Indian Residential Schools: Carceral Classrooms in Canada



Indian Residential Schools in Canada functioned as a node within an expansive network of government infrastructure that perpetuated policies of forced assimilation, a civilizing agenda, racial segregation, unethical labor practices and inequitable land reform strategies, influenced by deeply intertwined institutions of colonialism and missionary crusades. Jointly established by the Canadian federal government and various religious denominations, over 130 boarding schools existed nationwide from as early on as 1874 until as late as 1996, when the last school officially shut its doors. Over 150,000 of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were often forcibly removed from their homes and legally subjected to formalized spiritual, academic, and vocational training in these institutionalized settings. With a mission of “killing the Indian in the child,” the psychological impacts of the Indian Residential School system and its associated policies have been widespread, profoundly traumatic and intergenerational.

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All photographs from National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation – University of Manitoba:
5. St. George’s Indian Residential School, Lytton, British Columbia (1935)
6. St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, Alert Bay, British Columbia (1940)
7. Old Sun Indian Residential School, Blackfoot Reserve, Gleichen, Alberta (1935)
8. St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, Blood Reserve, Cardston, Alberta (1930)

Acculturation by Design ///

Evolving from European colonial prototypes, the design and operation of Indian Residential Schools in Canada involved new conceptions of space and architecture to instill order, discipline and self-restraint to pacify the nation’s indigenous youth. Rather than being innocuous landscapes and architectural products, these spaces played an active role in the government’s efforts to assimilate and civilize the indigenous child through an assault on their cultural identity. An optimistic attitude towards environmental determinism in the late 19th century and a belief in the transformative effect of architecture produced new spatialities in the design and layout of Indian Residential Schools in order to disrupt the indigenous sense of place and identity.

The Department of Indian affairs acted as a centralized apparatus of architectural production, with government architects such a Ronald Guerney Orr playing key, yet often overlooked roles. School buildings typically featured a standardized symmetrical floor plan with a central block flanked by two attached pavilions forming an H-shaped building configuration. The standardized material and uniformity in layout reveals a level of confidence in one basic plan to produce a series of environments across provinces and territories with similar assimilative effects. This ideal closely mirrored other institutional buildings in Canada like reform schools, psychiatric hospitals and elite boarding schools which were designed in the late 19th century.

Recognizable sacred circular phenomenon and natural, spiral motifs were strategically abandoned in favor of rigid lines, harsh corners and squares to radically redefine space and meaning. The symmetry and order of the long rectangular dining rooms and square classrooms with furniture aligned in straight rows served to dictate acceptable behavioral norms. Characteristic of Foucault’s carceral archipelago, these boarding schools also featured regulatory and disciplinary practices to control space and spatially segregate indigenous children by age, gender and ability.

Similarly, the surrounding landscape was designed by harshly splintering space into narrow rectangular and square lots. This reflected a broader ideology of comprehensive land use planning strategies and aggressive surveying policies, characteristic of the late 1800s. Initially, most Indian Residential School locations were chosen for their proximity to rural white settler communities. A regimented curriculum of vocational training presumed the importance of industry and individualism to reforming indigenous character and migratory hunter-gatherer lifestyles, which were at odds with prevailing Euro-Canadian societal ideals. This approach was deeply rooted in colonial reverence for agrarian lifestyles, which relied on sedentary agricultural oriented economies. Indian Residential School‘s landscapes, much like their buildings, became vehicles for cultivating civilization and promoting European notions of agriculture, individualism, scarcity, accumulation, and property.

Aerial photos and landscape plans of Indian Residential School sites often feature adjacent farms, rectangular orchards and narrow plots. At the expense of proper academic instruction, the inclusion of farming instruction and agricultural practice served both ideological and pragmatic functions — it advanced the settler project of civilization while reducing operating costs of Indian Residential Schools as produce and livestock cultivated by an indentured labor force were often sold to local communities for profit. This ‘citizenship training’ and marginal education further subordinated indigenous youth and subjugated them to menial positions in society as common laborers and domestic servants with limited career mobility. As a result, Indian Residential Schools and their associated policies comprised a major conceptual tool for advancing colonial governmentality through the architectural design and layout of these carceral institutions whose sole function was to unsettle the political, social, and cultural life of Canada’s indigenous peoples.

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All photographs from Library and Archives Canada
5. Two girls resting in the dormitory at All Saints Indian Residential School, (Anglican Mission School), Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan (1945)
6. Cree students and teacher in class at All Saints Indian Residential School, (Anglican Mission School), Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan (1945)
7. Indian Residential School, [Fort] Resolution, Northwest Territories
8. Study period at Roman Catholic Indian Residential School, [Fort] Resolution, Northwest Territories
Bearing Witness ///

Initiated in 2008, the highly publicized Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) gained the distinction of becoming the country’s first truth commission at the national level to focus exclusively on indigenous people, and specifically the experiences of children who were subjected to systemic abuse. The TRC provoked a national debate about the haunting legacy of Indian Residential Schools, but its limited scope drew major criticism for failing to address other outstanding issues, such as systemic violence, dispossession and deeply rooted identity-based conflict, which continue to affect Canada’s indigenous communities, beleaguer the relationship between indigenous peoples, the government and non-Aboriginal Canadians and impede transitional justice.

The commission’s official mandate was to compile a comprehensive historical record of Indian Residential Schools. The commission undertook an expansive cross-country effort to collect testimonial and documentary evidence on the policies and operations of the schools and the difficult history surrounding these former carceral spaces of learning. Even looking only within this scoped mandate, a particularly noteworthy omission of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s sanctioned fact finding process was the lack of interest in the design, building typology and programmatic use of Indian Residential School sites.

Today, the imposing presence of Indian Residential Schools and the institutional detritus of this complex and often painful history remains comfortably invisible to most Canadians. The isolated settings of the schools concealed them from broader Canadian society while in operation, and now also minimize the visibility of their traumatic aftermath.

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Indian Industrial School, Brandon, Manitoba, (1946) / Library and Archives Canada

Reclaiming Remnants ///

This understudied aspect of Canada’s architectural and landscape history remains incomplete, obscured, scattered and inaccessible since Indian Residential School architectural drawings and building records exist across archives of many jurisdictions with a range of public access controls and preservation practices. This archival and historical erasure is symptomatic of a more complex process of negation in which over 139 former sites themselves, situated on federally-owned land, remain excluded from the national register since they fail to meet limited, place-based heritage values outlined by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC).

The vestigial traces and architectural leftovers of the Indian Residential School complex, despite not currently providing any discernible public service, can act as an immediate and direct visceral connection to an often overlooked and difficult history. As a consequence, most extant Indian Residential School sites currently sit abandoned and remain devoid of comprehensive architectural and field surveys, measured drawings, existing condition assessments including material conditions and localized areas of deterioration. A direct engagement with extant physical traces of these carceral classrooms can serve important interpretative, commemorative and record-keeping functions that shift from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s reliance on testimonial evidence to an analysis of architecture as the object of study and as material witness. Furthermore, scientific engagement with these landscapes through forensic investigations, on-site study and exhumations of unmarked grave sites may reveal important information about the causes, contexts and consequences of high child mortality rates, the spread of disease (tuberculosis, measles, pneumonia, mumps, influenza etc.) and the unethical nutrition experiments openly conducted on residential school children. These seemingly related issues were classified beyond the scope of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and further prevented Commissioners from more direct engagement with these study sites.

The disintegrating fragments of this regional complex hold the potential to serve as material evidence in court and may also act as a visual manifestation of a process of recreating the past and present at the site of trauma. A more inclusive cultural landscape conservation approach in addition to an engagement with architectural plans, archival documents, photos, drawings, propaganda films, visual art and the extant physical traces themselves, may yield a better understanding that could potentially reconfigure existing notions of these total institutions and their relation to infrastructure, policy and practice.

Post-Carceral Heritage ///

The study of Indian Residential School architecture provides further evidence for navigating the ethical nuances of difficult history. A re-engagement with elements of this post-carceral cultural landscape raises important questions about practices of selection, preservation and cultural attitudes toward remembering and forgetting. The relics and material histories housed within these landscapes of incarceration have the potential to form the basis for future memory initiatives, act as legal evidence, or result in greater public support for historical study though archaeology and forensics to expose concealed histories and alternate forms of interpretation.

But, documentation, interpretation and conservation remains a challenge since each site has unique circumstances: its level of designation, related survivor groups and preservation trusts, site conditions and ownership status. They are variously extant, repurposed, neglected, or demolished and their place among existing national, provincial and regional sites of memory remains contested. More recently, the extant architectural forms of Indian Residential Schools have been gradually erased through purposeful demolition by survivors through healing ceremonies but more often than not, they are ravaged by time, willful neglect and vandalism. Indigenous intergenerational attitudes toward memorialization are often at odds with established norms of formal preservation and architectural conservation controls. Heritage advocates and indigenous activist groups working to commemorate these spaces remain at different levels of organizational maturity with limited program structures and funding to effectively tackle landscapes that fall beyond the purview of established heritage boards and conservation agencies.

Current practices of ascribing heritage value marginalize sites with difficult histories through selective narrative omissions and by assigning heritage designations to only those resources that possess a certain defined standard of commemorative integrity or authenticity. Similarly, other comparable post-carceral spaces in Canada like Castle Mountain in Banff (the site of internment and forced labor of 70,000 ethnic Ukrainians during World War I) and Lemon Creek (the site of a similar atrocity perpetrated on Japanese Canadians during World War II) are deemed incompatible with the commemorative values of the HSMBC and as a result, are denied further study, interpretation or protection.

Canadian conservation policy and cultural management strategies require a radical redefinition to recognize the potential uses of heritage as a therapeutic practice that would enable survivor groups to become primary agents in narrating their own histories of struggle, trauma and oppression in ways that are accessible, and compatible with respective culturally appropriate attitudes toward remembering and forgetting. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s official report, recently released in December 15th 2015, explicitly addresses these issues with a series of recommendations that may serve as a starting point for achieving this outcome. Ultimately, a re-envisioned policy and approaches could play a vital role in not only the maintenance, study and documentation of these sites, but also fundamentally affect the ways in which former Indian Residential School sites are recognized, funded, adaptively reused and appropriately placed to act as tangible public reminders of trauma, suffering and accountability.


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Location of Indian Residential Schools in Canada
Data from NCTR – Map by Léopold Lambert (2016)