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Canadians' views on residential schools 'significantly different' than when they were students

In November 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an apology to residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Younger adults in Canada are more likely to remember learning about the country's legacy of residential schools while in elementary or secondary school | iStock

In November 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an apology to residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador. In his remarks, Trudeau described the treatment of Indigenous children as “a dark and shameful chapter in our country’s history” and called on all Canadians “to take part in the next chapter – a time when Indigenous and non-Indigenous people build the future we want together.”

Teachers face a difficult task in finding the best way to explain the decisions of past governments that have become a source of national and international shame. Some may choose not to talk about issues that can generate guilt among students. Others could opt to exalt values such as democracy to explain how far things can change for the better under the right people and the right circumstances.

At a time when reconciliation is a predominant matter in Canada and the United States, Research Co. and Glacier Media wanted to dig deeper into the views of Canadians on residential schools. Our primary focus was to find out what type of instruction – if any – was received by those who attended elementary school and high school in Canada, and whether their opinions on residential schools have evolved over time from what they learned inside the classroom.

We spoke with a representative sample of adults who completed their primary, intermediate and secondary education in Canada. Only 15% of them heard about residential schools for the first time in elementary school. Across generations, the proportion stands at 11% among those aged 55 and over and 13% among those aged 35 to 54, but rises to 22% among those aged 18 to 34. This suggests that the youngest adults educated in Canada were introduced to this chapter sooner than their older counterparts.

Just over a quarter of these Canadians who attended K-12 in Canada (27%) first learned about residential schools during high school. Once again, younger adults are more likely to have heard their own teachers discuss this topic than those aged 35 and over.

More than two in five of these students (45%) say they did not hear teachers discuss residential schools at all, a proportion that climbs to 51% among those aged 35 to 54 and 58% among those aged 55 and over.

Among those students who remember discussions about residential schools in their Canadian classrooms, one third (34%) say the assessment from teachers was “positive” while a higher proportion (41%) claim it was “negative.” In a sign of how complicated this topic can be, one in four students (25%) are not sure, including 36% of those aged 55 and over.

There is a gender gap in the memories of Canadian students, with women being more likely to recall residential schools being addressed in a negative light (45%) than men (37%).

The views of graduates from Canadian K-12 schools are significantly different now. Two-thirds (68%) say their personal assessment of residential schools now is negative, including more than half (51%) who consider it “very negative.”

This still leaves one-in-five Canadian students (21%) who personally regard residential schools as positive. As expected, those aged 18 to 34 are less likely to feel this way (15%) than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (23%) and aged 55 and over (also 23%).

The regional differences on current opinions related to residential schools are also worth noting. In British Columbia, practically nine in 10 Canadian K-12 graduates (88%) have a negative view – by far the highest proportion in the country. Majorities of those who reside in Alberta (77%), Ontario (76%), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (68%), Atlantic Canada (62%) and Quebec (57%) hold the same feelings.

No country has perfected a recipe to examine the mistakes of the past. Our survey shows that residential schools were rarely discussed in Canada’s classrooms for decades, as outlined by the descriptions of members of Generation X and Baby Boomers who do not recall the topic being approached by teachers.

The country’s youngest adults did spend time addressing residential schools in the classroom – sometimes before they were teenagers – and have developed stronger views about what transpired.

Results are based on an online study conducted from August 7 to August 9, 2020, among 805 adults who attended elementary school and/or high school in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error – which measures sample variability – is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.