Killing the Indian in the Child | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves

Killing the Indian in the Child

Learn about the goal of assimilation held by many in colonial Canada and its influence on the creation of the Indian Residential Schools system.  


  • History


English — CA
Also available in:
French — CA


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

By the second half of the nineteenth century, there were growing concerns among European settlers about the future of the integration and  assimilation of the Indigenous population of Canada. 1 Those concerns stemmed from the frustration of settlers with the persistence of what they called the Indian problem. The expectation that the Indigenous groups would simply give up their ways of life and embrace European languages and culture had not materialized. Frustration grew in proportion to the desire to clear the way for new settlers, a goal that could only be achieved either by removing Indigenous communities from their land or assimilating them and forcing them to give up their land rights as separate peoples. The educational experiments on or near the reserves proved to be ineffective in encouraging children to give up their culture and traditional ways of life. The students, said a government report, did not “carry back with them to their homes any desire to spread among their people the instruction which they have received. They are content as before to live in the same slovenly manners. . . . The same apathy and indolence stamp their actions as is apparent in the rest of the Indians.” 2 As a result, in both the United States and Canada a new idea began to take root: indigenous children would have to be taken from their parents and educated separately in a boarding school so that the pull of family, tradition, and custom would not affect their assimilation.

But these institutions were not going to be based on the model of the traditional British upper-class boarding schools. To many, the Indian Residential Schools would represent a combination of the Victorian poorhouse, a penal institution, and a religious seminary. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who was also Minister of Indian Affairs, commissioned Nicholas Flood Davin, a journalist, lawyer, and politician, to go to Washington, DC, in 1879. Davin was sent to learn about the policy of “aggressive civilization” of Native Americans in the United States, where the idea of separating, educating, and assimilating Indigenous children had recently been put into practice. 3 The key to this policy was a system of “industrial schools” where religious instruction and skills training were combined to help the Native Americans catch up with the demands of Western society. In a confidential report to the Canadian government in 1879 called Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, Davin advised Canada to follow this model (the distinction between industrial and residential schools is discussed in Legislation for the Residential Schools in the historical background section of this book, but essentially they were the same). His report, eventually known as the Davin Report, became the “founding document which specified the terms within which industrial schools functioned for almost a century.” 4 It included the following:

The industrial school is the principal feature of a policy known as that of “aggressive civilization.” This policy was inaugurated by President Grant in 1869. But as will be seen, the utility of the industrial schools had long [before] that time been amply tested. Acting on the suggestion of the President, Congress passed a law early in 1869, providing for the appointment of the Peace Commission. This Commission recommended that the Indian should, as far as practical, be consolidated on a few reservations, and provided with “permanent individual homes”; that the tribal relation should be abolished; that lands should be allotted [to individuals] not in common; that the Indian should speedily become a citizen of the United States, enjoy the protection of the law, and made [accountable to it]; that, finally, it was the duty of the Government to afford the Indians all reasonable aid in their preparation for citizenship by education in Industry and in the arts of civilization…. From 1869 vigorous efforts in an education direction were put forward. But it was found that the day-school did not work, because the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school. Industrial Boarding Schools were therefore established, and these are now numerous and will soon be universal. The cry from the Agencies where no boarding industrial schools have been established is persistent and earnest to have the want supplied.

The experience of the United States is the same as our own as far as the adult Indian is concerned. Little can be done with him. He can be taught to do a little at farming, and at stock-raising, and to dress in a more civilized manner, but that is all. The child, again, who goes to a day school learns little, and what little he learns is soon forgotten, while his tastes are fashioned at home, and his inherited aversion to toil is in no way combated. . . .

The Indian character, about which some persons fling such a mystery, is not difficult to understand. The Indian is sometimes spoken of as a child, but he is very far from being a child. . . . The Indian is a man with traditions of his own, which make civilization a puzzle of despair. He has the suspicion, distrust, fault-finding tendency, the insincerity and flattery, produced in all subject races. He is crafty, but conscious how weak his craft is when opposed to the superior cunning of the white man . . . . 5

Davin and his generation believed in what J. A. Macrae, the Indian Affairs Department Inspector of the North West, said in 1886:

The circumstance of the Indian existence prevents him from following that core of evolution which had produced from the barbarian of the past the civilized man of today. It is impossible from him to be allowed slowly to pass through the successive stages from the pastoral to an agricultural life and from an agricultural one, to one of manufacturing, commerce or trade as we have done. He has been called upon suddenly and without warning to enter upon a new existence. Without the assistance of the government, he must have failed and perished miserably and he would have died hard entailing expense and disgrace upon the country. 6

At the height of the residential schools system, it was run by an extreme “assimilationist” named Duncan Campbell Scott. 7 Scott, a civil servant in the Department of Indian Affairs, is widely viewed as the most ardent supporter of the residential schools and the policies associated with them: the removal by consent or by force of tens of thousands of Indigenous children from their homes, some as young as two or four years of age; the attempts to deprive these children of any connections with their parents; the institution of an underfunded, willfully neglectful system where thousands of students perished from malnutrition, poor medical care, and diseases; the creation of an education system where child labour was a norm and where academic achievements were severely compromised; and the consistent lack of oversight and accountability in a system where physical and sexual abuse were rampant.

In 1920, Scott also pushed for and passed an amendment to the Indian Act making school attendance compulsory for all First Nations children under 15 years of age. 8 While he did not think that education alone was sufficient for civilizing the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, he advocated heavily for it. When he mandated compulsory school attendance in 1920, he stated,

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone . . . Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill. 9


  • assimilationassimilation: This term refers to the process whereby one group or individual’s culture is absorbed into another, creating one single cultural entity, giving up distinct group or individual identity. Believing that Indigenous cultures were inferior, the Canadian government, since the middle of the nineteenth century, put forth a series of policies to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples into settler Canadian society.
  • 1The title of this reading “Killing the Indian in the Child” is a phrase commonly but incorrectly attributed to Duncan Campbell Scott, though his actions as the head of the DIA between 1913 and 1932 suggest that he might have agreed with the idea.
  • 2Report of the Special Commissioners Appointed to Investigate Indian Affairs in Canada, Journals of Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada from 25th of February to 1st June 1858, appendix no. 21, part 3, session 1853, quoted in John Milloy, A National Crime, 18.
  • 3This policy, writes anthropologist Derek G. Smith, “had been formulated in the post-Civil War period by President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration . . . and was passed into law by Congress in early 1869. See Derek G. Smith, “The ‘Policy of Aggressive Civilization’ and Projects of Governance in Roman Catholic Industrial Schools for Native Peoples in Canada, 1870–95,” Anthropologica 43 (2001), 254. 
  • 4Derek G. Smith, “The ‘Policy of Aggressive Civilization,’” 254.
  • 5Nicholas Flood Davin, Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds (1879), in., Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress, ed. Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 229–301.
  • 6Quoted in John Milloy, A National Crime, 27.
  • 7Scott was a civil servant for much of his life and was involved in Indigenous affairs throughout his career (he negotiated, for example, one of the treaties). He served as deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to1932 and oversaw the operation of the residential schools. Scott, a renowned Canadian poet, appreciated elements of Indigenous culture, but he contributed directly to its destruction—perhaps more than anybody. See Nancy Chater, “Technologies of Remembrance: Literary Criticism and Duncan Campbell Scott’s Indian Poems” (MA thesis, University of Toronto, 1999), 25–26. Moreover, in 1924, he proposed an amendment to the Indian Act that was adopted, forbidding Aboriginal people from hiring lawyers without the DIA’s approval to represent them in land and sovereignty claims. For these and many other contributions, Scott is called by experts the “architect of Indian policies” during the first decades of the twentieth century. See also Brian Titley, A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986), 22. 
  • 8Brian Titley, A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986), 91–92. As a result of the amendment, Indigenous enrollment rose to about 17,000 in all schools and to over 8,000 in residential schools by the end of his tenure. According to Scott’s reports, at this point, 75% of Indigenous children were enrolled in some school, which he attributed to a growing motivation among them to take up Western education. Clearly, the fact that the education was now compulsory, and that since 1930 it included all children between the ages of 7 and 16, had something to do with these numbers. 
  • 9National Archives of Canada, Record Group 10, vol. 6810, file 470-2-3, vol. 7, 55 (L-3) and 63 (N-3).

Connection Questions

  1. Define the word assimilation. What is integration? What are the similarities and differences in the meanings of the words? Many of the education-system leaders in this reading are described as assimilationists. What were their goals?
  2. Why did Davin and his contemporaries think that Aboriginal 1  Peoples needed to be civilized? What, according to Davin, was “aggressive civilization”?
  3. What did Davin mean when he said that the “influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school”? What did it mean in terms of the education policy he recommended?
  4. What was Davin’s view of the Indigenous people? What were the obstacles to their assimilation? What kind of schooling was Davin advocating?
  5. According to the quotation from Duncan Campbell Scott, what was the purpose of the residential schools? What vision is reflected in this paragraph regarding Canadian society?
  • 1Aboriginal: Stemming from the mid-seventeenth-century Latin term aborigines, meaning “original inhabitants,” Aboriginal is the preferred legal term in Canada for the large and diverse grouping of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit nations. It is used synonymously with the term Indigenous in various parts of Canada.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “Killing the Indian in the Child”, last updated September 20, 2019.

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