“Home” to more than 150,000 children from the 1870s until 1996, the residential school system was aimed at “killing the Indian in the child” and assimilating First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children into white settler society. It was, in short, a genocidal policy, operated jointly by the federal government of Canada and the Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbyterian Churches. Children as young as four years old were torn from their families and placed in institutions that were chronically underfunded; mismanaged; inadequately staffed; and rife with disease, malnutrition, poor ventilation, poor heating, neglect, and death. Sexual, emotional, and physical abuse was pervasive, and it was consistent policy to deny children their languages, their cultures, their families, and even their given names. While some children may have had positive experiences, many former students have found themselves caught between two worlds: deprived of their languages and traditions, they were left on their own to handle the trauma of their school experience and to try to readapt to the traditional way of life that they had been conditioned to reject. Life after residential school has been marred for many by alcohol and substance abuse, cycles of violence, suicide, anger, hopelessness, isolation, shame, guilt, and an inability to parent.
First Nations leader Phil Fontaine catalysed the struggle for redress in 1990 when he stunned Canada by speaking about his residential-school experience. The second major catalyst was the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) of 1991–1996, which broadly exposed the horrors of residential schools to Canadians and called for a public inquiry.