The Indian Act and the Indian Residential Schools | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Graphic from cover of "Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools."

The Indian Act and the Indian Residential Schools

Learn the history behind the legislation and policies created by the Canadian government in the nineteenth century to dispossess and assimilate the Indigenous Peoples.


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This resource is intended for educators in Canada who are teaching in English.

At a Glance

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English — CA


  • Social Studies


  • Genocide


About This Chapter

In the previous chapters, we learned about the ideas that Europeans falsely employed to categorize the Indigenous Peoples of North America. This chapter examines how these views were put into action after Confederation in 1867.

  1. What were the assumptions behind the Indian Act?
  2. What were the goals of the Indian Residential Schools?
  3. What can the goals of the residential schools tell us about the European views of indigenous cultures? What consequence did those views have for Indigenous Peoples?

This chapter is from theThe Indian Act and the Indian Residential Schools section of Stolen Lives and includes:

  • 1 historical background
  • 2 readings
  • Connection questions

The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change. –Sir John A. Macdonald, 1887

In the previous chapters, we talked about the ideas that Europeans falsely employed to categorize the Indigenous Peoples of North America. These prejudicial categories soon became instrumental in managing and controlling these nations; indeed, they provided an excuse for moving the First Nations (and Métis ) out of the way of the European settlers. In this chapter, we will examine how some of these views were put into action after Confederation in 1867.

By the 1870s, with the processes of European settlement and the removal of First Nations to reserves under way, the Dominion government faced a number of dilemmas: Was there a solution to the problems faced by the Indigenous Peoples, many of whom were pushed to live on the brink of starvation on small and unproductive plots of lands by European violence? What would long-term solutions look like, besides charity and urgent humanitarian assistance (which the government was frequently forced to provide, however reluctantly)? How did these possible solutions fit with the colonists’ own interests and prejudices?

In addition to the treaties , which were signed under duress with different First Nations, the government passed the Indian Act to formalize its relations with the First Nations. As part of the act, the government also turned its attention to education. At the time, many Europeans believed that with time and Western education, the Indigenous Peoples would assimilate into the settler society, which the Europeans believed to be a positive change. What they considered progress is today recognized as an attempt to eradicate indigenous cultures. In a now-famous paper, residential schools scholar John Milloy argues that the Indian Act effectively ended indigenous forms of self-government and made First Nations people wards of the Canadian government. “Successive federal governments, Liberal and Conservative,” he maintains, “over the next century, in amendments to the 1869 Act and in new Acts, spelled out, in increasing detail, a colonial structure that passed control of First Nations people and communities into the hands of the Indian Affairs Department.”

Several options for bringing Western education to the Indigenous Peoples were tried before federation, including manual-labour schools, day schools, and boarding schools. Most if not all of these schools were run by Christian churches, with varying degrees of religious instruction taught along with farming and trade-skills training. The government eventually chose the boarding schools, or the Indian Residential Schools, as its most important institution designed to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. The most distinctive characteristic of the Indian Residential Schools system was that it tore indigenous children from their families and left them in the care of complete and often hostile strangers—the schools’ religious instructors.

  • First Nations First Nations: First Nations have lived in North America for tens of thousands of years. Today, the term refers to some 617 different communities, traditionally composed of groups of 400 or so. These nations enjoy a richness and diversity of identity, culture, and customs. Many view North America as their traditional homeland and do not recognize aspects of US and Canadian sovereignty. Alongside the Métis and Inuit Peoples, First Nations are part of a larger grouping officially called the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.
  • Métis Métis: The term broadly describes descendants of mixed European and First Nations ancestry. In a narrow sense, Métis refers only to the descendants of First Nations people and French settlers in Manitoba. The history of the Métis reflects the intermingling of their different ways of life during the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North American fur trade. Eventually, these descendants developed distinct language, culture, and traditions.
  • reservesreserves: The key tool of a common colonial strategy, reserves were small, barely habitable areas where the colonizers sought to manage the people they dispossessed. In Canada, the 1850s saw a series of legislative enactments redefining the boundaries of First Nations communities, property, and land use, which increased pressure to relocate to reserves. Lack of investment and poor government services exacerbated First Nations isolation, leaving many reserves economically depressed and prone to violence and crime.
  • treaties treaties: A treaty is a legally binding agreement between two sovereign nations. In Canada, various treaties between First Nations and the British Crown have been signed over the decades. The intent of many treaty agreements was to initiate a system in which First Nations peoples would share the land with the settler society but retain their autonomy and inherent rights to land and resources.
  • the Indian Act the Indian Act: Enacted by the federal government in 1876, the Indian Act combined all previous legislation regarding the First Nations and brought them under federal jurisdiction. This act created the term Indian as a legal category and defined Status Indian (registered Indian), which excluded Inuit and Métis people. It gave the government, through the Department of Indian Affairs, the power to create laws and policies regarding “Indians” and “Indian” affairs such as membership, reserve infrastructure and services, systems of governance, culture, and education.
  • indigenous indigenous: A generic term for communities of people who resided on territories before they were invaded and/or colonized (primarily by Europeans). Many descendants of these communities have a historical and cultural continuity with their pre-colonial ancestors. For some, the term indigenous is preferable to Aboriginal in reference to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit in Canada.
  • Indian Residential Schools systemIndian Residential Schools system: Beginning in 1883, the federal government sought a system to enroll indigenous children in schools. The residential schools system was part of a larger government agenda to assimilate indigenous people into settler society by way of education. Relying almost exclusively on churches to provide the teachers, administrators, and religious instructors, the system was severely underfunded and marked by inferior educational standards and achievement: neglect, malnutrition, abuse, and disease were widely reported. In recent years, researchers discovered that some schools even carried out dangerous medical experiments. It is also estimated that more than 6,000 students died of disease and abuse while enrolled. Over a 150-year span, the government and churches operated close to 150 schools where some 150,000 indigenous youth were enrolled.

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