Indigenous education: Residential schools, the colonial school system, and Indigenous contribution

By Brittany Stuckless

Posted on September 27, 2021
scrabble letters spelling learn

The residential school system in Canada continues to have a traumatic effect on survivors today. Furthermore, Canadian schools in the present day only provide a brief focus on the neglect and abuse that affected Indigenous youth for over a century in Canada.

This focus is not broad enough and students only see a glimpse of how devastating residential schools were. The trauma that Indigenous people still experience today should also be a focal point. Simply put, colonial school systems are not teaching nearly enough about residential schools.

Additionally, it’s important to dissect if students are learning enough about Indigenous contribution to society. Are schools offering enough information about Indigenous contributions in popular school subjects, like the arts and sciences? Let’s delve into the residential school system and the impact it has on modern-day schooling.

What were residential schools?

Residential schools were schools in Canada operated by churches. The Canadian government provided funding to open countless schools across the country. Run entirely by the church, the goal was to acculturate Indigenous communities using religion.

Residential schools aimed to strip Indigenous youth of their culture and force them to adapt to a Eurocentric, Canadian society. Generally speaking, the children who went to residential schools had an extremely harrowing experience. Their experience and stories have had a long-lasting impact on Indigenous communities and Canada as a country.

Residential schools: A brief history

Residential schools in Canada began opening in 1836 across the entire country. The last residential school closed as recently as 1996, a time when most millennials today were alive. The system was oppressive and imposed Christianity on Indigenous children. They were also forced to speak English and renounce their native heritage and culture.

Children in residential schools faced consistent abuse and harsh punishments. notes that “severe corporal punishment” was considered acceptable by British North Americans and Europeans. Essentially, Indigenous children in residential schools were not receiving an education or learning to prepare for their future. On the contrary, they faced abuse within a system that failed them entirely.
empty classroom chairs

While the schools are no longer operating today, it’s clear that the churches strive to hide the painful truth. With the recent unearthings of mass grave sites of Indigenous children on the grounds of former residential schools in Canada, the residential school system continues to harm Indigenous communities.

In June 2021, Canadians took notice after the discovery of 751 unmarked graves in a residential school in Saskatchewan. Just weeks prior, over 200 unmarked graves were discovered in British Columbia. These are grim reminders of the ripple effect that these oppressive and violent schools continue to have. There is also the probability of discovering more of these sites, further highlighting the harmful legacy of the system.

Today’s school systems

The question remains; to what extent is the residential school system retold today? Not only that, but how prevalent is denialism? According to Murray Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, denialism is on the rise, and this has an effect on how much information students today can learn about residential schools. If teachers refuse to accept the trauma associated with residential schools, they will certainly not discuss it enough during class.

Global News notes what school grades include the history of residential schools in their curriculum. For instance, schools in Ontario learn about residential schools in Grades 7, 8 and 10. On the other hand, schools in Newfoundland and Labrador only teach residential school history in Grade 7.
classroom and students

Students should learn about residential schools throughout junior high and high school, not just once or twice. History classes, especially Canadian history classes, have a responsibility to teach as much as possible to all students. More specifically, they must teach students about Indigenous culture, language, and traditions and how residential schools worked to eliminate those values.

Indigenous contribution to the arts

There is an argument to be made that many provinces do not teach enough about Canada’s residential school history. Not only that, but school subjects such as English and science do not include enough information about Indigenous contributions.

School subjects such as language arts, English literature, and art often focus on white artists and authors with European ancestry. Throughout Canada, elementary school, junior high schools, and high schools should include more work by Indigenous communities in their curriculum planning. Here are a handful of Indigenous authors that schools can easily incorporate into the curriculum:

  • Alootook Ipellie
  • Carleigh Baker
  • Daniel Heath Justice
  • Carol Rose Daniels
  • Al Hunter
  • Chelsea Vowel
  • Thomas King

You can refer to this CBC article for a comprehensive list of Indigenous authors and their work.

Indigenous contribution to science

It’s also important to understand if Indigenous communities’ contributions to science are being taught to kids today. Similar to the arts, students are not learning enough about Indigenous representation. Science classes are still heavily focused on European discoveries and breakthroughs. When it comes to the Indigenous contribution, a lot is left to be desired.

Hopefully, schools are aware of the problem and are planning to highlight more information on Indigenous discoveries. One way to do this is to focus on the incredible findings Canadians have Indigenous communities to thank for. For example, the Government of Canada’s website provides a list of everyday essentials we owe to Indigenous innovation:

  • Goggles
  • Tea
  • Cough syrup
  • Corn
  • Wild rice
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Snowshoes
  • Canoes

Indigenous researchers also deserve more spotlight in our schools’ curriculum planning. Scientists such as Bradley Moggridge, Tara McCallister, Deborah McGregor, and Otakuye Conroy-Ben call for modern school systems to stop overlooking the crucial role of the Indigenous communities in the sciences. Their careers include environmental engineer, water scientist, and ecologist. There should be more of a focus on their critical ecological strides, and many more, in curriculum planning.


It’s essential to understand the detrimental effect that residential schools had on Indigenous youth. Today, school systems throughout Canada need to be held responsible for teaching youth about the negative impact this system has had on Indigenous communities in the past, as well as the present. Not only that, but school curriculums need to showcase the contributions of Indigenous people in fields like the arts and science.

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