The federal government and the churches believed that Indigenous parenting, language, and culture were harmful to Indigenous children. These beliefs were based on the anti-Indigenous racist assumptions that Indigenous cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal to European culture and Christian beliefs. Consequently, a central objective of the residential schools was to separate Indigenous children from their parents and communities to “civilize” and Christianize them. For generations, children were cut off from their families. At the height of the system in 1953, over 11,000 Indigenous children were in residential schools. The schools were in many ways more a child welfare system than an educational one. A survey in 1953 suggested that 4,313 of those students were thought to be suffering from “neglect” at home. From the 1940s onwards, residential schools increasingly served as orphanages and child welfare facilities. By 1960, the federal government estimated that 50% of the children in residential schools were there for child-protection reasons.
The schools were intended to sever the link between Indigenous children and parents. Family connections were permanently broken. Children exposed to strict and regimented discipline in the schools not only lost their connections to parents, but also found it difficult to become loving parents.
Child welfare agencies across Canada removed thousands of Indigenous children from their families and communities and placed them in non-Indigenous homes with little consideration of the need to preserve their culture and identity. Children were placed in homes in different parts of the country, in the United States, and even overseas. The mass adoptions continued between 1960 and 1990.
Today, Indigenous children are still being separated from their families and communities and placed in the care of child welfare agencies in what has been termed the Millennial Scoop. Like the schools, child welfare agencies are underfunded, often culturally inappropriate, and, far too often, put Indigenous children in unsafe situations.