Once upon a time, various churches in Canada decided for whatever reasons that it would be a Good Thing to try to bring culture (or, at least, their culture, and their religion) to the children of the native peoples. After centuries of mission schools and churches, the stage was set to build residential schools. These were supported by the provincial and federal governments, but usually run by religious organisations.

Abuse was nearly built-in from the ground up. Native children were forbidden to speak their own language, and taught to ignore their own heritage. Sexual abuse, and verbal and physical abuse were also a problem. The schools no longer exist, but their effects linger long after. These effects include a widespread loss of cultural identity in many native communities. The list of things that have gone wrong in how Canada has dealt with native peoples is very long, but residential schools must come near the top, for having damaged entire generations of some communities.

For one thing, lawsuits seem set to hit every organisation which ever had anything to do with a residential school. This may include forcing the Anglican church in Canada into bankruptcy.

Residential Schools were considered the norm for children suffering from any kind of learning disability during the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. Learning disabilities, such as retardation, deafness and blindness carried a certain stigma, and families often sought to put up their children. However the bigger reason was that such schools were seen as better for the children.

Dealing with any kind of learning disability requires the parents to learn new skills. Deaf children must learn sign language, blind children braille and so on. Because training in special education was often nonexistent, it was not uncommon to misdiagnose learning disabilities. Deaf children were often mistaken for mentally retarded. Also no one really undestood how to adapt a normal classroom for children with special needs. Because specialists were so rare the idea was that it was best to gather all these kids together in specialized schools where they could be taught using methods appropriate for their situation. Because only a few such children were found in most community, and small towns lacked sufficient resources to create their own schools, residential schools were established, usually on the regional or state level.

The schools worked, and many deaf and blind children were able to complete their education. But knowledge in special education grew, and trained staff became more available. Parents today enjoy resources that were absent only a generation ago. Diagnostic tools also improved, so that the 'catch all' phrase retardation gave way to specific conditions, such as autism. This rise in capabilities coincided with an overall change in attitudes that made caring for these children at home more acceptable. Perhaps even desirable, as home life promotes bonding between parent and child.

Today residential schools still exist, but are more and more being phased out. In many cases there is no need, as local specialists and training are available in the home. For example, the parents of blind children need only make accomodations in house hold proceedures to succesfully raise their child. They need not learn Braille themselves, and that language is itself giving way to computer generated speech. But for deaf children residential schools retain distinct advantages. At such schools children acquire language skills better and faster because they are immersed in sign language.

Today a place remains for the residential school. But that place is shrinking as local school systems take over more and more of the specialized school functions.

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