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.