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'A new future' for children at James Bay residential school

In 1928, a government official predicted Canada would end its "Indian problem" within two generations. Church-run, government-funded residential schools for native children were supposed to prepare them for life in white society. But the aims of assimilation meant devastation for those who were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Decades later, aboriginal people began to share their stories and demand acknowledgement of — and compensation for — their stolen childhoods.

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Orphans, convalescents and those who live too deep in the bush for day school: these are the students of the residential school in remote Moose Factory, Ont. For 10 months a year, these native children -- some taken from their homes -- start each day with a religious service before heading to classes. A CBC Television crew visits the school to salute Education Week -- and here, the education is all about how to integrate into mainstream Canadian society.
• Residential schools had been preceded by church-run mission schools in the early 19th century. The goal of the mission schools was to teach native people to read English so they could learn the Bible and convert to Christianity.

• The federal government began working with the churches -- Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian -- to set up the residential school system around 1874. Under the Indian Act, the government had a responsibility to educate native children.

• Government and churches established residential schools with the assumption that aboriginal culture was unable to adapt to a rapidly modernizing Canadian society. Without intervention, they felt native people would be left behind. Children were much easier to mould than adults, but it had to be done outside the family and the "influence of the wigwam." Residential schools, where students lived far from home for most of the year, were the answer.

• Until the 1950s, parents couldn't choose whether to send their children to a residential school. All aboriginal people, both children and adults, were considered wards of the state. The churches recruited students and the Department of Indian Affairs employed "Indian agents" -- white men whose job descriptions included ensuring all native children went to school.

• Many parents wanted their children to go to school, agreeing with the government's belief that it was best for the future of native people.

• Until 1951, the residential school curriculum consisted of a half-day of classroom study and a half-day of learning a trade. Boys were taught blacksmithing, carpentry and auto mechanics while girls learned sewing, cooking and other domestic skills. This system also made the schools cheaper to manage, as much of the labour needed to run them -- milking cows, cleaning dormitories, chopping wood -- was provided by the students.

• In general, residential schools were for children aged five to 16.

• In 1931, at the peak of the residential school system, there were about 80 schools operating in Canada. They were in every territory and province except Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. There were a total of about 130 schools from the earliest in the late 19th century to the last, which closed in 1996.

• The Department of Indian Affairs funded all residential schools.

• Canada is not the only country with a history of residential schools for aboriginal children. From 1910 to 1970, the Australian government placed aboriginal children in foster homes and institutions. Those children are now known as the "stolen generation." Each May 26 since 1998, Australians have observed National Sorry Day -- a day acknowledging the impact of forcible family removal on aboriginal people.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: March 13, 1955
Duration: 2:38

Last updated: October 21, 2014

Page consulted on October 21, 2014

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