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Essay on Indian Residential Schools in Canada and Their Architectural Purpose

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The architectural techniques used to implement the Indian residential school system in Canada is a fundamental but frequently overlooked aspect of the overall system, which isolated “150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children from their communities and families over the duration of a century and a half” (Mortice, 2017). The residential structures were the sites of enforced assimilation, echoed throughout the lands in Canada, but their spaces were not merely a backdrop for the distressed story of the forfeiture of Indigenous culture. Their method of construction, the manners by which they function, and the symbolism they convey were all fundamental mechanisms of the structure of colonial power over Indigenous people. As architecture in the provision of colonialism, residential schools facilitated governments and Christian missionaries to detach Indigenous children from their families and communities to integrate them under the façade of education. With that being said, this essay will examine the construction and design of Indian residential schools to outline the architecture’s purpose in the solicitation of the supposed civilizing method and in the disruption of the social, cultural, and political life of Canada’s Indigenous identity.

For missionaries, the main purpose of residential schooling is to convert and transform indigenous people into Christianity far away from the influence of their parents, their community and the elders. The state, however, sought in several ways to ‘civilize’ and segregate the indigenous community, but the two parties, secular and religious were closely related and habitually went hand in hand (Milosz, 2015). As a spatial drive, architecture distorted the gap between practice and ideology, and through its materiality was used by both secular and religious groups in an effort to restructure the cognizance of Indigenous people. The Indian residential systems were meticulous spatial tools, physical articulations of the ‘impressive ideological formations’ (Milosz, 2015) of colonialism, which were utilized to encourage practices of power across Canada. Both the method in which the schools’ architecture was produced and the way the schools permitted the application of rules and strategies fit into a greater scaffold of administrative control of Indigenous people. The remnants left behind from the school systems, dispersed throughout the landscapes of the country, “quietly recount a now-failed revelation; abandoned, destroyed, or variously reused by both Indigenous and non-indigenous groups, the schools as physical places are on the periphery of a divided collective memory” (Carr, 2009, p.110).

To date there have been no perceptive scholarly analyses of the design, scale, and programmatic utilization of the constructed framework of the residential school system nor of the relations amid its infrastructure and the practices and policies directing their process. However, it is argued that these residential associations were not sheer containers in which the practices and policies of Indian education were ordained but, rather, that their designs facilitated to construct spatiality’s that unsettled Indigenous senses of place and identity. Referring to these carceral spaces as ‘schools’ compresses the scrupulous nature of these establishments by “applying a euphemism that somehow suggests self-reformation and improvement” (Glenn, 2011). These structures should not be considered schools per se but instead serve as factories or engines of modern colonialism, whose walls encircled an atopos, a non-place. As Geoffrey Carr says, it is in a sense “comprised places without place, places without memory, (non) places both outside yet implicated in the juridical order of the state and the sociocultural bounds of Indigenous communities” (2009, p.112). An example of such a place is described through the architectural analysis of St Eugene located in British Columbia, built in 1898. The building postulates a method to embody and epitomize general concerns of practices and policies that stripped Indigenous people of their identity. Additionally, the details of its design and construction propose an interpretation on the materiality of the institute and its precise role in the application of govern-mentality.

The perceived purpose of the residential school structures, which can be read in the architectural layouts of the building, offers a critical, supplemental method to spatially outline policies intended to relinquish the epistemic and ontological truthfulness of Indigenous societies (Miolsz, 2015). Firstly, the incongruous material used to create the structure of the building separated the residential school from the neighboring structures and topographies. Typically, brick was the material used to raise the interior and exterior walls of the structure (Carr, 2011). Particularly on the west coast of Canada, where brick was not used often, its resolute, alien and instrumental appearance manifested a peculiar institutional awe and, consequently, a sense of dislocation and unfamiliarity. Additionally, the precipitous scale of the structures seems to be designed in such a way to generate a sense of domination and fear in the attentions of the young Indigenous students, as regularly these institutions would be the most prevalent and largest buildings in the region. As a matter of fact, “St Eugene persisted to be the largest building in this area of British Columbia for numerous decades” (Glenn, 2011).

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Remarkably, though, institutes such as St Eugene were often built in isolated areas or in locations that had little to no traditional associations to keep indigenous culture from affecting their growth. Hayter Reid, a senior official in the Department of Indian Affairs, claimed that “the more remote the institutions and the greater distance are the points from which pupils are collected, the better for success” (Carr, 2009, p.117). In this way the residential school can be seen as one of a number of architectural and land-use instruments meant to extend the civilizing process through isolation and individuation affecting Indigenous identity. The St Eugene. building was dull in appearance, employing a conspicuous entranceway surpassed by a spire, underscoring the religious curriculum taught within. The layout of the building was established through an H-shaped formation, “a central block flanked by two attached pavilions” (Carr, 2011) with a chapel located in the back. The floor plan of the St Eugene was highly standardized to those that were located all over Canada with classrooms, student dormitories, staff-sleeping quarters, bathrooms, kitchens, infirmaries, workshops, and sewing rooms.

This logic of isolation also functioned within the establishment of St Eugene through the segregation of students based on age and gender. Boys were restrained to one side of the H- shaped structure, and the girls to the opposite side—the oldest were housed in dorms on the top floors of the building while the youngest on the lower floor (Carr, 2011). The blocks in the center usually contained staff chambers as well as administrative offices, which persisted to stay off limits to students, secured by locked doors. This estranging arrangement was repeated with slight variations in Indian residential schools across Canada, creating a disruption between community and family ties, as estranged sisters, brothers, cousins, and friends would be punished for trying to communicate with one another.

With that being said however, the Intensive teaching of Christian principles was considered a key to the impartiality of Indigenous children from their ancestral life, and the omnipresent inclusion of a chapel in each school underlines the apparent significance of such religious training. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald stated that “secular education is a good thing among white men but among Indians the first object is to make them good Christian men by applying proper moral restraints” (Carr, 2009, p.119). Furthermore, at the dedication ceremony for St Eugene in 1911, a Reverend Beck said that “the true Christian made the best man” and then continued to say that Ktunaxa parents should “realize their responsibility to see that their children enjoyed the privilege of training at the fledgling institution” (Carr, 2009, p.120). The chapel additionally proved valuable for allotting discipline, as students gathered together, regardless of gender and age and communally witnessed humiliations visited on those who violated institutional instructions and guidelines. Essentially, the chapel was the main architectural space within the residential building that separated Indigenous people from their identity.

During the century and a half leading up to 1970, more than 130 Indian residential schools were dispersed all throughout Canada. The role of architecture in this genocidal system is an essential, but unnoticed characteristic of its realization. Aboriginal children were taken away from their families and placed in schools that were located far from parental influences and their communities. They were forbidden to speak their native language, express any spiritual or cultural beliefs, and practice any traditional customs. Aboriginal students were not being prepared for higher education but, instead, they were mostly taught religious teachings and occupational training for employment in manual or industrial work segments. All the worst, the depleted physical environments as well as the inhumane treatment the students received instigated them to feel a conflicted sense of place and identity.

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Essay on Indian Residential Schools in Canada and Their Architectural Purpose. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from
“Essay on Indian Residential Schools in Canada and Their Architectural Purpose.” Edubirdie, 28 Oct. 2022,
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Essay on Indian Residential Schools in Canada and Their Architectural Purpose [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Oct 28 [cited 2023 Mar 30]. Available from:
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