They Took the Children Away: Remembering the Brutal History of Colonial Education Systems

The remains of 1,300 Indigenous children have been found across multiple school sites in Canada so far this year. On Thursday past, the Canadian Nation paused to reflect and remember.
By Casey Abel
Pupils at Carlisle Indian school, Pennsylvania United States. Photo Credit Texas Beyond History

September 30th marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation for the peoples of Canada. The Trudeau Government nationalised the holiday in June, with the intent of honouring the thousands of Indigenous children lost to Canada’s colonial Residential Schooling System.

I urge you to pause and reflect on Canada’s full history. Do it to honor those indigenous children who experienced or witnessed cruel injustices. Many emerged traumatized, many still suffer pain.

Canadian Governor General Mary May Simon, 2021.

Established in the late 19th Century, Canada’s residential schools housed children from various Indigenous societies. Many of these children were kidnapped and forcibly removed from their families and communities. Others were brought in after their families had been killed or communities massacred.

The purpose of the Residential Schools, as Richard Pratt the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in America expressed, was to “kill the Indian… and save the man”. These schools sought to prevent Indigenous children from knowing their heritage, their cultures and from speaking their languages. They sought to Christianise and Westernise these diverse children, as demonstrated by some of the marketing materials these institutions produced during the time periods.

School portraits demonstrating the ‘before and after’ transformation of Navajo Student Tom Torlino. Photo Credit: Yale University.

Tom Torlino was a Navajo boy sent to the Carlisle school in 1882 and who left in 1886. These photographs of his ‘before and after’ transformation visualise the stealing of his cultural identity from his body and the forcing of Western Culture upon him. The colonial rhetoric of ‘civilising’ Indigenous peoples through education was hollow and hypocritical, as the recent discoveries of mass graves across Canada have shown.

Just as the Frontier Wars in Australia did not end until the early 1930’s, Colonial violence in Canada and the United States persisted well into the Twentieth Century. Earlier this year a mass grave was found on the grounds of Canada’s Kamloops Indian Residential School. The remains of some 215 children were unearthed. Later in June, a burial ground was discovered at the Marieval Indian Residential School containing the unmarked graves of 751 children. So far this year the remains of over 1,300 children have been found at or near schools across Canada.

Primary pupils outside St. Paul’s Indian Residential School . Photo Credit: Museum of North Vancouver.

Photo-Journalist Daniella Zalcman wrote it succinctly. “Canada’s sustained effort to eradicate Indigenous culture hinged on targeting the population’s most vulnerable group: its children.’. The genocidal tendencies of the Canadian Education system was not unique to Canada. In the United States alone over 367 Indian Residential Schools have been identified. In Australia, forced removal of children was government policy for a century, with Victoria being the first state to legalise the removal of Aboriginal children to Industrial Schools in 1869. The removal of Indigenous Australian children from their families and communities did not legally cease until 1969.

The Canadian people are progressively coming to terms with the horrors of their colonial pasts. This contrasts with Australia, where many are still pushing for truth telling in our national history and with our Indigenous peoples. The ire of conservative institutions and an overwhelming conservative media landscape has seen Australia’s ‘history wars‘ steadily persist for decades. While historians continue the uphill battle of rectifying Australia’s historical narrative, there is an unsettling potential that, like the peoples of Canada, we have many sordid histories to yet discover, accept and reflect upon.


As always, The Meanjin Inquirer seeks to boost the voices of Indigenous peoples. Please consider following Lance Tossie, known online as ‘Modern Warrior’ on Tiktok. Or listening to the stories of Uncle Archie Roach, whose famous song ‘Took the Children Away’ is paid homage to by this articles title. Enjoy reading the Inquirer? Follow us on Facebook!

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