The RCMP in residential schools

The RCMP played a part in the Indian Residential School system, which ravaged First Nation communities for more than a century and left once-vibrant cultures to die.

The RCMP played a part in the Indian Residential School system, which ravaged First Nation communities for more than a century and left once-vibrant cultures to die.

This is something most people, especially residential school survivors, already knew.

But the national police force’s role has now been clearly identified by the Mounties themselves.

The third of seven national events staged by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to collect stories and comfort survivors, took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the last week of October.

On the last day of the event, RCMP deputy commissioner Steve Graham presented the 463-page report written from data collected over a 30-month period from April 2007 to September 2009.

It is the force’s investigation of their involvement in residential schools across Canada.

Researchers travelled to 66 communities, conducted 279 interviews with former students, school staff and RCMP officers, both retired and active, and delved into government, church and police archives.

Ottawa has recognized there were 130 schools across the nation and that approximately 150,000 aboriginal children were forced to attend.

Most of those children were forcibly taken from their families at ages as young as three. Their parents were told they were breaking the law and would go to jail if they did not let their children go.

The RCMP report’s main conclusion is that the school system was a closed one.

Police, like the public, really had no idea of what was going on inside the schools’ doors.

Students were wards of the federal government, they could not leave school grounds or access forms of communication to contact the police or family outside; issues that were happening within the schools were dealt with either inside the school itself, or through the churches or Indian Affairs department, internally.

Once out of the system, former students admitted they never went to the police. Over the years, they had learned not to trust authority figures and not to trust the police, specifically.

The RCMP was not a source of help, but an “authority figure who takes members of the community away from the reserve or makes arrests.”

The perception was the RCMP would not believe students and that, compounded with fear, shame and feelings of guilt, kept the rampant abuse that occurred in residential schools across the country hidden.

There was only one case, out of all the research, where an RCMP investigation took place because of rumours in the community. That was in Lower Post, BC, in 1957.

The report admits police never questioned the school system, they simply responded to calls.

They were a government-hired agency, mandated to do a job.

And from the research, 75 per cent of that job was finding truants and bringing them back to school.

Former school staff testified that if they were unable to locate a child that had run away, they would call the police. Former students remember being picked up by Mounties and brought back to school; church orders and government files also confirm that the RCMP’s main role was to locate truants, and RCMP members testified that was their main instruction when called in, and that they never questioned it.

As allegations of abuse became more well known, major investigations were conducted and task forces were established, the report said.

From 1957 to 2005, there have been 60 investigations from the North and Western Canada. Three hundred and sixty charges have been laid from things like gross indecency, buggery, contributing to juvenile delinquency, touching a person under 14 for sexual purposes, and various forms of assault. Six hundred and nineteen victims have appeared before the courts and more than 40 perpetrators have been identified.

There were other minor roles the RCMP played during the residential school saga. There were a few instances where police were called in to investigate fires or deaths in the schools and there were some records of individual officers volunteering their time to coach sports or teach music.

More than 600 aboriginal communities across Canada were affected by residential schools and the system’s legacy is still felt in most of those communities as substance abuse, abandonment, cultural loss, family violence and abuse of all forms and in the fact that these students never learned life skills, like proper parenting.

Instead, like all people, they learned by the examples they were shown, which were plagued by physical and sexual abuse and, above all, by lack of compassion and love.

The churches that operated the schools began officially apologizing in 1986. The RCMP’s commissioner publicly apologized in 2004 and Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology in 2008.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate and funding were established as part of that apology, three years ago.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at