Although the first residential schools in Canada were established with the intention of assimilating First Nations children into Euro-Canadian culture, Métis and Inuit children were also institutionalized in such facilities. Métis children experienced similar day-to-day conditions to those of other students in residential schools, but they were often considered “outsiders” by their peers and administrators. This perception affected their experiences within these institutions in particular ways.
History of Métis Education in Canada
The social, political, legal and economic structures of Métis communities were all linked to children’s education. Traditional Métis education structures were based on land knowledge and Michif language learning, and they also “adapted select Roman Catholic rituals into their pre-existing spiritual schemas.”
Métis often used the method of knowledge transfer that best suited their community, and they had a certain level of independence or autonomy over how they educated their children. Before the residential-school system began, Métis children’s land-based education often occurred in hunting, fishing or trapline communities (see Education of Indigenous Peoples in Canada).
Community relations with the Catholic Church and some Protestant churches, which date back to the late 1700s, influenced the education of Métis children. Often, religious or spiritual affiliations were incorporated into educational programs.
Métis Attendance at Residential School
When residential schools began receiving funding from the federal government, they were primarily operated by Christian churches. Several departments of the federal government, including the Department of the Interior and the Department of Indian Affairs, took charge of the schools’ administration (see Federal Departments of Indigenous and Northern Affairs). The federal government, through these departments and others, was responsible for First Nations and Inuit affairs, and officials often designated Métis affairs as a provincial responsibility.
Jurisdiction over Métis education, health, social services, hunting, fishing and trapping often relied on provincial laws or legislation. Métis affairs also fell into “jurisdictional gaps” between federal and provincial governments. Because of this, Métis were left with few – sometimes no – options when it came to their education, health or employment. They often struggled to consistently access services since neither the provinces nor the federal government would provide adequate or consistent resources.
Since residential schools were originally designed to assimilate First Nations children, the governments and churches often debated about whether Métis children should be permitted to attend at all. Admission and discharge of Métis students was influenced by the location and religious denomination of the school, and whether parents could contribute tuition funds or work in place of funds. Often, their attendance was at the discretion of the priests, nuns or school administrators.
Inconsistent policies and administration meant that some Métis were taken to residential school while many others were admitted to provincially or federally run day schools, convent schools or other institutions. Since Métis attendance at residential school was often manipulated to increase per-student funding, many of the records of their attendance, admissions and discharges are wrong or incomplete.
Métis Experiences at Residential School
Following the resistances of 1869 and 1885, Métis were often considered by the government and the churches to be rebellious or squatters (see Red River Rebellion and North-West Rebellion). Many communities were forcibly relocated to Road Allowances in the Prairies. Around the turn of the 20th century, the federal government created classes of Métis, which it used to guide the admission of Métis children to residential schools. In a letter signed by a team of school officials from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the three “classes” of Métis were described as:
"1. Those who live, in varying degrees of conditions, the ordinary settled life of the country.
2. Those who live, in varying degrees, the Indian mode of life.
3. Those who – and they form the most unfortunate class in the community – are the illegitimate offspring of Indian women, and of whom white men are not the begetters."
In other words: those who lived like white settlers, those who were considered by the government to live “like Indians,” and those who were considered illegitimate Indigenous children. The last two “classes” were the children most likely to be institutionalized in residential schools.
For the most part, school officials were concerned with funding – who would pay for Métis attendance or how the child’s attendance could be manipulated to increase per-student payments. School officials often manipulated the “classes” of Métis children to benefit the school’s administration, under the guise of “civilizing” Indigenous children. More children in the schools meant they could receive more funding.
"What is so readily and so often charged against people of mixed blood is the result, not blood, but of environment... for such schools were established to meet treaty obligations towards Indians, but as a means of preventing, in the public interest, a race of wild men growing up whose hands would be against all men and all men’s hands against them." – Excerpt from the letter signed by Emile J. OMI of St. Albert, Albert Pascal of Prince Albert, Adilard OMI of St. Boniface, Olivier Elizard of Regina and Emile Grouard of Athabaska
Métis Survivors who provided statements to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) recalled being treated like outsiders while at residential schools. The TRC’s final report included stories from Métis who faced discrimination:
"Métis children also felt discriminated against by First Nations children. One mother said, 'My kids, they didn’t like school because they were mistreated. Probably could be because they were halfbreeds. They would laugh at them and things like that.' One student felt the same hostility from Inuit students. 'One was made certain to know how you were not really, truly, an Inuk. In addition to the petty cruelties inflicted upon half-breeds for being born as such, there was the obviousness of illegitimacy.'" – Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Volume 3, Canada’s Residential Schools: the Métis Experience, p. 52 McGill Queen's Press
Métis Survivors of Residential Schools and Day Schools
During the 1980s and 1990s, an increasing number of Survivors came forward with stories about their experiences at residential school. Eventually, they started to bring lawsuits against the federal government and churches. Métis Survivors were part of those early movements. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was limited to federally funded schools, and many Métis were left out of the compensation process. As a result, some Métis also felt left out of the TRC’s gatherings and processes, which took place from 2008 to 2015.
Métis Survivors have shared that their feelings of being outsiders in both the TRC and compensation processes are similar to how they felt like outsiders in the residential schools. Despite often feeling lost or less visible in the processes, many Métis Survivors still came forward to provide statements to the TRC and participate in national and regional gatherings. They wanted to ensure that Métis voices were heard and that their experiences at residential school were considered in the TRC’s proceedings.
In 2009, Survivors of federal Indian day schools, many of whom were Métis, launched a class-action suit seeking compensation for their experiences at the schools. While day-school Survivors were able to return home each day, many of the problems with and impacts of assimilation, language removal and abuse were as present as they were in residential school. In 2019, the government announced that it would settle. In January 2020, over a decade after the suit was launched, day-school Survivors were finally able to start applying for compensation.
Forgotten: the Métis Residential School Experience, an exhibition created by the Legacy of Hope Foundation, was launched in March 2014. It “explores Métis identity, Métis experience of residential school and cultural reclamation and healing” and “gives voice to the experiences of the many Métis children who were forced to attend Indian Residential Schools.”
Despite experiencing several systems of colonialism, including the residential-school system, Métis communities were largely able to maintain and revive their educational systems, languages and traditional knowledge and histories. Métis Survivors, Elders and community teachers have been leaders in sharing stories, building histories and resisting colonial control.