Residential schools were government-sponsored Christian schools established to assimilate Indigenous children into settler-Canadian society. Successive Canadian governments used legislation to strip Indigenous peoples of their basic human and legal rights and to gain control over Indigenous lives, their lands, and natural rights and resources. The Indian Act, first introduced in 1876, gave the Canadian government licence to control almost every aspect of First Nations peoples’ lives. Amendments to the Act later required children to attend residential schools, the majority of which operated after 1880. These policies were applied inconsistently to Métis and Inuit communities.

One of the main goals of these schools was to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society through a process of cultural, social, educational, economic, political, and religious assimilation, achieved through removing and isolating Indigenous children from their homes, families, lands, and cultures. This goal was based on the false assumption that Indigenous cultures and Indigenous spiritual beliefs were inferior to those of white Euro-Canadians. Assimilation policies, including education policies, ultimately aimed to undermine Indigenous rights.

Residential schools were underfunded and overcrowded; they were rife with starvation, disease, and neglect. Children were often isolated from human contact and nurturing, and many experienced rampant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. While the experience of Survivors varied from school to school, students were often forcibly removed from their communities, homes, and parents, and forbidden from speaking their Indigenous languages or participating in traditional ceremonies.