The stated purpose of the Indian Residential Schools was to make the Indigenous Peoples of Canada embrace Western values and Christianity (those two sets of beliefs were almost inseparable at the time). In the eyes of many state officials, the agent that could and should bring about such rapid change was the Christian church. Missionaries of all denominations embraced the cause of Christianizing and civilizing the Indigenous Peoples in Canada long before the Davin Report of 1879. Indeed, in the 1880s there were already four church-run boarding schools in operation.
and other forms of missionary work led all the Christian denominations to support the model of boarding or residential schools. In the decades to come, the government turned over operation of most of the residential schools to the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches.
Most people of European descent at the time shared the view that Christianity and civilization supported each other (if they were not actually synonymous). As early as 1852, Rev. Samuel Rose, the principal of Mt. Elgin residential school at the time, explained:
[The education of these] youths has been regarded by me as the work of no ordinary character; an education solemnly important in his connection to the future, with the unborn periods of the time. . . . These youths are to form the class whose histories is to be a most important epoch in the history of the nations to which they belong. . . . This class is to spring a generation, who will either perpetuate the manners and customs of their ancestors, or being intellectually, morally and religiously elevated, take their stand among the improved, intelligent nations of the earth, their part in the great drama of the world’s doing; or off want of necessary qualifications, to take their place and perform their part, be despised and pushed off the stage of action and ceased to be!
Although government funded, the residential schools were operated by churches, with clergymen and women serving in most teaching and administrative roles. This photo was taken at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Manitoba in 1940.
A memorandum of the Convention of Catholic Principals in 1924 expressed similar sentiments:
All true civilization must be based on moral law, which Christian religion alone can give. Pagan superstition could not suffice . . . to make the Indians practice the virtues of our civilization and avoid its attendant vices. Several people have desired us to countenance the dances of the Indians and to observe their festivals; but their habits, being the result of free and easy mode of life, cannot conform to the intense struggle for life which our social conditions require.
The clergymen and women who took on administrative and teaching roles in the schools often saw themselves as a protective force for the Indigenous people without considering the perspectives of the cultures from which their students came. A 1911 report of the Alberta Methodist Commission said this:
The Indian is the weak child in the family of our nation and for this reason presents the most earnest appeal for Christian sympathy and cooperation . . . [W]e are convinced that the only hope of successfully discharging this obligation to our Indian brethren is through the medium of the children, therefore education must be given the foremost place.”
A 2012 report by the
explains the complicated role of the churches:
To both Protestant and Catholic missionaries, Aboriginal spiritual beliefs were little more than superstition and witchcraft. In British Columbia, William Duncan of the Church Missionary Society reported: “I cannot describe the conditions of this people better than by saying that it is just what might be expected in savage heathen life.” Missionaries led the campaign to outlaw Aboriginal sacred ceremonies such as the Potlatch on the west coast and the Sun Dance on the Prairies. In British Columbia in 1884, for example, Roman Catholic missionaries argued for banning the Potlatch, saying that participation in the ceremony left many families so impoverished they had to withdraw their children from school to accompany them in the winter to help them search for food.
While, on one front, missionaries were engaged in a war on Aboriginal culture, on another, they often served as advocates for protecting and advancing Aboriginal interests in their dealings with government and settlers. Many learned Aboriginal languages, and conducted religious ceremonies at the schools in those languages. These efforts were not unrewarded: the 1899 census identified 70,000 of 100,000 Indian people in Canada as Christians.