The Environmental Context of Residential Schools

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Content Warning: Genocide, Child Abuse, Racialized Violence

Residential schools are environmental history. Environmental historians have a responsibility to critically grapple with the genocidal legacy of residential schools. As we process the developing news around discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools throughout Canada, we have a responsibility to support Indigenous people who have told us for decades about these unmarked graves. We have a responsibility to educate the public and to interrupt settler displays of shock and/or denial.

Residential schools are not a topic that is readily connected to the environment by the media, the public, or even other historians. But, as Jocelyn Thorpe wrote in her 2016 essay “Indian Residential Schools: An Environmental and Gender History”:

Canadian government representatives took Indigenous children away from their families, communities and territories to residential schools in order to secure the land base for non-Indigenous families and communities. The transfer of land from Indigenous peoples to European powers and then to the Canadian government and settlers had, and continues to have, profound consequences for both people and land. It doesn’t get much more environmental historical than that.

Building off of Thorpe’s argument, we provide five sources below that engage critically with residential school history and highlight the environmental context of each. We also invite Canadian environmental historians to write more in-depth posts about residential schools in Canada. Please contact us if you are interested in contributing to our website.


1. A Knock on the Door

Cover of A Knock on the Door

A Knock on the Door is the quintessential primer on the topic of residential schools in Canada. It provides an overview of the history of residential schools and the average school experience, as well as a discussion of the schools’ lasting legacy, reconciliation, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. If you are new to the topic of Canadian residential schools, this is where you will learn the basic information about how Canada used these institutions to clear the land of Indigenous peoples to make way for settler farmers. Further, discussions of forced child labour and cultural assimilation show how the Canadian government purposefully changed the way in which Indigenous peoples related to their environment. Coerced into abandoning traditional food systems and land usages, Indigenous people were pressured to adopt an agricultural way of life. Dangerous microbes thrived in residential school environments, making Indigenous youth more likely to be exposed to diseases like tuberculosis. The book also highlights Indigenous resiliency, showing how youth turned to outdoor recreation and the landscape for release and solace.


2. When We Were Alone

Cover of When We Were Alone

“But sometimes in the fall, when we were alone, and the leaves had turned to their warm autumn hues, we would roll around on the ground. We would pile the leaves over the clothes they had given us, and we would be colourful again. And this made us happy.”

David A. Robertson, When We Were Alone

A source that highlights the importance of nature in the inner worlds of residential school students is David A. Robertson’s picture book When We Were Alone. Beautifully illustrated by Julie Flett, When We Were Alone portrays a conversation between a young Indigenous girl and her grandmother, a former residential school attendee. Relying heavily on language rooted in the natural environment, the grandmother shares how she and other children managed to get through the experience of residential schools. This book is a great place to turn to for talking about residential schools with children, but also offers an accessible place to start for learners of all ages and a jumping-off point for undergraduate educators teaching the environmental history of residential schools.


3. We Were Children

The 2012 drama documentary We Were Children is difficult to watch. It is meant to be uncomfortable. But it is also critical viewing for every Canadian settler. The film provides an unfiltered portrayal of the abuse that Indigenous children suffered at the hands of priests, nuns, and other residential school employees. Settler colonialism thrives on the idea of [white, Christian] man’s dominion over the environment and non-human animals. The Dominion of Canada was created with this central tenet of domination in mind. The federal and provincial governments put into place genocidal policies that aimed to dehumanize Indigenous peoples—stripping them of their rights and justifying domination over them—in order to be able to take their land and natural resources. Environmental degradation and the abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools are directly connected in Canada’s settler colonial system.


4. Muffins for Granny

The environment comes to the fore in this 2006 film directed by Nadia McLaren. Interviews with seven Elders and Survivors of residential schools are interleaved with McLaren’s memories of her grandmother, Theresa McCray (also a Survivor), and with images of the skies, lands, waters, and non-human inhabitants of her family’s home on the north shore of Lake Superior. The natural world, in some form, is on screen for at least half of the film’s 88 minutes. Sometimes, images of nature subtly mirror the words being spoken: an iron chain cuts brutally into the trunk of a tree, splitting its bark, as Indigenous children’s imprisonment in residential schools is discussed. Knowledge of the land is also used to reveal the full horror of these institutions. Delaney Sharpe speaks of finding bones around the foundations of her school and knowing, from her time as a trapper, that these belonged to human infants, not animals. But the land was also a place of refuge, as when Ralph Johnson’s father attempted to prevent his children from going to residential school by taking them into the bush. The land was a place of healing, as when Roy Thomas spent four days and four nights in the bush with an elder as a first step toward battling substance abuse brought on by the trauma of Thomas’ time at residential school. And, as McLaren shows us again and again, the land was, and is, a place of great beauty.


5. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future

This 388-page document summarizes the final, multi-volume report that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released in 2015. Established in accordance with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2007, the TRC bore witness to the stories told by more than 6,500 Survivors of these carceral, genocidal institutions and preserved Survivors’ words for posterity. Its Commissioners sought to make everyone living in what is currently Canada aware of this history and called upon residents of this country to begin the work of reconciliation. The Commissioners emphasize that this work must encompass the more-than-human world:

Reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, from an Aboriginal perspective, also requires reconciliation with the natural world. If human beings resolve problems between themselves but continue to destroy the natural world, then reconciliation remains incomplete. This is a perspective that we as Commissioners have repeatedly heard: that reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the earth.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future

Residential schools are environmental history. Reconciliation is part of the work that all environmental historians living in Canada must commit to doing in the present and future.


Feature Image: Morley Indian Residential School – McDougall Orphanage, students, Morley, Alberta, ca. 1885-1890. Credit: David Ewens collection / Library and Archives Canada / PA-182270.

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