The shift away from the residential school system
European officials of the 19th century believed that Aboriginal societies were dying out and that the only hope for Aboriginal people was to convert them to Christianity, do away with their cultures, and turn them into “civilized” British subjects—in short, assimilate them. By the 1950s, it was clear that assimilation was not working. Aboriginal cultures survived, despite all the efforts to destroy them and despite all the damage done. The devastating effects of the residential schools and the particular needs and life experiences of Aboriginal students were becoming more widely recognized.10 The government also acknowledged that removing children from their families was severely detrimental to the health of the individuals and the communities involved. In 1951, with the amendments to the Indian Act, the half-day work/school system was abandoned.11
The government decided to allow Aboriginal children to live with their families whenever possible, and the schools began hiring more qualified staff.12 In 1969, the Department of Indian Affairs took exclusive control of the system, marking an end to church involvement. Yet the schools remained underfunded and abuse continued.13 Many teachers were still very much unqualified; in fact, some had not graduated high school themselves.14
In the meantime, the government decided to phase out segregation and begin incorporating Aboriginal students into public schools. Although these changes saw students reaching higher levels of education, problems persisted. Many Aboriginal students struggled in their adjustment to public school and to a Eurocentric system in which Aboriginal students faced discrimination by their non-Aboriginal peers. Post-secondary education was still considered out of reach for Aboriginal students, and those students who wanted to attend university were frequently discouraged from doing so.15
The process to phase out the residential school system and other assimilation tactics was slow and not without reversals. In the 1960s, the system’s closure gave way to the “Sixties Scoop,” during which thousands of Aboriginal children were “apprehended” by social services and removed from their families. The “Scoop” spanned roughly the two decades it took to phase out the residential schools, but child apprehensions from Aboriginal families continue to occur in disproportionate numbers. In part, this is the legacy of compromised families and communities left by the residential schools.