"I am sorry. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples."
Those were the words of Pope Francis as he apologized to Indigenous communities for the role that the Catholic Church played in Canada's residential school system. For some, it was an important step towards reconciliation; for others, it was just a long overdue gesture.
But one thing is clear: the Pope's apology and recognition of a “genocide” was a historic moment that brought Canada's grim legacy of colonialism back into the spotlight.
Residential schools were a system of government- and church-run institutions designed to assimilate Indigenous populations into Euro-Canadian culture. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Canadian authorities separated Indigenous children from their families and communities to “civilize” them by teaching them French, English, and Christian values. About 150,000 children attended the schools and at least 6,000 died, but, given poor record keeping, the figure could be much higher. Abuse was rampant throughout the schools, and many children were physically, sexually, and psychologically abused.
Although the last institution closed in 1996, the legacy of residential schools still affects Indigenous communities in multiple ways. Here's how this dark chapter of Canadian history continues to shape the lives of Indigenous people across the country.
Residential Schools Encouraged the Cycle of Poverty
Systemic poverty is one of the most insidious legacies of Canada's residential schools.
Because the schools failed to provide children with proper education, research suggests that they are part of the reason Indigenous job seekers often lack the skills and training to enter the workforce and achieve high levels of financial security and professional attainment. Transitioning from school to work is almost always a challenge, but for those who left residential schools without the knowledge and transferable skills needed to break into the job market, the task is even more difficult. Other barriers to employment, such as hiring bias and discrimination, further exacerbate the issue.
In 2021, 11% of Indigenous people in Canada were unemployed, compared to 7% of the rest of the population. This translates to 25% of Indigenous people living in poverty — and 4 out of 10 Indigenous children living in poverty. Because of the compounded barriers of poverty, gender discrimination, and violence, Indigenous women are among the hardest hit.
All these challenges contribute to creating a cycle that gets passed down from one generation to the next: when a parent is unable to get a job and financial resources are scarce, children are born into a household with little chance of escaping poverty.
Residential Schools Put Indigenous Culture, Traditions, and Languages at Risk of Disappearing
Residential schools had a destructive impact on Indigenous languages and culture. To achieve their goal of assimilating Indigenous people into Canadian society, the institutions often punished children for speaking a language other than English or French. This erasure had long-lasting consequences, interrupting the transmission of language from one generation to the next.
While initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are working to reverse these trends, they have a long way to go in correcting the damage caused by residential schools.
Most of the 60 surviving Aboriginal languages recognized in the 2011 census were under “serious threat” with very few fluent speakers.
“If the preservation of Aboriginal languages does not become a priority both for governments and for Aboriginal communities, then what the residential schools failed to accomplish will come about through a process of systematic neglect,” the final 2015 report of the TRC states.
It's not just language that's at stake — so are culture and traditions. Canada's residential schools were marked by a systematic denial of Indigenous spirituality and heritage, requiring children to discard their native customs for Christian practices.
Indigenous communities are still reeling from the impacts of this “cultural genocide,” as the TRC called it. On social media, Indigenous content creators and artists are reclaiming their identities and heritage, often by bringing their parents and grandparents into the conversation.
Residential Schools Have Had a Lasting Impact on the Mental Health of Indigenous People
Attendees of residential schools endured sustained and severe forms of abuse, as well as other traumatic events. Because of this, they're at a high risk of experiencing mental illness. Research points to the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger, anxiety, depression, and overall mental distress among survivors of the residential school system — often with devastating outcomes.
On average, survivors are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and attempts. According to Statistics Canada, First Nations living on and off reserve, Métis, and Inuit, die by suicide at a rate twice as high as non-Indigenous people.
The trend doesn't just affect the school survivors — it spans across generations. One study found that having a parent or grandparent who attended a residential school was a risk factor for suicidal behaviour in youth, with 1 in 5 teenagers on reserve who had a parent attend a residential school considering suicide.
Sometimes, abusive patterns can also be carried down through generations, perpetuating an endless cycle of trauma and exposing children to gender-based and sexual violence. According to the Indigenous Foundation, descendants of parents who attended residential schools are twice as likely to experience sexual assault.
Systemic Barriers to Health Can Be Attributed to the Residential School System
HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), diabetes... The list of health conditions that disproportionately affect Indigenous populations is long — and residential schools are partially to blame.
While social determinants play a key role in determining someone's overall physical health, a wealth of evidence suggests that these factors, compounded by residential school attendance, have directly contributed to poor health and a higher prevalence of infectious diseases among Indigenous communities.
Take diabetes — which affects 17% of First Nations people living on reserve — as an example. Research shows that because consuming carbs was commonplace in residential schools, children who grew up there have a predisposition to developing the disease. These dietary habits are passed on intergenerationally, putting Indigenous people at an even greater risk for Type 2 diabetes.
The same factors have also been linked to other diseases, such as tuberculosis (TB).
According to a 2021 report from the Independent Assessment Process Oversight Committee, "half of the Indigenous who attended the early years of residential schools died of tuberculosis, despite repeated warnings to the government that overcrowding, poor sanitation, and a lack of medical care were creating a toxic breeding ground for the rapid spread of the disease.”
Today, poor nutritional habits inherited from the residential school system, exacerbated by soaring food prices, have fuelled staggering prevalence rates among certain groups. For instance, Inuit people are 300 times more likely to contract the disease than the rest of the population.
Improving prevention and access to health care would go a long way toward improving health outcomes, but resources are often scarce, and medical racism drives systemic and institutional disparities even further.