The claim that 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools between 1883 and 1997 now routinely appears in the media, embellished by descriptions such as children “forcibly removed from their families” or “ripped from their parents’ arms.”  Cree artist Kent Monkman depicted this fiction in his painting “The Scream” showing priests, nuns, and Mounties grabbing little Indian children from their terrified mothers.

But how true are these incendiary claims?  At best misleading, and at worst, false. 

If “forced to attend school” simply means compulsory school attendance that applies to all children, then the claim is misleading. School attendance, or its equivalent in homeschooling, is required of all Canadian children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, as it is of children in all modern societies.

Indeed, school attendance was not even required of Indian children until 1920, when an amendment to the Indian Act made them subject to the same compulsory attendance as all others had been. However, prior to 1920 Catholic and Protestant residential schools had operated in one form or another for more than half a century. Indigenous children attended those schools because their parents wanted them to attend. Education was seen as a benefit.

Even after 1920, enforcement of attendance for Indian children was weak.  As late as 1944, records show that upwards of 40% of Indian children went to no school at all.

Typically, Indian parents who wanted their child to attend a residential school filled out an application which was forwarded to Ottawa for approval. Not all applications were accepted, as there was insufficient capacity for all children wishing to attend.

In a similar vein, dissatisfied parents sometimes withdrew their children from the school. In 1922, for example, all parents in the community withdrew their children from the residential school at Kitimat and refused to allow them to return until the principal signed a paper affirming that the children would be “properly fed.”

Children who were “forced to attend” were mainly child welfare cases. From 1920 to the 1960s, the main option for Indian children from orphaned or troubled homes who could not be taken in by extended family was an Indian agent’s discretionary placement of a child in a residential school.

And increasingly, from the 1940s until the mid 1960s, Indian agents took children out of homes that the agent deemed to be inadequate or dangerous and placed them in residential schools. For example, the 1967 Caldwell Report notes that in some Saskatchewan residential schools as many as 80% of the students were there primarily for child welfare reasons. Those neglected children were indeed forcibly removed from their parents, just as some children today, both Indigenous and other, are removed from inadequate parenting for their own safety.

But most Indian parents did not have those problems. They simply wanted their children to have the same education that other children received to help prepare them for modern life.

Cree children being flown to La Tuque IRS

Joe and Balazee Highway were an example of such parents.

They lived on a northern Cree reserve, where poverty and death were far too common, and they knew that education offered the best chance for their children to escape that fate. They loaded their children onto a silver Norseman floatplane and sent them south to the Guy Hill Residential School, near The Pas, Manitoba. Nine years later their son—acclaimed playwright and writer Tomson Highway—graduated at the top of his class. In his new book Perpetual Astonishment (reviewed here by lawyer Peter Best,) Highway described the time he spent at residential school as “nine of the best years of my life.”

As we know, not every student who entered a residential school had such a positive experience. There were negative experiences as well. But the positive experiences, like those of Tomson Highway, must be remembered if we are to have a balanced historical portrait.

The picture of 150,000 students being “forced to attend” and “forcibly removed from their parents” is simply not accurate. Kent Monkman’s painting is a work of mythic imagination, and should not be mistaken for history.

Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge of the Provincial Court of Manitoba. Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary.