‘Cultural genocide’: the shameful history of Canada’s residential schools – mapped

Recent discoveries of unmarked graves have shed new light on the country’s troubled colonial legacy

Problems seeing this media? Click on the link below:

In May, Canadians were shocked at the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former school in British Columbia. The bodies belonged to Indigenous children, some believed to be as young as three years old, who went through Canada’s state-sponsored “residential school” system. The schools, scattered across the country, were aimed at eradicating the culture and languages of the country’s Indigenous populations.

The findings have brought the world’s renewed attention to this shameful chapter of Canadian history, left deep wounds in hundreds of communities and sparked fresh demands for justice aimed at the Canadian government and the churches that ran the schools for decades.

In 2015, the truth and reconciliation commission, which collected thousands of hours of testimony from survivors, determined that the residential school systems had amounted to a “cultural genocide” of Indigenous people. The federal government formally apologised for the schools in 2008, but the recent discoveries of graves have prompted calls for an independent investigation, including the possibility of criminal charges against the government and the Catholic church.

The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has pledged to take “concrete action” to help Indigenous communities in their searches, but the costs are expected to far exceed money offered by the government. A previous request of $1.5m in funding to search for the graves was denied by the federal government in 2009. Meanwhile, as the searches continue, the number of unmarked graves – and those who died attending the schools – is only expected to rise.

Sources and methodology
Indian residential schools dataset: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba
Native land claims dataset: native-land.ca
Historical Treaties dataset: canada.ca
St Eugene mission pictures: Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre
Journey animations are based on survivors’ testimonies; the Guardian reconstructed the journeys using Google Maps. Distances provided are approximate

This article was amended on 8 September 2021. The earlier version erroneously included the Peace and Friendship Treaties and the Douglas Treaties among the Numbered Treaties.


Antonio Voce, Leyland Cecco and Chris Michael

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Canada: two more Catholic churches on First Nations reserves destroyed by fire
Investigators treating fires in British Columbia as suspicious as anger grows over church’s historical role in campaign of forced assimilation

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

28, Jun, 2021 @3:48 PM

Article image
Burned churches stir deep Indigenous ambivalence over faith of forefathers
After hundreds of unmarked graves were found at Canada’s former Catholic-run residential schools, churches in First Nations territories have been destroyed by suspected arson

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

04, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
‘Nobody can gaslight us’: the rappers confronting Canada’s colonial horrors
The recent discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools is the latest incident in decades of trauma for Indigenous Canadians, who are using lyricism to process it

Kyle Mullin

27, Jul, 2021 @10:47 AM

Article image
My relatives went to a Catholic school for Native children. It was a place of horrors | Nick Estes
After the discovery of 751 unmarked graves at the site of a former school for Native children in Canada, it is time to investigate similar abuses in the US

Nick Estes

30, Jun, 2021 @10:23 AM

Article image
The toxic legacy of the British empire in Canada’s residential schools | Letters
Letters: David Stirrup and James Mackay on Britain’s responsibility for systematic abuse and mistreatment of Indigenous children


02, Jul, 2021 @3:48 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Canada’s residential schools: an atrocity still felt today | Editorial
Editorial: The discovery of hundreds of graves of Indigenous children is forcing a deeper reckoning with the country’s past


30, Jun, 2021 @5:58 PM

Article image
Two Catholic churches destroyed by fire on First Nations reserves in Canada
Blazes occurred hours apart on National Indigenous Peoples Day nearly a month after graves found at former Christian residential school

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

22, Jun, 2021 @6:59 PM

Article image
Canadian police investigating Manitoba residential school abuse claims
RCMP reveals it has spent 10 years conducting ‘large-scale investigation’ into allegations

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

27, Jul, 2021 @6:07 PM

Article image
Canada must reveal ‘undiscovered truths’ of residential schools to heal
The man who led the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission insists an independent investigation into decades of abuse of Indigenous children is essential

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

27, Jun, 2021 @9:45 AM

Article image
Canada: pressure on Catholic church to compensate victims of residential schools abuses
Scale of church’s assets revealed in string of investigations as discovery of unmarked graves prompts fresh reparations calls

Leyland Cecco in Ottawa

10, Aug, 2021 @11:50 AM