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Attendance at Indian Residential Schools

In almost every year during the operation of the residential school system, fewer than one-third of status Indian children were actually enrolled at a residential school.

It is a seldom mentioned fact that admissions to residential schools were constrained by a very practical consideration – there were only a limited number of beds available. Residential schools could never at any time have accommodated the entire population of status Indian children.

Moreover there was always competition for the available spaces, and at least some of the demand, as Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott advised a Parliamentary Committee in 1920, was attributable to difficult economic conditions which encouraged Indian parents to place their children in residential schools where they would be fed and clothed at the federal government’s expense:

The pressure that came on our Indian schools when the war broke out and the High Cost of Living became general, was very great because the Indian would unload his children on us, for the reason that it immediately became evident to him that it would cost him more to support the child at that period than before the war so that it was purely a matter of self interest. Before that he did not think of it at all. After that he began to think “Well I had better put my children in the schools”.

In fact so many Indian parents applied to have their children admitted to residential schools that some schools had waiting lists. In 1920, according to Scott, there was a waiting list of over sixty pupils trying to get into the Mohawk Institute at Brantford.

As a result of the limited number of spaces available, during most of the two decades between 1900 and 1920 the percentage of status Indian children attending residential schools was closer to one-quarter than one-third. In 1912, for example, according to Department of Indian Affairs census and enrolment data, there were 15,950 school-age status Indian children in Canada, but only 3904 of them, or 24.48%, were enrolled in residential schools.1

Poor attendance at Indian day schools on reserves

In 1894, an amendment to the Indian Act made attendance at day schools on reserves compulsory.2 The federal government had built a very large number of day schools, often at the direct request of the Indians themselves, to provide Indian reserves with their own schools from which children could return to their homes from classes at the end of every school day. In 1910 there were 6784 out of a total of 18,816 school-age status Indian children enrolled in Indian day schools on reserves, or 36.05%. However they showed up for classes less than half the time; the average attendance was only 46.55%.3 By 1915, 8065 children, just under half (49.47%) the total population of school-age status Indian children, were enrolled in Indian day schools on reserves.4 However, as noted, that enrolment figure of close to 50% masked a very real problem. There was a striking difference between the number of status Indian children enrolledin day schools, and their actual physical attendance on a daily basis. In practical terms, many status Indian children were merely names on the day school register, not children actually present in the classroom.

Parliamentary Committee Hearing Notes-1920
Parliamentary Committee Hearing, 1920
(Click to View Larger Image of this Document)

By 1920, although enrolment in day schools on reserves remained in the 50% range, actual attendance was still so sporadic that it was acknowledged by everyone, including Duncan Campbell Scott, that “in the West” the reserve day schools were “an absolute failure“. Federal government officials begun to seriously question the educational and economic rationales for keeping day schools open on Indian reserves when parents sent their children to school only half the time.

This was the real reason behind the federal government’s decision to make attendance at residential schools compulsory in 1920. If status Indian children were being denied an education because their parents refused to send them regularly to day schools on the reserves, the federal government decided that it could require those children to be sent to residential schools where their regular attendance could be ensured, and they would have an opportunity to get an education. It was obviously a part of the federal government’s thinking that if parents were faced with a choice between sending their children to a day school on the reserve and having the children sent away to a residential school, they would opt to send their children more regularly to the day school.

Thus in 1920 amendments to the Indian Act made attendance at a residential school compulsory for status Indian children,5 but only if there was no day school on their reserve to which their parents could send them. Applications for admission signed by a parent or guardian were still mandated as part of the admission process, and each application had to be formally approved by the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa. Hundreds of such applications signed by parents and guardians still survive in the Library and Archives Canada School Files Series

Under the new system, the demand for places in some residential schools still continued to exceed the supply. In 1925, for example, Father James McGuire wrote of parents “clamouring” for their children’s admission to the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The demand for spaces was also exacerbated by the federal government’s child welfare policy of admitting to residential schools orphaned, destitute and neglected children.

Joseph Tekakwapit-1939 Photo
Joseph Tekakwapit, Muscowequan, 1939 (click to enlarge)

Thus, residential schools were largely filled to capacity during most of the 1920s, and there was no need for the Department of Indian Affairs to enforce the compulsory attendance provisions of the Indian Act. In fact for many years the federal government was averse to enforcement for obvious practical reasons. It was not until 1927 that Duncan Campbell Scott issued a directive authorizing the RCMP to act as truant officers, largely because parents were still not sending their children to day schools on the reserves and the children were being denied an opportunity to get an education.

The federal government had continued to make efforts to improve attendance at day schools. The DIA Annual Report for 1926, for example, stated that, “The solution of the attendance problem at day schools is most difficult, but progress has been made.”6 Nonetheless, in that year the average actual attendance at Indian day schools across Canada was still only 58.43%.7 As late as 1946, although some success had been achieved, day school attendance was still a problem; the average attendance at day schools that year was 70.19%, while at residential schools it was 90.32%.8

By 1950, 13,986 children, almost half (47.95%) the total population of 29,167 school-age status Indian children, were attending Indian day schools on their home reserves and, as noted above, average daily attendance had improved significantly.9

Residential school enrolment increases, and then declines

In 1924, of the 20,419 school-age status Indian children in Canada,10 only 5673 children, or 27.78%, were enrolled in residential schools. By 1929, with more beds available, of the 21,190 school-age status Indian children in Canada, 7075 were enrolled in residential schools, and the percentage of residential school enrolment had risen to 33.39%, slightly over one-third.11

Enrolment continued to climb slightly over the next five years, reaching a peak in 1934 when 8596 of the 23,573 school-age status Indian children, or 36.47%, were enrolled in residential schools.12 For the remainder of the 1930s, the figure remained in the one-third range.

Residential School Enrolment Graph
Residential School Enrolment Graph (click to enlarge)

In 1940, when 9027 children out of a total school-age status Indian population of 26,400 were enrolled, it had fallen slightly to 34.19%.13 By the mid-1940s, it had again declined below one-third.

In 1948, after a thorough policy review, the federal government made the decision to gradually close down residential schools and integrate status Indian children into the provincial public school systems.14

As a result of this policy shift, by 1950 only 9316 of the 29,167 school-age status Indian children, or 31.94%, were enrolled in residential schools,15 and in 1955, the last year for which census data were published in the DIA Annual Reports, only 10,501 of the 33,895 school-age status Indian children, or 31.00%, were enrolled in residential schools.16 This rather surprising figure indicates that former students who gave accounts of their residential school experiences to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were unrepresentative, since more than two-thirds of status Indian children in their age group in the 1950s and 1960s were not being educated in residential schools.

Non-attendance at any school

Percentage Non-Attendance School Graph
Percentage Not Attending School Graph (click to enlarge)

What of the large number of status Indian children who did not attend school at all, or who attended for only one or two years?

Because only one-third of status Indian children were enrolled in residential schools at any one time, and not all reserves had day schools, many status Indian children, particularly those living in remote communities, did not get any formal education at all. Census and enrolment data show that in general during the four decades from the turn of the 20th century until 1940, the number of school-age status Indian children who were not enrolled in school at all fluctuated widely; in some years it was as low as 23%, in others as high as 44%.




1 DIA Annual Report, 1912, pp. 647, 951.

2 The provision did not apply to Métis or Inuit children; the Indian Act applied only to status Indians.

3 DIA Annual Report, 1910, pp. 567, 569, 957.

4 DIA Annual Report, 1915, pp. 129.

5 See Venne, Sharon Helen, Indian Acts and Amendments 1868-1975, An Indexed Collection, (University of Saskatchewan Native Law Centre, 1981), p. 247 at

6 DIA Annual Report, 1926, p. 17. It should be noted that the figures for the number of day school students and the average day school attendance in the summary table for the decade 1916-1926 on p. 17 of the 1926 DIA Annual Report differ in some cases from the figures given in the reports for individual years during that decade.

7 DIA Annual Report, 1926, p. 104.

8 DIA Annual Report, 1946, pp. 50-51.

9 DIA Annual Report, 1950, pp. 36, 40.

10 DIA Annual Report, 1924, p. 83.

11 DIA Annual Report, 1929, pp. 99, 162.

12 DIA Annual Report, 1934, pp. 81, 128.

13 It should be noted that the 1940 DIA Annual Report corrects the census figure of 26,221 given in the 1939 DIA Annual Report to 26,400. The latter figure is repeated in succeeding DIA Annual Reports, and appears to be the correct number of school-age status Indian children based on the 1939 census. See pp. 28, 39.

14 Milloy, J.S., “Suffer the Little Children”; The Aboriginal Residential School System 1830-1992, (May, 1996), p. 287 at

15 DIA Annual Report, 1950, pp. 36, 40.

16 DIA Annual Report, 1955, pp. 32, 43.