Quebec's residential school system started later than most in Canada — and also has history of abuse

The effects of the residential school system are downplayed in Quebec's provincial school curriculum, but testimony and documentation brought forward at recent federal and provincial inquiries shows their devastating impact on Indigenous people in Quebec.

After the discovery in Kamloops, B.C., some First Nations members in Quebec are asking, did it happen here?

In this photo presented at the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, residential school students are seen at the Roman Catholic cemetery in Fort George, Que. Fort George was home to the province's first residential schools. ( Truth and Reconciliation Commission/Deschâtelets Archives)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The destructive legacy of residential schools is often downplayed in Quebec, where they receive little mention in the provincial school curriculum, in part because they were fewer in number and operated for a shorter period of time.

But as was the case elsewhere in Canada, residential schools in Quebec were sites of abuse and tools of cultural genocide, facts amply documented by several federal and provincial inquiries in recent years.

The discovery of what are believed to be the remains of an estimated 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., has many Indigenous leaders hoping for a more complete reckoning in Quebec.

"People are questioning, 'Did that happen here?'" said Clifford Moar, chief of the Mashteuiatsh First Nation, in the Lac Saint-Jean region, where the Pointe-Bleue residential school was located.

"I hope it did not happen ... [But] I am very open to making sure that research is done for the sake of the families that lost children and loved ones during that time."

Across the country, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend the government-run school system between the 1870s and 1997.

The final report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 identified 3,200 children who died as a result of residential schools, including 38 in Quebec. But Indigenous leaders and other experts believe the true figure could be far higher.

Here is a brief overview of how the schools operated in Quebec, as documented by the TRC, the Quebec volume of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and the province's Viens commission.

Mashteuiatsh First Nation Chief Clifford Moar said further investigation could help families concerned about what happened to their loved ones. (Radio-Canada)

Four new schools founded in 1950s and 60s

In 1948, the Canadian Parliament had sufficient concerns about the health of students at residential schools across Canada to recommend they be shut down.

In Quebec, however, the system was just getting started.

At the time, there were only two residential schools — both at Fort George on James Bay. But there was growing interest in exploiting natural resources in the central part of the province, which required the displacement and settlement of Indigenous communities.

In the years that followed, the federal government founded four residential schools in Quebec, three under the management of the Roman Catholic Church and the fourth operated by the Anglicans.

Residential schools opened in Sept-Îles in 1952, Amos in 1955, Pointe-Bleue in 1960 and La Tuque in 1962. Often, the openings coincided with the establishment of new First Nations reserves.

In addition to the six residential schools, several day schools and federal hostels to house the students operated in the province.

WATCH | Murray Sinclair's statement on the discovery in Kamloops:

Murray Sinclair delivers statement on discovery at Kamloops residential school

2 years ago
Duration 9:58
WARNING: This video contains details some readers may find distressing. Former senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said Canadians should prepare themselves for more discoveries similar to what was found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

'The only kids left in the village were babies'

The reports produced by the TRC, as well as those from the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) and Quebec's Viens commission, detail the violence of the residential school system in the province.

Survivors frequently mention the distress they experienced as children, sometimes as young as five or six, when they were put on trains, planes or boats to be sent to the schools.

"The only kids left in the village were babies," Lucie Basile, of the Atikamekw Nehirowisiw Nation, told the Viens commission. "Three-year-olds, two-year-olds, one-year-olds."

Upon arrival at the schools, the students were stripped of their clothing and any other possessions they brought from home, separated from their siblings and given a number, instead of a name. Feelings of isolation set in soon after.

In her testimony before the TRC, Marthe Basile-Coocoo recalled the grey day when, as a six-year-old, she first saw the school at Pointe-Bleue.

"The nuns separated us, my brothers, and then my uncles, then I no longer understood," she said. "That was a period of suffering, nights of crying. We all gathered in a corner … and there we cried."

Children in class at the Catholic residential school in Fort George, Que. in 1939. On Monday, Cree leadership laid out seven demands to action, including an acknowledgement of genocide, intergenerational trauma and systemic racism, a provincial pedagogical review and more mental and land-based healing services, among others. (Deschâtelets Archives)

Racist curriculum

Residential school curriculum was explicitly racist. A document from 1959, tabled at the TRC, explains that the goal of history lessons at Catholic residential schools was to instruct students about "the purity of our French-Canadian origins, the religious, moral, heroic and idealistic character of our ancestors."

In the Quebec schools, as in others across the country, students were punished if they spoke Cree, Algonquin or other Indigenous languages. 

Students were hit with rulers and straps, forced to kneel for hours and sometimes were locked in closets for days at a time, the TRC said.

Réginald Vollant, of the Innu Nation, said he recalled watching priests and nuns strike young children.

"They beat them right in front of us," Vollant said in his testimony before the Viens commission. "When you see blood spurting everywhere, well ... [You] sit down and you don't move."

In many cases, the physical abuse wasn't secret. There are records of the Maliotenam band council complaining to federal officials about students being kicked by staff at the Sept-Îles school.

But there is no evidence, the TRC noted in its final report, that any further action was taken.

Complaints of abuse went unheeded

While the schools were operational in Quebec, there were also repeated complaints about sexual abuse, though there are no records of any convictions.

A cook at La Tuque lost his job in 1969 after he was spotted taking a 10-year-old student into a bathroom for what his co-workers believed was a sexual assault, the TRC document said.

The following year, a child-care worker at the school reported that a student told him she had been abused by a staff member. An internal investigation went nowhere.

Then, in 1971, police opened an investigation into yet more allegations, this time that a child-care worker had abused four young boys.

But federal officials asked police to suspend their inquiry, saying they were worried about the psychological impact it would have on boys at the school.

It is difficult to establish with any precision the scale of the sexual abuse committed at Quebec residential schools, given that much of it went unreported.

Marie Wilson, former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is seen in 2019 placing a bundle of beaver skin on the ceremonial cloth with the names of children who died in residential schools. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Elisabeth Ashini testified before the TRC that she was abused by a staff member at Sept-Îles.

She said the staff member told her, "You have to keep it to yourself, because little Jesus will be angry, he won't be happy." 

Students in Quebec also had to survive in settings that were unsanitary and unsafe, the TRC found.

A federal health official sent in 1962 to inspect the Anglican residential school at Fort George reported that he found "general uncleanliness, impetigo, pediculosis, scabies and everything else that comes along."

La Tuque saw a large meningitis outbreak in 1969 and a hepatitis outbreak in 1970.

Roughly 2,200 former residential school students in Quebec have sought compensation from a class-action settlement for students who experienced "sexual abuse, serious physical abuse or other wrongful acts that caused serious psychological consequences."

Enduring legacy

By the 1970s, Canada was winding down its residential school system, and over the span of the decade, the institutions in Quebec were closed.

Pointe-Bleue was taken over by Indigenous management and shuttered in 1991. The building has since been reclaimed by the community and is now home to the local high school.

The withdrawal of the federal government from residential schooling corresponded with the expansion of the welfare state in Quebec.

For many Quebecers, that brought dramatic improvements in their standard of living. It also continued state intervention in Indigenous child care.

The death of Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw woman, in hospital in Joliette, Que., in September 2020 renewed calls for change. A public inquest into her death wrapped up last week.

The Viens commission wrote that while efforts to extend the benefits of the welfare state to Quebec's Indigenous communities were "well-intentioned," the process often involved further violence and cultural disruption.

Dozens of Indigenous children went missing between the 1950s and 1990s after being taken to hospitals to receive medical care.

Testimony from families suggests at least some were buried in unmarked graves in cemeteries scattered around the province.

"The fact that residential schools in Quebec were opened and closed more recently means that there are at least two generations of former residential school students that are still alive today," the MMIWG special report on Quebec points out.

The report stresses that "a significant proportion of Indigenous people in Quebec are still directly dealing with the effects of their experience at residential school."

WATCH | Coroner hopes to build foundation change as Joyce Echaquan inquiry concludes:

Coroner hopes to build foundation change as Joyce Echaquan inquiry concludes

2 years ago
Duration 1:56
The coroner overseeing the inquiry into the death of Joyce Echaquan in a Quebec hospital said she hopes her final report will be the foundation of change in the province and promised the Indigenous woman’s death won’t be in vain.

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 reporting from Simon Nakonechny