By 1950, nearly 90% of status Indian kids were attending day schools on their home reserve, not residential schools. And fewer than one-third of indigenous children at any time attended a residential school.
Kamloops Residential School Trip to Mexico City, 1964. Click on photo for full page view.
By Nina Green
ON APRIL 27, 2010, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Murray Sinclair, flanked by his two fellow Commissioners, Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson, addressed the 9th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. His opening remarks are worth considering in full because of their devastating allegations against Canada and Canadians delivered five years before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission finished its work and delivered its final report:
Commissioner Sinclair’s speech was published under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and was formerly accessible on the official website of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). It has since been taken down from the NCTR site. It is also not available on the United Nations website among the reports of the Ninth Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Why?
Is it because many of the statements made in it are demonstrably not true? Let’s shine the spotlight on a few of them:
Commissioner Sinclair claims that the “thinking of the day” which led to the creation of the residential school system was to “Kill the Indian in the Child.” In fact, the specific phrase “kill the Indian in the child” was never used by the Canadian government at the time. It was invented by the historian John Milloy in a report he submitted to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in May 1996 entitled “Suffer the Little Children: The Aboriginal Residential School System 1830-1992.” Milloy wrote:
As the source for his claim that “kill the Indian in the child” was the Canadian government’s “thought even before the deed,” Milloy cites page 4 of D.A. Nock’s A Victorian Missionary and Canadian Indian Policy. However, the specific phrase “kill the Indian in the child” cannot be found on the page cited by Milloy, nor anywhere in A Victorian Missionary. Nor can it be found in any other document prior to 1996. It thus seems beyond dispute that the phrase “kill the Indian in the child” is Milloy’s invention, and since 1996 has been falsely and widely attributed to the Canadian government as its policy underlying the establishment of residential schools.
In fact, the Canadian government made clear at the time that the purpose of educating status Indian children in residential schools was “to develop the great natural intelligence of the race and to fit the Indian for civilized life in his own environment”:
Commissioner Sinclair’s statement that nearly every indigenous child in Canada for roughly seven generations was forced to attend a residential school is directly contradicted by the Indian Act, by census and enrolment data in the Department of Indian Affairs Annual Reports, and by a plethora of other government documents.
In the first place the compulsory attendance provisions of the Indian Act (always largely enforced more in the breach than in the observance), applied only to status Indian children. Commissioner Sinclair’s sweeping statement that “every Indigenous child in Canada” was forced to attend a residential school is thus extremely wide of the mark because of his choice of the term “Indigenous.” Although a number of Métis and Inuit children did attend residential schools, they were excluded by definition from compulsory attendance under the Indian Act. The term “Indigenous,” which includes Métis and Inuit children, is thus inaccurate, since only status Indian children could have been “forced” to attend residential schools.
But was nearly every status Indian child for seven generations “forced’ to attend a residential school, as Commissioner Sinclair assured the UN?
In fact in almost any year throughout the entire period during which the residential schools were in operation, fewer than one-third of status Indian children were actually enrolled at a residential school.
One of the principal reasons for this situation is that there were always only a limited number of residential school spaces available, and there was competition for those spaces. Until 1920, attendance at residential schools was entirely voluntary, and at least some of the demand, as the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, advised a Parliamentary Committee in that year, was attributable to difficult economic conditions which encouraged Indian parents to place their children where they would be fed and clothed:
As a result, so many Indian parents applied to have their children admitted to residential schools that some schools had waiting lists. In 1920, according to Scott, at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford “there is a waiting list of over sixty pupils trying to get into that school.”
Thus, due to the limited number of spaces available at the time, during the early decades of the 20th century status Indian children attending residential schools represented well below one-third of the total population of school-age status Indian children. During most of the two decades between 1900 and 1920, in fact, the percentage of status Indian children attending residential schools was closer to one-quarter than one-third. In 1912, for example, according to Department of Indian Affairs census and enrolment data there were 15,950 school-age status Indian children in Canada, but only 3,904 of them, or 24.48%, were enrolled in residential schools.
In summary, there can be no legitimate claim that status Indian children were “forced” to attend residential schools prior to 1920, or that “every” school-age status Indian child attended a residential school during those years.
THE YEAR 1920 was something of a turning-point. In that year, amendments to the Indian Act made attendance at a residential school compulsory for all status Indian children, but only if there was no day school available on their reserve. Applications for admission signed by a parent or guardian were still mandated as part of the admission process, and each application had to be formally approved by the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. Hundreds of such applications signed by parents and guardians still survive in the Library and Archives Canada School Files Series. During the 1920s, the demand for places in some residential schools continued to exceed the supply. In 1925, for example, Father James McGuire wrote [Fig. 1] of parents “clamouring” for their children’s admission to the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Figure 1: Letter from Father James McGuire requesting the Department of Indian Affairs to authorize an increase in enrolment because of the number of parents wanting to have their children admitted to the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Because of the continued demand by Indian parents for places for their children in residential schools, as well as the charitable policy in the church-run schools of taking in orphaned and destitute children and children from broken homes, residential schools were largely filled to capacity during the 1920s, and the compulsory attendance provisions of the Indian Act continued to be more honoured in the breach than the observance. No truant officers were appointed under the Indian Act until 1927, when Duncan Campbell Scott issued a directive authorizing the RCMP to act as truant officers, largely because of the attendance problem at day schools discussed below.
As noted above, the percentage of school-age status Indian children enrolled in residential schools remained below one-third for most of the 1920s. However that figure began to climb in the latter part of the decade as the federal government made more residential school spaces available. In 1924, of the 20,419 school-age status Indian children in Canada, only 5,673 children, or 27.78%, were enrolled in residential schools. By 1929 there were 21,190 school-age status Indian children in Canada; 7,075 of them were enrolled in residential schools, and by that year enrolment in residential schools had risen to 33.39%, slightly over one-third.
The percentage climbed slightly over the next five years, reaching a peak in 1934 when 8,596 of the 23,573 school-age status Indian children, or 36.47%, were enrolled in residential schools.
For the remainder of the 1930s enrolment in residential schools remained in the one-third range. See Table 1 below.
In 1940 it was at 34.19%, when 9,027 children out of a total school-age status Indian population of 26,400 were enrolled. By the mid-1940s, however, it had again declined below one-third, and in 1948 the federal government made the decision to actively disengage from the residential school educational model, and to gradually close down residential schools.
As a result of this policy shift, by 1950 only 9,316 of the 29,167 school-age status Indian children, or 31.94%, were enrolled in residential schools, and in 1955, the last year for which census data were published in the DIA Annual Reports, only 10,501 of the 33,895 school-age status Indian children, or 31.00%, were enrolled in residential schools. This is a surprising figure as it indicates that the former students from that era who gave accounts to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of their residential school experience were actually representative of a decided minority of status Indian children in their age group. The vast majority of status Indian children in their age group in the 1950s were being educated in day schools.
In summary, apart from the years between 1929 and 1940, for almost the entire time residential schools were in operation fewer than one-third of school-age status Indian children were enrolled in them, and even during the years between 1929 and 1940 the percentage was only slightly higher than one-third. See Table 1 below.
Table 1: Percentage of status Indian children enrolled in Canadian residential schools during the years 1908-1955 compiled from census and enrolment data in Department of Indian Affairs Annual Reports.
If residential schools achieved “unacceptably poor education results,” as Mr. Sinclair alleged, what of the two-thirds of school-age status Indian children who, as we have seen, did not attend residential schools? Did they receive a superior education to that available in residential schools?
In a shocking number of cases, many of these children did not get any formal education at all. Census and enrolment data show that in general during the four decades from the turn of the century until 1940, the number of school-age status Indian children who were not enrolled in school at all fluctuated widely; in some years it was as low as 23%, in others as high as 44%. In 1924, of the population of 20,419 school-age status Indian children, 6,547 children or 32.06% were not enrolled in any school. In 1940, 8,004 children out of a total status Indian school-age population of 26,400, or 30.32%, were not enrolled in school. By 1950, 5,758 out of a total population of 29,167 school-age status Indian children were not enrolled, and the percentage had dropped to 20%, and by 1955, with 5,426 children not enrolled in any school out of a total population of 33,875, it stood at 16.02%, a figure which, although much lower than it had been, still represented a very substantial number of school-age status Indian children who were not receiving any formal education as late as the middle of the 20th century. See Table 2 below.
Table 2: Percentage of school-age status Indian children who were not enrolled in any school during the years 1908-1955 compiled from census and enrolment data in Department of Indian Affairs Annual Reports.
The remaining school-age status Indian children — in fact the majority — were enrolled not in residential schools but in day schools. Day schools were built on Indian reserves, often at the direct request of the Indians themselves, by the Department of Indian Affairs to provide the community with its own schools from which children could return to their homes from classes at the end of every school day. By 1915, 8,065 children, just under half (49.47%) of the total population of school-age status Indian children, were enrolled in Indian day schools. Day school enrolment gradually declined for several decades, but by 1950 it had again spiked up to 47.95%. In that year 13,986 children, half the total population of 29,167 school-age status Indian children, were attending Indian day schools.
As for the quality of education they received, the question arises as to whether these children were physically attending an Indian day school regularly and receiving an education superior to what they would have received at a residential school, or whether their names were merely on the day school register.
If two-thirds did not attend residential school, it is obvious that the disastrous situation of many indigenous people today cannot be attributed solely to residential schools
In fact the high percentage of children enrolled in Indian day schools gives a misleading impression of the quality of education they received there. In 1910 there were 6,784 children out of a total of 18,816 school-age status Indian children enrolled in Indian day schools on reserves, but they showed up for classes less than half the time: the average attendance was only 46.55%. By 1920 it was acknowledged by everyone, including Duncan Campbell Scott, that “in the West” the reserve day schools were “an absolute failure” because attendance was sporadic. In 1921 the total enrolment in Indian day schools was 7,775 children, but the average attendance was still only 3,911, or 50.30%, and federal government officials had begun to seriously question the educational and economic rationales for keeping day schools open on Indian reserves when parents sent their children to school only half the time.
Nonetheless the Department continued to make significant efforts to improve the attendance at Indian day schools. The DIA Annual Report for 1926 states that, “The solution of the attendance problem at day schools is most difficult, but progress has been made.” Nonetheless, in that year the average actual attendance at Indian day schools across Canada was still only 58.43%. As late as 1946, day school attendance continued to be a problem; the average attendance at day schools that year was 70.19% while at residential schools it was 90.32%. See Table 3 below.
Table 3: Percentage of average day school attendance from 1910-1952 compiled from census and enrolment data in Department of Indian Affairs Annual Reports.
It seems therefore that the quality of education status Indian children received at residential schools was superior to the only other options available to them at the time. Those options were either non-attendance at any school or attendance at an Indian day school, at which the quality of education was poor because of the off-and-on attendance of most of the students.
It appears to be generally agreed that the foregoing statement accurately portrays the reality of life in a great many indigenous families and communities across Canada. But if only one-third of status Indian children attended residential schools during the entire period the schools were in operation, and two-thirds of status Indian children did not attend residential school, it is obvious that the disastrous situation described to the UN by Commissioner Sinclair in 2010, and which continues to exist today, cannot be attributed solely to residential schools. Can the almost universal complaint made in recent years about the lack of parenting skills in status Indian families and communities really be attributed to residential schools when two-thirds of status Indian children over seven generations remained at home with their parents, and did not attend residential schools?
There are clearly many other causes which have contributed to these ills and to what has been termed “inter-generational trauma,” and those other causes must be addressed if indigenous and non-indigenous alike are to move forward.
Commissioner Sinclair’s decision in his speech to the UN to cast all the blame on residential schools which only one-third of status Indian children ever attended was misplaced and inaccurate. The fact that he addressed the UN before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had done its work and issued a report calls into question the Commission’s objectivity, and proved to be singularly unhelpful as it has apparently set in stone a number of serious misconceptions about the residential school system. Blaming residential schools for all the ills which beset indigenous people in Canada will not solve the problem, and will result in neither truth nor reconciliation.
Nina Green is an independent researcher. Data available on request.
 https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/canada-seeks-global-forum-on-truth-commissions-1.946573 ; https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/unpfii-sessions-2/ninth-session.html
 The full speech can be downloaded at https://caid.ca/forced_assimilation.html.
 Whether Indians have assimilated is beyond the scope of this article. However is the lifestyle of a status Indian lawyer or university professor that much different from his or her non-indigenous counterpart?
 See Milloy, p. 3 at https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.829950/publication.html
 Nock, D.A., A Victorian Missionary and Canadian Indian Policy, (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1988), p. 4, at https://books.google.ca/books?id=EyLrlXdR3z4C&printsec=copyright&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Department of Indian Affairs Annual Report, 1910, p. 435, at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=22322
 A census of the status Indian population was taken annually until 1916, and thereafter every five years, and both census data and enrolment data were routinely included in Department of Indian Affairs Annual Reports.
 See “They Were Not Forced” at https://www.dorchesterreview.ca/blogs/news/they-were-not-forced?_pos=2&_sid=ba0921792&_ss=r
 Apart from status Indian children who fell under a child welfare provision in the Indian Act regulations of 1894 which allowed for the committal of a neglected child to a residential school, a provision which appears never to have been used by the federal government at the time.
 Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC) School Files Series 1879-1953 at https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=img&app=microform&id=c-8149-00440
 LAC School Files Series at https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=img&app=microform&id=c-8149-00439
 Until 1929, school-age was reported in the Indian census as children aged 6-15. Beginning in 1934, school-age was reported as children aged 7-16.
 Until 1922, residential school enrolment was reported in Department of Indian Affairs Annual Reports under two categories, boarding schools and industrial schools.
 It is worth noting that the census and enrolment data in the DIA Annual Reports could not have been compiled had the Department not kept meticulous track of every status Indian child, both those enrolled in day and residential schools and those not enrolled in any school at all. This fact alone disposes of the claim that there are thousands of “missing” residential school children.
 DIA Annual Report, 1912, pp. 647, 951 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=24513
 Attendance at Indian day schools had become compulsory for status Indian children in 1894, but only if there was a day school on the reserve within reasonable walking distance of the child’s home. Status Indian children were not required to attend residential schools until 1920. Even then, however, they were only required to do so if there was no day school available to them on the reserve. See Venne, Sharon Helen, Indian Acts and Amendments 1868-1975, An Indexed Collection, (University of Saskatchewan Native Law Centre, 1981), p. 247 at https://archive.org/details/indianactsamendm0000cana/page/n4/mode/2up
 See, for example, the application for admission form for David Joseph Reid Thomas signed by his father, LAC School Files Series at https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=img&app=microform&id=c-8778-00699
 LAC School Files Series at https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=img&app=microform&id=c-8770-00615
 From the beginning, church-run residential schools always took in orphans and children from broken or destitute homes. See “Our Dear Children” at https://www.dorchesterreview.ca/blogs/news/our-dear-children-the-sisters-chronicles-of-indian-residential-school
 See Duncan Campbell Scott’s letter of appointment dated Feb. 27th, 1927 at https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=img&app=microform&id=c-8149-00501
 DIA Annual Report, 1924, p. 83 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=30684
 It is often said that the Catholic Church ran two-thirds of the residential schools in Canada. According to the DIA Annual Report for the fiscal year ended 31 March 1926, there were 74 residential schools with a total enrolment of 6,327 children. Of the 74 schools, 40 were Roman Catholic (57%), with an enrolment of 3,514 children, or 55.54% of the 6,327 children enrolled in all residential schools in that fiscal year. See p. 16 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=31197
 See DIA Annual Report, 1929, pp. 99, 162 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=31766
 See DIA Annual Report, 1934, pp. 81, 128 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=32412
 It should be noted that the 1940 DIA Annual Report corrects the census figure of 26,221 given in the 1939 DIA Annual Report to 26,400. The latter figure is repeated in succeeding DIA Annual Reports, and appears to be the correct number of school-age status Indian children based on the 1939 census. See pp. 28, 39 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=33262
 Milloy, supra, p. 287.
 DIA Annual Report, 1950, pp. 36, 40 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=33840
 DIA Annual Report, 1955, pp. 32, 43 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=34048
 The number of children not enrolled in any school is calculated by adding the totals in the DIA Annual Reports for children enrolled in residential and day schools in a given year, and subtracting that number from the total population of school-age status Indian children in the census for that year.
 DIA Annual Report, 1915, pp. 129 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=27691
 DIA Annual Report, 1950, pp. 36, 40 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=33840
 DIA Annual Report, 1910, pp. 567, 569, 957 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=22322
 LAC School Files Series at https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=img&app=microform&id=c-8149-00429
 DIA Annual Report, 1921, pp. 126 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=29735
 DIA Annual Report, 1926, p. 17 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=31197. It should be noted that the figures for the number of day school students and the average day school attendance in the summary table for the decade 1916-1926 on p. 17 of the 1926 DIA Annual Report differ in some cases from the figures given in the reports for individual years during that decade.
 DIA Annual Report, 1926, p. 104 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=31197
 DIA Annual Report, 1946, pp. 50-51 at https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=indaffannrep&IdNumber=33702
helpful to my understanding.Excellent academic work. Attitudes in history were different and tough love was at best the rule.Tomas Highway despite his nature was most happy and successful prompted by the love of his champion dog sleder dad and mother. His experience was ignored.
I echo Ken Finlayson’s comment above – his use of the term “Indian industry” is, unfortunately, too accurate. To find, not seek, some resolve to many of these issues folk need only visit – in person or in print – Clarence Louie’s overwhelming South Okanagan success in developing a resourceful and rewarding environment for his “people”.
This was a fascinating article with a lot of data to support it. While I am very concerned with the exaggerations and generalisations used by the likes of Murray Sinclair, I am also concerned by the large number or abuses that do appear to have taken place at a number of the residential schools. It feels that the truth lies somewhere in the middle and I would like to see the DR try and identify where the actual truth lies, rather than just debunk some of the claims by the NTRC.
Very interesting. But I am having trouble reconciling the evidence that at least some residential schools were “over subscribed” and had waiting lists with the stories of children being apprehended and taken away from their parents to attend school. Can you shed some light on that?
A nuanced analysis debunking one of the central myths of the Indian Residential Schools.
As the true face of these schools is slowly uncovered, the way they have been scapegoated for adversities and pathologies suffered by too many indigenous people should regulate the entire six-volume Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report to the dustbin of poor research and biased scholarship.