‘Felt throughout generations’: A timeline of residential schools in Canada

TVO.org provides a brief history of the institution that has come to symbolize Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people
By Jeyan Jeganathan and Carla Lucchetta - Published on Jun 21, 2021
A memorial to the 215 children who lost their lives at Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

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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.


Mohawk Institute

First Residential School

1831

The Mohawk Residential School is established in Brantford, Ont.

Egerton Ryerson

Egerton Ryerson

1847

The Ontario chief superintendent of schools advocates for Indigenous children to be educated separately from white children.

Federal Day Schools

1860s

Indigenous children attend these government and church operated schools but remain living at home. The schools exist until 2000.

The Indian Act

Indian Act

1876

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

1879

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

Residential School System Created

1883

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.

Public Works Minister Hector Langevin
1883

“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

1896

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

Residential School Whistleblower

1907

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

Mandatory Attendance

1920

Residential school becomes compulsory for all Indigenous adolescent children.

Residential Schools at Peak

Residential Schools at Peak

1930

More than 80 residential schools are in operation across Canada.

Call to End Residential Schools

1958

Indian Affairs regional inspectors recommend the abolition of residential schools.

Sixties Scoop

1960s - 1980s

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

Chanie Wenjack Inquest

1966

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

1969

The Department of Indian Affairs takes exclusive control of the residential school system, marking an end to Christian church involvement.

Remaining Schools

1970

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

1974

Fort Frances Indian Residential School is the last remaining to close its doors.

Millennium Scoop

1980 - Present

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

1982

Indigenous people are recognized in the Canadian Constitution as having rights and freedoms.

Inquiry into Residential Schools

1990

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

Final Residential School Closes in Canada

1996

Gordon’s Residential School in Punnichy, Sask., closes its doors.

Last Day School

2000

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

2006

The largest class-action settlement in Canadian history establishes a $1.9 billion fund for survivors.

Jordan’s Principle

Jordan’s Principle

2007

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.

Federal Apology

2008

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

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

2008

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.

(John Woods/CP)

TRC Final Report

2015

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

UNDRIP

2016

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.”

MMIWG Begins

2016

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

2019

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

MMIWG Final Report

2019

Recommends 231 calls for justice directed at governments, social services, institutions, industries, and all Canadians.

Read the MMIWG final report

(Adrian Wyld/CP)

Unmarked Graves Found in B.C.

Unmarked Graves Found in B.C.

2021

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.

(Darryl Dyck/CP)

Ontario's Pledge

June 2021

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

Current Status

2021

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.

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