residential schools. His spotlight on the issue goes unheeded. In 1922, as a citizen, he publishes the book, The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice for the Indians of Canada.READ DR. BRYCE’S REPORT
Residential school becomes compulsory for all Indigenous adolescent children.
Residential Schools at Peak
More than 80 residential schools are in operation across Canada.
Call to End Residential Schools
Indian Affairs regional inspectors recommend the abolition of residential schools.
As residential schools begin to close, thousands of Indigenous children are taken against the will of their families and placed in foster homes - including outside Canada. Today the country’s child-welfare system continues to be overrepresented by Indigenous children.
Chanie Wenjack Inquest
The 12-year-old dies of hunger and exposure after escaping a residential school near Kenora. His death leads to the first official inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous children in the schools.
(Wenjack family / thecanadianencyclopedia.ca)
Change of Power
The Department of Indian Affairs takes exclusive control of the residential school system, marking an end to Christian church involvement.
Fifty-six residential schools remain in operation across Canada. A decade later, the number declines to fewer than 20.
Ontario’s Last Residential School Closes
Fort Frances Indian Residential School is the last remaining to close its doors.
This term is used to describe the distressing rate at which Indigenous children are represented in the child-welfare system.
Constitution Act, 1982, Section 35
Indigenous people are recognized in the Canadian Constitution as having rights and freedoms.
Inquiry into Residential Schools
Head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Phil Fontaine calls for a public inquiry into the poor conditions and alleged abuse at the schools; the federal government initiates it in 1991.
Final Residential School Closes in Canada
Gordon’s Residential School in Punnichy, Sask., closes its doors.
Last Day School
Over the years, day schools were either closed or transferred to community control. This date marks the end of the last remaining one, Oka Country school in Kanesatake, Que.
The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement
The largest class-action settlement in Canadian history establishes a $1.9 billion fund for survivors.
Named for five-year-old Jordan River Anderson, who died while provincial and federal governments tried to determine jurisdiction over his care, Jordan’s Principle is meant to ensure all Indigenous children living in Canada can access the health care and supports they need.
Prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologizes on behalf of the Government of Canada to former residential school students.Watch the formal apology
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The TRC’s mandate is to document the history and lasting effects of the residential school system. Survivors share their experiences during public and private meetings held across the country over several years.
TRC Final Report
Recommends 94 calls to action, including finding and documenting burial sites of missing residential school children and settling all outstanding compensation issues.Read the TRC report
Canada officially adopts the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples whose mandate enshrines the rights that “constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.”
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is formed to investigate systemic social, economic, cultural, institutional, and historical causes that contribute to ongoing violence and mistreatment.
Day School Settlement
The federal government announces a day school settlement agreement making former students, who were also often subjected to ill treatment, eligible for compensation.
MMIWG Final Report
Recommends 231 calls for justice directed at governments, social services, institutions, industries, and all Canadians.Read the MMIWG final report
Unmarked Graves Found in B.C.
215 children are found in a mass grave at the site of the former Kamloops Residential School in B.C., bringing the legacy of residential schools into focus.
The Ford government promises $10 million over three years to find and commemorate the 12 burial sites in the province identified by the TRC.Watch Premier Ford speak
To date, only nine of the TRC’s 94 calls to action have been completed. While the Kamloops discovery has galvanized a will to find and document more lost children and to truly reconcile these past atrocities, the Canadian government is still battling child-welfare and residential school survivors over compensation in court.
Support is available to anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and to those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional-support and crisis-referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Correction: A previous version of this timeline incorrectly identified Sir John A. Macdonald as prime minister when the Indian Act was passed; in fact, Alexander Mackenzie was prime minister at the time. Additionally, a previous version of this timeline incorrectly stated that the Indian Act gave Canada the exclusive right to create legislation regarding First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples; in fact, it references only status First Nations peoples. TVO.org regrets these errors.