These government-run schools, operated largely by the Catholic Church, were part of the policy to assimilate indigenous children.
Minors were not allowed to speak their language or practice their culture, and many were mistreated and abused.
Now, the terrifying discovery of the remains of 215 children who were students at one of those boarding schools, the Kamloops Indian Residential School, has once again put the spotlight on the abuses committed in these institutions.
The Christian churches were essential in the founding and operation of these types of schools.
The Catholic Church, in particular, was responsible for operating up to 70% of the 130 boarding schools, according to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.
The children were forced to abandon their native languages, speak English or French, and convert to Christianity.
Joseph Maud was one of those children. In 1966, at the age of five, he entered Pine Creek Boarding School in Manitoba.
Students were expected to speak English or French, but Maud only spoke her native Ojibwa.
If the students spoke their own language, their ears were pulled and their mouths washed out with soap, Maud told the BBC in 2015, when a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report was published.
“But the biggest pain was being separated from my parents, cousins, and aunts and uncles,” Maud told in an interview.
The report described the government-led policy as “cultural genocide”.
“These measures were part of a consistent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will,” the report’s summary reads.
“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wanted to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control of their land and resources.”
Bad conditions and abuse
The report also detailed radical failures in the care and safety of these children, with the complicity of the Church and the government.
Students were often housed in poorly constructed, poorly heated, and unsanitary buildings, according to the report. Many lacked access to trained medical personnel.
With the work of the CVR, it was estimated that some 6,000 children had died while in boarding schools. Their bodies rarely returned home and many were buried in unmarked graves.
The Missing Children Project documents children’s deaths and burial locations and to date, more than 4,100 minors have been identified.
But many more suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.
Maud told the BBC in 2015 that she had to kneel on the concrete floor of the chapel because the nuns told her “that’s the only way God listens to you”.
“I was crying as I got down on my knees, thinking, ‘When is this going to end? Somebody help me.'”
He recalled that when he wet the bed, the nun in charge of his dormitory would rub his face with her own urine.
“It was very degrading, humiliating. Because I was sleeping in a bedroom with 40 other children,” he said.
In 2008, the Canadian government formally apologized for the system.
The Find at Kamloops School
The Kamloops School, which operated from 1890 to 1969, was the largest of this type of school system, known as the Indian Residence School System.
Under the Catholic administration, it numbered as many as 500 students when it reached its peak in the 1950s.
The discovery at the end of last May of the remains of at least 215 indigenous children in a mass grave at this school has caused outrage throughout the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the find a “painful reminder” of a “shameful chapter in our country’s history.”
Trudeau has also urged the Catholic Church to “take responsibility” for its role in indigenous residential schools.
The central government took over the administration of the school in 1969, using it as a residence for local students until 1978 when it was closed.
“We need to have the truth before we can talk about justice, healing, and reconciliation,” Trudeau said.