Assessment of The Residential School System

Residential School System: State-Sponsored Bullying?

The Residential School System: Was it a Form of State-Sponsored Bullying?

From as early as the mid 1800s through to the late 1900s, scores of Aboriginal children were compelled to attend residential schools that sought to, amongst other things, assimilate the said children into the dominant culture. In Canada, we had the Indian residential schools, whereas in the U.S. there were the American Indian boarding schools. Over time, there has been a lot of controversy regarding not only the conditions those youngsters who attended the residential schools experienced, but also the rationality of forcibly immersing children into cultures they were not familiar with. Some have equated the residential school system to some form of state-sanctioned bullying.


Compelling children to discard their cultures, in favor of the dominant culture, was a form of bullying. To begin with, it is important to note that as Sinclair and Hamilton (1991) point out, the residential school system essentially immersed Aboriginal children into institutions, mostly church-run, and ingrained into their young minds the merits of the British culture, while at the same time indignifying the cultures from which they (the children) came from. On the basis of this assertion, the residential school system bore all the hallmarks of a social engineering undertaking. This particular schooling system was designed to ‘kill’ the ‘unwanted’ culture and replace it with the ‘ideal’ culture — the culture of the majority. Bullying could variously be defined as the utilization of a superior position or role to either intimidate, influence, or force others into doing that which they would not do in the absence of external pressure. There is no question that those enrolled in the residential school system were forced or compelled to abandon their cultures, and instead embrace the culture of the majority. These institutions were perfect tools of undermining Aboriginal beliefs, culture, and way of life – and by extension, Aboriginal societies. Sinclair admits that the residential school system was instrumental in stopping him from subscribing to his ancestor’s traditions. Forcible enfranchisement amounts to bullying.

Next, the forcible transfer of children from their loving families, at a relatively tender age, to these institutions affected all those who were involved in many ways. One of the hallmarks of bullying, be it at school, prison, or any other social setting, is the hurt that results. The said forcible transfer of Aboriginal children led to the breakage of family bonds and eventually ended up fracturing the social structure. There have also been claims that residential schools left lasting effects amongst those who attended the same. This is what has, in some quarters, been branded the ‘collective soul wound’ — in which case some of those who attended residential institutions were later on diagnosed with a variety of disorders like posttraumatic stress and anxiety. It is important to note that these afflictions largely came about as a result of the conditions experienced in the concerned institutions. Like bullying, it is clear that the impact of the residential school system has been negative and even far-reaching. It also ought to be noted that when people are forced to abandon their values, beliefs, and preferred ways of life; and are instead asked embrace or adopt new beliefs and ways of doing things, they end up suffering emotionally, and perhaps physically. Some reports have also indicated that mortality rates were particularly high in the institutions. Most of those dying at the time had been diagnosed with tuberculosis – during the earlier states of the implementation of this particular learning system, there were no antibiotics to specifically address such.

The school system’s actual institutional environment was also far from perfect. This is particularly the case considering the ages of those involved. In addition to banning cultural traditions, beliefs and traditional languages, these institutions were also notoriously overcrowded. Inadequate or faulty heating and poor sanitation was also rife. Despite all these failings, these institutions had the full support and backing of the state. Sending children to ill-fitting government strictures, whichever you may look at it, was some form of government-sanctioned bullying. Promotion of an unfriendly learning environment also amounted to bullying. In most cases, children were punished for failure to adhere such restrictions as speaking in any other language apart from that prescribed by the institution. The isolated nature of these schools also created fertile grounds for actual bullying, including, but not limited to, sexual as well as physical abuse.

As a matter of fact, Canada, in the year 2008 issued an apology for the abuses that were perpetrated as a consequence of the residential school system. This could be taken as an admission that indeed, the residential school system was a form of state sponsored bullying. Right here, in the United States, no such public admission or declaration has been made. However, this does not mean that the American Indian boarding schools were any different from those in Canada. In the very beginning, the residential school system was presented as a solution, especially when it came to instilling good mannerisms to children and ensuring that they were fully integrated into the society. This undertaking to ‘civilize’ children turned out to be some form of state-sponsored bullying.


Hamilton, A.C. And Sinclair, M. (1991). Aboriginal concepts of justice. Vol.1: Report of the Aboriginal justice inquiry of Manitoba: The justice system and Aboriginal people. Winnipeg: Queen’s Printer, pp.17-47.

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