This chapter is from the Engaging History section of Stolen Lives.

Mostsurvivorsof the residential schools experienced their time at the schools as profoundly painful and destructive. Torn from their parents and communities, they were thrown into schools where human connection with adults was harsh, cold, and even abusive. At the schools, they were forced into the care of strangers—people from an unknown culture whose main goal was to eradicate their values, traditions, and beliefs. Alone, isolated, and sometimes assaulted both physically and emotionally,indigenousstudents were left to struggle on their own with no parental love or community support. While not all schools were alike, and not every student experienced the schooling in the same way, many were scarred for life. They entered their adult lives with no family model to follow, no connections to their parents and traditions, and, most of all, little preparation for the inhospitable world that consistently denied their experience. Educated in a grey zone between two competing cultures—theirs and the Europeans’—they reported feeling socially disoriented and inadequately educated.

This chapter walks the reader through the experiences of different survivors from the time they were torn from their families through to their daily routines, the effects on other family members, and the effects the second and third generations experience to come after them to this day.

Guiding Questions

  1. What did a policy of “forcedassimilation” look like in practice?
  2. What was life like for indigenous students in the residential schools?
  3. What were the gaps between the language of the missionaries and the realities of the schools?


  • survivors : The term survivors was first used to refer to individuals who lived through the Holocaust and other genocides; many believe residential school students share similar symptoms with other survivors, including emotional detachment, guilt, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. First used in the 1990s in the discussion of the experiences of indigenous students in the residential schools system, the term also refers to former students of these schools, individuals who suffered neglect and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their supposed teachers and instructors.
  • assimilation : 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.
  • 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.

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