Canada·CBC Explains

Your questions answered about Canada's residential school system

CBC readers have reached out with questions about Canada’s residential school system and its aftermath following the discovery of what is believed to be the remains of an estimated 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Discovery at former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., has led to calls for action

A pair of children's moccasins are pictured at a memorial in Vancouver on Monday following the reported discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

The discovery of what is believed to be the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., has stunned Canadians and renewed focus on what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a "dark and shameful chapter of our country's history."

It is also another reminder for Indigenous peoples living in Canada of a painful history they've known about all along.

The Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said last week that preliminary findings from a ground-penetrating radar survey at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School detected the remains, a confirmation of what the community already understood from oral history. 

Since the news broke, CBC readers have reached out with questions about Canada's residential school system and its aftermath. Below are answers to some of your questions.

How many children were forced to attend these schools?

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Amendments to the Indian Act in 1894 authorized the government to remove an Indigenous child from their family if it was felt they were not being properly cared for or educated and place them in a school. Subsequent amendments to the act in 1920 further reinforced compulsory attendance at the schools. 

Children were removed from their families and culture and forced to learn English, embrace Christianity and adopt the customs of the country's white majority.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation examining residential schools has identified the names of, or information about, more than 4,100 children who died while attending these schools, most due to malnourishment or disease.

Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) examining residential schools, has said he believes the death count could be much higher because of the schools' poor burial records.

How many schools were there? Where are they?

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) has recognized 139 residential schools across Canada. However, this number excludes schools that operated without federal support, such as those run solely by religious orders or provincial governments.

Click here to see a larger version of the map of residential school locations.

The 139 schools operated in all Canadian provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. (There were residential schools in N.L., but they weren't included in the IRSSA.)

In 1931, at the peak of the residential school system, there were about 80 schools operating in the country. 

The last one to close, in 1997, was Kivalliq Hall in Rankin Inlet, in what's now Nunavut. (It only became a IRSSA-recognized school in 2019, which is why earlier accounts describe the last school closing in 1996.)

Who is being held accountable?

Many of the children at residential schools were physically, sexually or psychologically abused in a system described by the TRC in its landmark 2015 report as cultural genocide.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons on behalf of the government of Canada over residential schools and the damage they did to Indigenous people.

WATCH | Harper apologizes for residential schools in 2008:

Prime minister apologizes for residential schools

15 years ago
Duration 2:55
In Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers an apology to residential school survivors and all Indigenous Canadians in 2008. Warning: This video contains distressing details. About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the government-funded residential schools from the 19th century to 1996, when the last one closed. They lived in substandard conditions and endured sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The system was "cultural genocide," said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. A 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419 to support former students and others affected by a residential school experience.

The apology came nine months after the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement took effect. The comprehensive class-action settlement — which involved survivors, the federal government and churches that ran the schools — included the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It also included financial compensation, which took two forms: a common experience payment for all students who attended the schools, and an independent assessment process to adjudicate claims from students who had suffered abuse at the schools.

More than $3 billion has been paid to 28,000 victims of residential school abuse, according to a report released this past March.

What has the Vatican said or done about this?

The Catholic Church operated roughly 70 per cent of Canada's residential schools, including the Kamloops residential school from 1890 to 1969 before it was taken over by the federal government to serve as a local day school until 1978.

While other churches, like the Anglican and United churches, have formally apologized for their roles in the residential school system, the Catholic Church has so far refused to do the same.

The closest it came was in 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI expressed "sorrow" for some of the "deplorable" conduct of church members. In 2018, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Pope Francis "felt that he could not personally respond" to the request for an apology for residential schools.

However, many individual Catholic church leaders in Canada have made apologies, both before and after the discovery in Kamloops.

The Catholic Church has also refused to release many of its residential school documents, which could shed light on unmarked burial sites, citing privacy laws.

Meanwhile, NDP MP Charlie Angus, the party's critic for Indigenous youth, says the church has dodged paying survivors compensation.

As part of the IRSSA, Catholic groups were required to pay tens of millions of dollars — $29 million in cash to the now-defunct Aboriginal Healing Foundation, $25 million in "in-kind" services, and to use their "best efforts" to fundraise $25 million for healing programs. However, a controversial court ruling in 2015 let the groups off the hook after they raised only about $4 million of the $25-million goal.

Is there an inquiry?

The TRC released 94 calls to action in its landmark 2015 report, including a section on missing children and burial grounds.

It called on the federal government to work with churches, Indigenous communities and former students "to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children."

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said Wednesday the government already earmarked some $33 million in its 2019 budget to implement the TRC's burial-related recommendations.

However, little of that money has been spent so far, with $27 million still available. Bennett said the money "will be distributed on an urgent basis" in partnership with the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and Indigenous communities that have site searches planned or underway.

Members of Metepenagiag First Nation marched to raise awareness and honour the memory of the 215 children in New Brunswick on Wednesday. (Gary Moore/CBC)

Are other schools being investigated now?

The TRC concluded in its 2015 report that the bodies of the majority of students who died at the schools were not returned to their home communities.

The commission has records of 51 children dying at Kamloops Indian Residential School. In light of the recent discovery, Trudeau has pledged federal support in preserving grave sites and uncovering potentially more unmarked burial grounds at other former residential schools.

However, he and his ministers have stressed the need for Indigenous communities to decide for themselves how they want to proceed.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Wednesday that Ottawa is "walking at the pace of communities" and is intent on developing culturally appropriate protocols to honour the lost children.

Where are the leaders of these schools now?

The University of British Columbia said this week it is reviewing an honorary degree given to the now-deceased Catholic bishop, John Fergus O'Grady, who served as principal of the former Kamloops residential school.

The discovery in Kamloops has also increased calls across Canada for cities and institutions to rescind honours given to those who were involved in setting up the residential school system.

Demonstrators gathered for a vigil in honour of the 215 children at the controversial John A. Macdonald statue in Charlottetown on Monday. Hours later, city council voted to take down the statue. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

In P.E.I., a statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, was removed following a vote by Charlottetown city council.

Toronto's Ryerson University is being urged to change its name and remove a statue of Egerton Ryerson from its campus. The university's school of journalism has already stated it will rename two of its publications.

Meanwhile, Calgary's board of education has passed a motion to rename Langevin School, which is named after Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the Fathers of Confederation who is considered an architect of the residential school system.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

With files from John Paul Tasker, Peter Zimonjic, Jon Hernandez, CBC News and The Canadian Press