You Can’t Spell “Indian Residential Schools” without “America”

The shared history of Indian Residential/Boarding Schools in Canada and the U.S.

The critical information I want you to know about me, for the purposes of this piece:

-I am a cis, white female with no Indigenous ancestry or personal ties to speak of.

-I have been a scholar of Indigenous ways of knowing and decolonial education, and a professional in anti-racist and colonial education, since 2011. 

-I am currently a graduate student at a Canadian institution, but I am an American citizen and a product of American public school systems.

-I am living on Powhatan land, and studying at an institution that is on the lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. I conducted previous studies of Indigenous knowledge and history on the lands of the Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples. 

I am not a scholar specifically of Indian residential schools. However, in light of recent discoveries of mass residential school graves in Canada, the push for #cancelCanadaday swelling in Canada, and the first Indigenous U.S. Dept of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s announcement of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, I want to share the knowledge that I do have as a non-Indigenous person, in order to catch other non-Indigenous Americans up on this largely suppressed history. Because here’s the thing, team:

It wasn’t just Canada. The U.S. had residential schools, too. 

Over 350 of them.

As of this piece’s writing, in the last week of June/first week of July 2021, the history of Canada’s Indian residential schools is very present in the media and general zeitgeist. The recent discoveries of three mass graves on the grounds of former schools— one on the lands of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia, another thought to hold the bodies of children of the bands of the Ktunaxa Nation in British Columbia, and a third on the lands of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan— have turned international attention towards the deep and bloody history of Indigenous genocide in Canada, and the minimal work that the nation has done to address that history. In 2007, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created with the specific intent to “facilitate reconciliation among former [boarding school] students, their families, their communities and all Canadians.” For many Canadians, this was the first they had heard of what would turn out to be a decades-old nation-wide network of 130+ schools, operated by various Christian orders and defined by violence, child abduction, forced assimilation, abuse, unmanaged contagious disease, and overall cultural genocide of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. But now, the discoveries of these mass graves’ occurring almost 15 years after the TRC’s establishment, and 7 years after it closed its investigations, indicate that much of the work that the TRC was commissioned to do was left undone. As Al Jazeera reported on June 27, 2021, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was envisioned as a way to document the stories of residential school survivors and bring them justice, but years after the TRC issued its calls to action, Canada and the Catholic Church have only implemented eight of 94 recommendations, a December 2020 report by the First-Nation-led research centre, the Yellowhead Institute, found.” 

The recent discoveries of these mass graves have been led by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities that are committed to bringing the truths of Canadian Indian residential schools to light. The TRC, much less the Canadian government, has had nothing to do with any of it. For all that the Canadian government claimed reparative and restitutive intentions in the early 2000s, it would appear that there was more lip service than labor done. There’s Orange Shirt Day, for example; this is a national event tied to the Every Child Matters movement. It occurs annually on the 30th of September, and calls public attention to this history all across Canada (the wearing of orange was inspired by one of the event leaders’ personal accounts as a residential school survivor-- the brand-new orange shirt she was wearing when she arrived at the St Joseph Mission Residential School in 1973 was immediately confiscated and never returned to her). The event, and its related actions, however, aresurvivor- and ally-organized. No direct involvement from the Canadian government, though it certainly has jumped on the bandwagon of “encouraging” participation.

From another angle: post-TRC, there is a prevalence of land acknowledgements on the Canadian government’s materials and websites, in institutions’ purpose statements, in the opening slides of various professional PowerPoints, etc. But there is little to no incorporation of that awareness, or recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and its implications, in these contexts. It is assumed that by merely mentioning the Indigenous heritage of a place, reparative work is being done between Canada and First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. And while the Canadian government has called for provincial education systems’ incorporation of Indigenous history in curricula and learning standards, it has not held provinces accountable for these expectations. Every province has thus been free to develop, or not develop, Indigenous historic and cultural content as it sees fit. In short, for all that Canada has been claiming awareness of its violent history against Indigenous peoples (particularly in comparison to the U.S., which notoriously has not acknowledged its own history with Indian residential schools at all), it is increasingly evident that there has been minimal work done to actually affect healing and change for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and the Canadian systems that have facilitated Indigenous genocide for centuries.  

Both Canada and the U.S. are skittishly avoiding the starting line of the work that must be done. This is appropriate, given how deeply intertwined their histories of residential schools are. But our reckoning— the U.S.’s reckoning— with this history? It’s coming. 

Not only because we operated our own networks of schools, but because we were also essential to the development of Canada’s residential schools. 

As early as 1819, the United States was institutionalizing Indigenous genocide in the form of industrial schools and boarding programs. Religious institutions and the government shared the responsibility for these institutions’ operations. Canadian Prime Minister John A Macdonald sent journalist/politician Nicholas Flood Davin to the U.S. to learn about American Indian boarding schools and report back in the 1870s. Both countries spent decades developing methods of removing Indigenous children from their families, forcing them through grievous processes of “assimilation” that really just prepared them for a life of labor and lower-class displacement, in service to white society, and swiftly erased generations of Indigenous knowledges and identity. Put simply, the histories of Canada and the U.S. are inextricably tangled up in the violent common goal of Indigenous genocide. 

Our nation has never been held accountable for its role in this historic removal of children from their homes in order to erase their identities via abuse, re-education, and forced assimilation. But in this time of social media, advocacy for Indigenous sovereignty, and the desire to establish true accounts of history instead of continuing to regurgitate curated, white ones, the enormous silence surrounding American Indian boarding schools is going to shatter.  As Secretary Haaland wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post, shortly before the announcement of her Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in June 2021: “many Americans may be alarmed to learn that the United States also has a history of taking Native children from their families in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people. It is a history that we must learn from if our country is to heal from this tragic era.” 

This country incarcerated thousands of Indigenous children on the grounds of ethnic cleansing over the course of 150 years. So did Canada. One country is not more guilty than the other; the histories are the same. But as Americans, it is critical for us to own our part in that history, and the alarming patterns of recurrence that we have enacted since. Japanese internment during WWII. Imprisonment of migrants along our border with Mexico, immigration control, and our national prison system. Building this country  with enslaved labor, on the lands of millions of people who had lived here for generations before being oppressed, if not slaughtered, by Europeans. Crises of water and resource protections, most recently the DAPL pipeline, compromising Indigenous Americans’ lives. We have been repeating our worst actions and policies, imprisoning human beings over and over again, since well before George Washington crossed the Delaware. Public acknowledgment of, truth telling of, and reparations for, Indian board schools is critical if we are ever going to have a chance to break this cycle. 

Start listening.

Below are the links to state-by-state lists of American residential schools, and province-by-province lists of those in Canada. I urge to you look at where you live and what schools may have been proximate to you, and to seek out means of donating money, time, or awareness to the peoples Indigenous to the area.




Barman, J. ”Schooled for Inequality:  The Education of British Columbia Aboriginal Children," in Sara Z. Burke and Patrice Milewski, Schooling in Transition: Readings in Canadian History of Education (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012). p. 63

Mosby, I. “Administering Colonial Science: Nutritional Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools,” 1942-52, Histoire Sociale/Social History Volume 46, Number 91, May 2013. p. 145

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