Misconception: Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools against their wishes and the wishes of their parents.
For a student to be accepted to a residential school, the parents needed to complete an application requesting enrollment for their child and send that application to Ottawa for approval. Demand was such that many applications were declined due to a lack of capacity. 1
For the first 37 years of the Residential School operation (1883-1920), indigenous enrolment in a school, including an Indian Residential School, was voluntary except for child welfare cases. Only in 1920 did an amendment to the Indian Act make attendance in some kind of school – day, industrial, or residential – compulsory for Indigenous children. Mandatory attendance had already been the law for non-Indigenous children in Ontario since 1871.2
Reasonable exceptions, very similar to those in provincial educational legislation, were made to the attendance requirement. The Indian Act clearly stated that no parent would be penalized if their child was "unable to attend school because of sickness or other unavoidable cause” or "has been excused in writing by the Indian Agent or teacher for temporary absence to assist in husbandry or urgent and necessary household duties.” The penalty for failing to enroll a child was "not more than two dollars and costs, or imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten days or both.” In 1920, $2.00 was only about the cost of three dozen eggs, but even then, hardly any Indigenous parents were fined.
Parents who had concerns about the running of the schools could withdraw their children. In one 1922 case in the remote Haisla community of Kitamaat, the death of a student from suspected spinal meningitis led to concerned parents pulling their children from the school and sparked a full inspection of living conditions of and nutrition provided to the children, which the school passed. Once the issue was resolved to the parents’ satisfaction, their children returned to class.3
The examples of “forced attendance” that did take place were primarily in child welfare cases. Due to the absence or scarcity of organized foster care and Indigenous orphanages, the residential school system was used though the 1940s to the 1960s as a part of a system that our modern sensibilities would consider severely lacking in many things, including empathy. One Saskatchewan survey found that as many as 80% of students attending a residential school in the province were there due to welfare-related issues ranging from being orphaned to home abuse or neglect.4
However, this always involved a minority of Indigenous children. Even during the years of peak enrolment, it is estimated that no more than one-third of status Indian children, or one-sixth of Indigenous children (including Métis, Inuit and non-status persons) attended a residential school, with the average student enrolled for only 4.5 years.5 More worrying still, it has also been estimated that about one-third of Indigenous children received no formal education at all during that time period, despite legislation attempting to put them on equal educational footing as their non-Indigenous counterparts. As late as 1939, Annual Reports from Indian Affairs showed that 18 percent of Indigenous children attended no school at all.
Misconception: The “knowledge keepers” are the only ones who can truly say what happened at the schools.
The term “knowledge keeper” has become common in recent years in discussion of Indian residential schools (IRS), unmarked graves, and missing children. The phrase may be defined in different ways, but it always refers to those versed in the traditions of First Nations, whether they are elders or have been instructed by elders.1 It is essentially a new term for those who know and pass on “oral tradition.”
Oral traditions are indispensable to human societies because they give meaning to our existence, foster identity, and convey rules of conduct. But no matter how important oral traditions may be, they are limited as sources for establishing historical facts.
All human memory is fallible, and that is just as true of First Nations as of other people. What we remember as happening years ago often turns out to be mistaken when we compare memories with other people or with other sources of information. The difficulty is compounded when memories are passed down across generations in the form of oral tradition, allowing misunderstandings to creep in.
When it is necessary to establish the truth of what really happened, it is unsafe to rely solely on individual memory or collective oral tradition. It is essential to compare multiple sources of information to winnow out fact from fiction. Historians, archeologists, and others who write about the past use written records, physical artifacts, DNA sequencing, and linguistic analysis as well as memory and oral tradition. Similarly, courts of law admit oral testimony but rely upon cross-examination and documentary evidence as a check upon memory. The work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus shows how “false memory syndrome” sent many people to jail, unjustly accused of Satanic child abuse in day care centres, based on inadequately scrutinized testimony of children, parents, psychologists, and social workers.2
It is, therefore, mistaken to rely upon the statements of so-called “survivors,” i.e., those who attended IRS, as the gold standard of evidence about what happened in these schools. Such statements are often based on childhood memories of what may have happened decades ago, or they may convey accounts received from other people such as friends, parents, and brothers and sisters.
Fortunately, we have many sources of evidence—documents that were composed contemporaneously with past events—that can be compared against each other and against oral tradition—to establish the historical truth about IRS. These include the reports of Indian Agents and school inspectors, the diaries and memoirs of teachers and missionaries, the observations of visitors, and the recollections of former students. Many of these sources can now be conveniently accessed through the website Indian Residential School Records – Native Residential Schools of Canada Researched, maintained by independent researcher Nina Green.
The public discussion of IRS abounds with lurid stories of children being shocked in electric chairs, drowned, thrown into furnaces, and roused in the middle of the night to dig graves for other children. So far, none of these stories, no matter how often repeated, have been corroborated with any form of objective evidence. In this highly emotional and politicized environment, nothing should be accepted as factual until multiple forms of evidence have been canvassed and compared.
Misconception: The Indian Residential School system was a tool to commit Cultural Genocide.
The use of the terms “assimilation” and “integration” to describe the purpose of the Residential Schools system has declined in recent years, replaced by the emotionally and politically inflammatory term “cultural genocide,” a concept synonymous with ordinary enculturation – learning about and internalizing features of a different culture -- but one intended to maximize the cultural harm the schools supposedly did to Indigenous people.
However, the claim of intent to eradicate Indigenous culture is not grounded in facts. While there is evidence of hostility toward some Indigenous beliefs and practices by authorities at particular schools, the same cannot be said about the experiences of students at all Residential Schools.
There is much evidence that many of the people who worked in the residential schools respected Indigenous culture and sought to preserve and encourage it. In fact, many Indigenous people often worked in the schools, often making up 50 percent of employees.
The chapels in some schools, located on or near reserves, also served as the churches for the local community. The chapels and classrooms often hosted Indigenous cultural events including dances, pow wows, and other celebrations.
The Indian Act never specified that residential school students must speak only English or French. While the children’s use of a native language was discouraged, or even forbidden in some schools, especially in classroom settings, in other schools students were free to speak their native tongue outside the classroom, in the dorms and the play areas, as is the established practice in French immersion schools today.
Some administrators learned to speak their students’ native language, and there are dozens of examples of administrators promoting the use of Indigenous languages. One Christmas program in Crowfoot Roman Catholic Residential School, close to Cluny, Alberta, in 1957 included a Santa speaking Blackfoot and a Christmas service with Blackfoot hymns. The principal of the Onion Lake Residential School even taught the children how to read and write Cree syllabics so they could send letters to their families.
At least one credible national study reported that use of a native language was more prevalent among former Residential Schools students, and that former Residential Schools students were more likely to be active in the preservation of native language and culture than other Indigenous people.
While it is likely, given the commonly held beliefs of the time, that some Residential School administrators and staff held European supremacist views and did what they could to erase traditional beliefs and practices from their students, others took so much interest in those beliefs and practices that they took steps to preserve them, including multiple examples of Indigenous dances taking place at celebrations in the schools. For example, in Crowfoot Residential School, a Blackfoot acting troupe performed a pageant about their cultural traditions for the children. 
These facts directly contradict the claim that the IRS system as a whole was a tool of cultural genocide. Indeed, certain schools may even deserve credit for preserving Indigenous language and cultural celebrations.
Misconception: The Residential School system was a tool to commit Genocide.
With both Pope Francis and the Canadian Parliament using the term “genocide” to describe Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous people, it is not surprising that many people believe it is an accurate descriptive term. However, in all established interpretations of the term “genocide,” an intent to eradicate a particular group of people must be shown.1 Was this intent shown by the Canadian Government? Despite the Parliamentary declaration, a reasonable interpretation of the facts suggests that the answer is a firm “no”.
The immediate thoughts of many would likely turn to the NTRC report of 3201 students dying2 or to the many media reports of the “remains of 215 children found at former B.C. residential school”3 (CBC, May 27, 2021) that sparked a summer of burning churches. However, the informational context and nuance is non-existent in public discourse, leading to these numbers being either misinterpreted or accepted unquestioningly.
For example, 2434 students are reported to have died between 1867-1939. These were the peak years of tuberculosis and included the Spanish Flu epidemic, both of which were extremely deadly for any Indigenous person, young or old, who caught them as there was little natural immunity to Old World diseases. Once a proper treatment for tuberculosis was invented, deaths in the schools dropped precipitously.4
The reported “remains of 215 children” is, in fact, ground penetrating radar data that shows 215 “disturbances” in the soil, as ground penetrating radar is not capable of showing the details required to make definitive statements.5 Somewhat shockingly, not a single body has been confirmed to be in the Kamloops Residential School orchard6, nor have there been any investigations launched by police into school staff – some of whom are still alive.7
From these points spring a question: what does the available information actually show?
In fact, much of the existing evidence shows that the intent of the Canadian government and most of those who worked in the schools was not to destroy Indigenous peoples physically but to keep them from starvation and to keep them safe from other threats posed by a growing population of non-Indigenous people.8
As today, education was seen to be the best way to ensure the survival and prosperity of Indigenous people. The medical care9 10 that many Residential School students received, as well as the nutritious meals that were provided in many schools11, show no intention of governments to exterminate Indigenous people. On the contrary, both schools and hospitals to serve Indigenous communities were built on or near many reserves.12 13
Finally, the Indigenous population numbers simply do not back up an argument for an attempted eradication. Early in the 20th century, during the same period as the residential school program, the indigenous population, which had dipped below 100,000, began its long rise to a currently estimated population of 1.8 million (2021 census).14
It is possible to argue that efforts were misguided, but the claim that residential schools are a tool of genocide are at best terribly misinformed, and at worst a cynical attempt to cause division and pain in Indigenous communities for profit.
Misconception: The residential schools were considered harmful by all former students.
Many former residential school students have spoken publicly about the benefits they received from their Residential Schools experience.1 Some have said that their residential school years were “the best years of my life.” 2 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report has a section, entitled “Warm Memories,” that is devoted exclusively to former students who spoke positively about their years at the schools. 3 4 Unfortunately, the Summary volume and the TRC Report rarely reported any of the positive responses from students.5 6
There are many records of school reunions arranged and attended by former students, school employees and administrators, as well as marriages, baptisms, and funerals of former students taking place in the chapels at the schools.7
Misconception: The residential schools were responsible for a higher rate of disease and death among First Nations children.
All Canadian children suffered very high mortality before the twentieth century. From the early 1900s onward the Residential Schools were in the forefront of the battle to reduce childhood mortality, and were pioneers in several measures that helped achieve that end.
In 1600, when Europeans began arriving in North America, the First Nations population of what is now Canada was roughly 200,000. By 1900 it had dropped to under 100,000.1 Despite a higher birth rate than the white population, that population continued to decline until after the First World War.2 Since that time it has risen steadily until it is now over 1.8 million.3 The greatest killer everywhere by far in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was tuberculosis. First Nations people were also devastated by the decline in the fur trade at the end of the eighteenth century, and by the virtual disappearance of the buffalo herds from the western plains in the late nineteenth. These changes, which caused extreme poverty, starvation and general immiseration among the plains Indians, are the principal explanation of the steady population decline of First Nations people at that time.
In 1907 Dr Peter Bryce, the Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Indian Affairs, issued a scathing indictment of the residential schools for deplorable sanitary conditions, and abysmal ventilation which, he said, were contributing to the unchecked spread of TB. He had a point: the Residential Schools, poorly constructed and badly ventilated for the most part, were swarming with infection in the early 1900s. They mostly did not refuse admission to children suffering from contagious diseases, tuberculosis in particular. Had they denied admission to such children, they would have had virtually no students, since almost all First Nation children were bearers of the tubercule bacillus at some stage of development.
However, the Federal Government and the school administrators took Dr Bryce’s words to heart. They began significant increases in funding, and remodelled many schools to improve ventilation and personal hygiene. Over the following fifteen years thirty residential schools were built or remodelled to the new healthier standards. At the largest school, on the Kamloops reserve, a large septic tank was also installed for sewage treatment purposes.4
It must be emphasized that overwhelmingly it was children from the reserves who brought tuberculosis into the schools, not the other way around. ‘In no instance was a child awaiting admission to school [in 1909] found free from tuberculosis; hence it was plain that infection was got in the home primarily’ [emphasis added], wrote Dr Bryce. He blamed this on the crowded and unsanitary conditions on the reserves.5 In addition, it has been determined that almost every aboriginal baby at the age of one was infected with TB.6 Obviously, infants under the age of five could not have contracted tuberculosis at a residential school, since they had not yet attended one. Furthermore, TB was far deadlier on the reserves than it was in the schools. In the 1940s the mortality rate in the schools was only one-fifth what it was among the First Nations overall.7
This drastically lower mortality was no accident. We know that before 1940 at least one school took the precaution of arranging lung X-rays for all its students at the local hospital.8 Elsewhere steps were also taken to eliminate bovine tuberculosis from the herds that supplied milk to the schools. Medical inspectors were appointed for each province to visit the schools. A number of hospitals and sanatoria were built on the reserves. Dr George Adami, Professor of Pathology at McGill University, who worked with Bryce in combating childhood TB, wrote to the Deputy Minister, ‘… I can assure you my only motive is a great sympathy for these children, who are the wards of the government and cannot protect themselves from the ravages of this disease.’9 In 1933 Dr George Ferguson launched an experimental trial with the new BCG [Bacillus-Calmette-Guérin] vaccine. To demonstrate his conviction that this would benefit, not harm, indigenous people, Dr Ferguson first vaccinated his own six children. His programme at Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan was a remarkable success. There was an 80 per cent. reduction in active cases of TB among the school children who were vaccinated, while there were no deaths.10
All these achievements were ultimately overshadowed by the introduction of streptomycin, a specific drug for the tubercle bacillus. This was the first of some ten drugs that were to have overwhelming effectiveness in treating tuberculosis. From 1944 onwards, among both First Nations People and the Canadian population at large the incidence of TB plummeted.11
Overall TB mortality among First Nations people fell by 92 per cent. in the 25 years between 1930 and 1955.12 Research buried in volume 2 of the History published by the TRC tells us that from 1943 to 1950, the average annual TB death rate for the First Nations population overall was about 520 per 100,000.13 During the decade of the 1940s, the average annual TB death rate in the residential schools was around 100 deaths per 100,000, less than one-fifth the rate in the overall First Nations population.14 To this day their mortality rate remains much higher than the mortality rate among the rest of the Canadian population. Long after the last Residential School closed its doors for good, the rate of tuberculosis among First Nations people is a shocking forty times higher than among the rest of the country’s population.15
As with tuberculosis, the Residential Schools can boast a favourable record in the great Spanish Inflluenza epidemic that struck the world in 1918-19. In the schools for which we have precise information the death rate in the Residential Schools was one-third below the rate for all First Nations people.16 So much for the myth of the Residential Schools as primary sources of infection.
Trachoma is not a disease that is heard much of these days, but in the early part of the last century, it was ‘a most serious health problem’, because it could often end in blindness among children. A number of residential schools pioneered in the treatment of trachoma, with the result that the 1935 Report of the Department of Indian Affairs announced that ‘the number of acute cases in the schools has greatly diminished’. By 1939 the incidence of trachoma among Residential School students was down 50 per cent. Sulfanilamide treatment, which began at the end of the 1930s soon practically eliminated the disease.17
Throughout the twentieth century, as they battled against the ravages of disease among their students, the leaders of the residential schools, and their overseers in the Federal Government were motivated by a desire to help the children achieve a healthier, happier life. At the beginning of the century Hayter Reed, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs wrote that the objective of the government’s policies was ‘gain in general health, in physical growth, in freedom from sickness and deaths and in school attainments.’ Dr Lafferty, who with Dr Peter Bryce had been appointed to examine the incidence of tuberculosis among children in select residential schools, echoed this sentiment: ‘all our regulations are designed to obtain healthy pupils’.18 A few decades later Dr D.A. Stewart argued that the number one reason for stepping up the fight against TB in First Nations communities was because ‘we took and occupied his country, but especially because we brought him the disease’.19