As wide-ranging and intrusive as The Indian Act was, it did not represent all aspects of the government’s Indian policy. One of the most important questions was that of education. Before Confederation, the colonial governments had been involved in Native schooling only in small ways. For the most part, children were either taught according to indigenous methods or attended local schools run by Christian churches and mission organizations. In 1848, the government of Canada West began to provide grants to two Methodist-run schools, with funds drawn from the central Indian trust fund. Individual bands could make local decisions to fund schools. There were also several experiments with small boarding schools. But there was no clearly defined policy or systematic funding program.

photo of students, teacher, Indian Industrial School, Qu'Appelle, N-WT, 1885.

Indian Industrial School, Qu'Appelle, N-WT, 1885.

Industrial schools took Native children away from their parents in order to hasten their assimilation to the dominant Canadian society. The schools provided training in practical skills that they would need, either on the reserves or, officials hoped, when they left the reserves to find work.
SAB (R-A 448).

Changes began in the 1870s. Recall that the numbered treaties had included provisions for government-sponsored reserve schools. When the western bands made no requests, the Canadian government decided to take the initiative and set up a series of day schools on the larger reserves to encourage the assimilation of Native children. It introduced a grant program in the mid-1870s for similar schools on reserves in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. It initiated another experiment in Ontario with the establishment of two "industrial" schools where older children could learn a trade or farming and household skills. None of these schools was well attended, and the impact on the assimilationist program was clearly going to be negligible.

Recommendations from the Davin Report

Nicholas Flood Davin recommended that the federal government and the churches co-operate in educating Native people. The government heeded most of Davin's recommendations and created industrial schools throughout the West.

I should recommend, at once, an extensive application of the principle of industrial boarding schools in the North-West, were it not that the population, both Indian and half-breed, is so largely migratory that any great outlay at present would be money thrown away.

The recommendations I venture to submit are as follows:

(1.)  Wherever the missionaries have schools, those schools should be utilized by the Government, if possible ; that is to say, a contract should be made with the religious body controlling the school to board and educate and train industrially a certain number of pupils.  This should be done without interfering with the small assistance at present given to the day mission schools.

(2.)  Not more than four industrial boarding schools ought to be established at first.  If the Department should determine to establish more than four, the Reservation recommended by Mr. McColl, (Appendix B.) would possess many advantages.  Here the population is settled and to some extent civilized.  The soil is rich.  The Missionary Society is withdrawing its aid from the school, which will henceforth be dependent on Government aid, and voluntary contributions.  The Rev. Mr. Cook assured me that here there would be no difficulty in getting a sufficient number of children from eight years old to twelve to attend the boarding industrial school.

(3.)  An industrial boarding school should be established somewhere in the fork of the North and South Saskatchewan, near Prince Albert, in connection with the Episcopalian Church.  The land is wonderfully fertile.  There are a good many Indians in the neighborhood.  There are Bands of Indians near Carlton and near Dutch Lake.  There is plenty of fish and timber.

(4.)  In no place could an industrial boarding school in connection with the Methodist body be more properly placed than near Old Bow Fort.  The Blackfeet and Stoneys, wild but noble types of Indians, would thus be reached.  There are numbers of good places between the Saskatchewan and the Athabasca rivers; but the needs, in those quarters are not so pressing, as the Methodists and Roman Catholics have here been very successful, the boarding school principle having been tried with great success by the Roman Catholics in at least once instance.  The want in the Blackfeet country is pressing.  A Wesleyan mission exists to the east of Old Bow Fort.  Timber and fish are at hand, and a vast tract of the finest grazing soil in the world.  There ought to be no difficulty here, in a few years, in rivalling the Cheyenne and Arapho Agency with its promising herd.

(5.)  At Qu'Appelle it might well be thought we should find an appropriate site for an industrial boarding school to be conducted by Roman Catholics.  The soil, it is true, is generally poor, but where the river narrows it leaves a good deal of fair land.  To the north is Touchwood, a trading post of the Hudson Bay Co.  Around are lakes in which much fish is found, and when the buffalo is gone the Indians will flock hither to fish.  A good many half-breeds are here now.  It is a central point.  Roads run south and west and north.  The Blackfeet country, or that covered by Treaty 7, is sure to be a great grazing country in the not distant future.  The advantages of the route thence to Qu'Appelle, on and alongside of the river are unmistakable.  There is a permanent settlement.  There is also a Roman Catholic mission.  But there is no timber, and it is said the frosts menace the crops; but this is true of a good many other places where men, not with bad results, take the risks; and, notwithstanding these last drawbacks, I should have recommended Qu'Apelle as a site for a Roman Catholic industrial boarding school, were it not that other considerations of a weighty nature point to Buffalo Lake or some spot on the Red Deer River running by it.  The advantages of Qu'Apelle should, however, be utilized in the near future, either on the contract system, or by means of a boarding school, immediately controlled by the Government, on a denominational or secular basis.  On the shores of Buffalo Lake the school would have the advantage of being removed far from possible contact with whites for many years at least.  Timber is sufficiently near along the river to the east and west.  The land, I am assured, is good.  The most pressing considerations of workableness point to those shores as the site for a Roman Catholic boarding industrial school.

(6.)  An industrial boarding school, in connection with the Presbyterian Church, should be established on Riding Mountain.  The Presbyterians have already been very successful here.  There is plenty of timber and the land is excellent.  There is, it is true, no abundant supply of fish in the Little Saskatchewan.  In all other respects, however, the locality is every thing that could be desired.  The Indians here are represented as intelligent, and the children eager to acquire.

The importance of denominational schools at the outset for the Indians must be obvious.  One of the earliest things an attempt to civilize them does, is to take away their simple Indian mythology, the central idea of which, to wit, a perfect spirit, can hardly be improved on.  The Indians have their own ideas of right and wrong, of "good" Indians and "bad" Indians, and to disturb this faith, without supplying a better, would be a curious process to enlist the sanction of civilized races whose whole civilization, like all the civilizations with which we are acquainted, is based on religion.  A civilized sceptic, breathing, though he does, an atmosphere charged with Christian ideas, and getting strength unconsciously therefrom, is nevertheless, unless in instances of rare intellectual vigour, apt to be a man without ethical backbone.  But a savage sceptic would be open to civilizing influences and moral control only through desires, which, in the midst of enlightenment, constantly break out into the worst features of barbarism.  Where, however, the poor Indian has been brought face to face with polemics and settlements are divided, or think they are divided, on metaphysical niceties, the school should be, as at the White Earth Agency, Minnesota, undenominational.

(7.)  Some distinction should be made between the treatment of parents who send their children regularly to the day-school, and of those who are either careless whether their children go to school or not, or who are wholly opposed to their children attending school, as some are.  To the first, an additional ration of tea and sugar might be given.

(8.)  Where practicable, some inducement of a special nature should be held out to the child.

(9.)  As Bands become more amenable to the restraints of civilization education should be made compulsory.

(10.)  The character of the teacher, morally and intellectually, is a matter of vital importance.  If he is morally weak, whatever his intellectual qualifications may be, he is worse than no teacher at all.  If he is poorly instructed or feeble in brain, he only enacts every day an elaborate farce.  It must be obvious that to teach semi-cilivized children is a more difficult task than to teach children with inherited aptitudes, whose training is, moreover, carried on at home.  A teacher should have force of character, and when he presides over an industrial school should have a knowledge of farming.  Such a man must be adequately paid.  The advantage of calling in the aid of religion is, that there is a chance of getting an enthusiastic person, with, therefore, a motive power beyond anything pecuniary remuneration could supply.  The work requires not only the energy but the patience of an enthusiast.  The teacher's appointment to an industrial boarding school should be made by the Government, after consultation with the religious body immediately interested, and the whole machinery should be carefully guarded against the suspicion of having any character of religious endowment, or any likelihood of issuing therein.

(11.)  In order to secure that the education given would be efficient, there ought to be competent inspection.  Failing this, when industrial boarding schools come to be widely established, large sums will be thrown into the sea.  The education given in Indian schools is, as a rule, of a very poor sort, mechanical to the last degree.

(12.)  Where boys or girls, whether Indians or half-breed, show special aptitudes or exceptional general quickness, special advantages should be offered them, and they should be trained to become teachers and clerks in connection with the Department, as well as fitted to launch out on commercial and professional careers.

(13.)  The salary of a teacher must be such as will induce good men to offer themselves.  The teacher should be paid according to his qualifications.  In the future, when the manual labour boarding school is an established institution those teachers who manage their schools in a manner tending towards self-support, should have a percentage on the reduction in the cost of management.

I have the honour to be,


Your obedient servant,


Nicholas Flood Davin, Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-breeds ([Ottawa?]: n.p., [1879?]), 13-15.

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1879 - Davin Report

John A. Macdonald commissioned Nicholas Flood Davin to investigate the industrial school system of education for Natives in the United States and the possibility of establishing a similar system in Canada. Davin toured some American schools, spoke to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs there, and then consulted with knowledgeable persons in the Canadian West. The report, tabled in 1879, formed the basis of subsequent educational policy. Davin considered both the types of schools to be created and the manner in which they should be funded. The report rejected the idea of "day schools," which left children in their home environment and subject to the regressive influences of their families, as detrimental to assimilation. The still fluid situation in the Canadian West made a strict application of the American system of residential industrial schools unfeasible, and Davin recommended the establishment of both boarding schools on-reserve and centrally located residential industrial schools off-reserve, at least initially. Davin acknowledged a role for churches and missionary organizations in Native education, but suggested that denominational schools might not always be appropriate if they led to sectarian infighting. The report also evaluated funding procedures, considering both direct government funding and contract funding. Despite Davin's stated reservations on the effectiveness and benefits of contract funding, this was the system that was adopted.

The Davin Report received wide support from the government and churches, both of which were dedicated to the view that education was an important component of assimilation. Davin's recommendations appealed to those who saw the education of Natives as a duty, as well as to those who viewed education as a means to create a self-supporting people who would thereby become less dependent on government support. As a result, a number of boarding and residential schools were established, although day schools did not disappear. Despite serious problems including mismanagement and chronic underfunding, and the alarming prevalence of disease, malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse, and a high death rate, the system inaugurated by the Davin Report was maintained until 1969.

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Hoping to address these problems, John A. Macdonald’s government commissioned the lawyer-journalist Nicholas Flood Davin to look into educational alternatives. Davin spent considerable time investigating what the United States was doing. In 1879 he submitted a report in which he proposed that a modified version of the American industrial-school system be introduced in Canada. The list of recommendations in this report laid the foundation for subsequent policy. Canada would have a " mixed" system of off-reserve and on-reserve schools, run by a partnership between government and Christian missions. Although Davin expressed reservations about the appropriateness of church-run schools in some cases, the government chose to ignore that point.

1883 - Residential Schools at Battleford, Lebret, and Dunbow Established

In the first step to implement the Davin Report, three industrial residential schools were established in the West in 1883. Denominational administration of these schools possessed advantages in economy and organization that, despite Davin's reservations on this matter, were recognized. The schools thus came under the auspices of the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church. The school at Battleford was established as a Church of England responsibility, while those at Lebret (near Qu'Appelle in the Treaty 4 area) and Dunbow (near High River in the Treaty 7 region) were assigned to the Roman Catholic Church.

In accordance with contemporary attitudes toward women and education, these three schools admitted boys only. The curriculum included a general education as well as agricultural training. The "industrial" aspect of the schools focused on equipping some of the pupils in trades deemed particularly useful to life on the prairies-blacksmithing and carpentry. Administrators also considered the residential component an advantage as it isolated the students from the "backsliding" influences of home and family that might otherwise have impeded the student's success.

The schools made no effort to act on Davin's emphatic recommendation that Métis staff or students could potentially play a valuable role as cultural brokers between students and administration. Initially there was little restriction on who might attend these schools, but, by the 1890s, the government offered funding only to the children of Status Indians.

These industrial schools, and particularly the institution in Battleford, displayed a variety of problems that would plague students and their families throughout the existence of the industrial residential education system. For students, difficulties included homesickness, harsh discipline, inadequate food and medical services, and physical and sexual abuse. Parents resented restricted visitation rights, feared that their children were being exploited as unpaid workers, and worried about the loss of culture wrought by assimilationist programs. They also suffered very real fears for the general health and well-being of their children. The schools themselves suffered from inadequate funding and the presence of employees who were sometimes poorly educated or exhibited inappropriate behaviour.

These problems were not universally characteristic of either these three schools or the system as a whole, but they were prevalent enough to raise repeated criticism over the years. That Natives could themselves view such an educational system as a positive force is evident in the decision of Red Crow, a signatory of Treaty 7, to send his son to the school at Dunbow. He believed that the school would provide his son with the means to thrive in the changing world. Of the three schools established in 1883, only the one at Lebret, now under the control of an Indian administration, remains in existence today.

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Immediately following receipt of Davin’s report, the Dominion government initiated its first large grants to build industrial schools in the West. The original idea was to establish these schools as a sort of secondary-level school for older children, with one school per treaty area. In 1883, the first industrial school was opened at Battleford in co-operation with the Church of England. The following year, schools were opened at Qu’Appelle and High River in agreements with the Roman Catholic Church. By 1900, there were 22 of these schools, concentrated mostly in Western Canada.

Photo of a Native family attending Qu'Appelle [Sask.] Industrial School, Qu'Appelle, Sask., ca. 1900

Father with Children Attending Qu'Appelle [Sask.] Industrial School, Qu'Appelle, Sask., ca. 1900

Native children were torn away from their families to attend schools designed to imbue them with British-Canadian values.
NAC (C-037113)

The second branch of the school system provided for in the original policy was for boarding schools. These institutions were originally intended to be located on or near reserves, where younger children could be sent and kept away from the influence of their families. By 1900, there were 39 of these schools.

Day schools made up the third branch of the system, serving the majority of Native pupils in 241 locations by 1910. Nevertheless, only about half of Native children of school age were attending any kind of Indian Affairs school. Native people were clearly dissatisfied with the system right from the beginning. In addition to their concerns about what their children were being taught, they alleged physical and sexual abuse, as at the industrial school near Selkirk, Manitoba, where complaints resulted in a formal investigation in 1899.

Teachers and government and mission personnel were also lobbying for changes by the early twentieth century. School administrators complained of underfunding, and government administrators complained of low attendance rates. At a meeting in 1910, the government agreed not only to increase its funding for these schools but also to increase its level of intervention in what was taught and by whom. Eventually, the government decided to eliminate the distinction between industrial and boarding schools, replacing these designations with a single category of educational institution to be known as a residential school.

Photo of residential school being opend at Sechelt, B.C., 28 July 1904

Opening of a Residential School, Sechelt, BC, 28 July 1904.

Church-run residential schools, sponsored by the federal government, deliberately undermined Native cultures by interfering with the passage—and questioning the value—of traditional knowledge passed from parent to child.
BCA (F-02406).

Regardless of the tinkering with specific details, the underlying intent of the government’s education policy remained consistent. The purpose was to remove Aboriginal children from the cultural influences of home and to teach them the language and values of Anglo-Canadian society. Some administrators in Ottawa were even uncomfortable about the teaching of French in these schools, so insistent were they on the ultimate value of the English form of British citizenship. While the church partners in the program shared a belief in the assimilationist goal, they often translated it into a more directly religious agenda with the result that the curricula were quite different in Aboriginal schools than in schools for non-Native children. The few young people who wished to go on to higher education found they were hopelessly unprepared.

Photo of Native children sewing at at Wiliams Lake Industrial School, ca. 1900

Native Children Sewing at at Wiliams Lake Industrial School, B.C., ca. 1900

Industrial schools taught Native girls housekeeping skills suitable for roles as wives or servants.
NAC (C-056765)

Written By

Kerry Abel
Adjunct Professor
Carleton University
This is a brief description of Kerry Abel


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