First Nations people are Aboriginal people of Canada. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the First Nations people effectively lived off of the land; their material and spiritual needs were met through a close connection with nature and wildlife. The early First Nations people can be divided into six general groups, based off of geographical location: Woodland First Nations, Iroquoian First Nations, Plains First Nations, Plateau First Nations, Pacific Coast First Nations, and First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins. First Nations spirituality reflected a deep respect for the natural world, which was celebrated through songs, dances, festivals, and ceremonies.
In Three Day Road, Niska, Xavier, and Elijah have very negative experiences with the white-run residential schools. Unfortunately, their experiences are not so different from those of an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children who attended Canadian residential schools since they became common in 1880. These schools were co-sponsored by the Canadian government and Christian churches, and were designed to educate and convert Indigenous youths in the hope of assimilating them into white culture. However, poor treatment and abuse of children was rampant in these schools, destroying lives and communities and causing long-term issues among First Nations peoples.
Before 1880, New French and Catholic missionaries attempted to create residential facilities, but did not have the power to compel Indigenous peoples to participate. After the passage of the 1876 Indian Act, the government was required to provide Indigenous youth with education and to integrate them into white Canadian society. Indigenous leaders encouraged the creation of schools that would help their children make a successful transition to a new and strange society, but for many the schools ended up serving the exact opposite purpose.
Beginning in 1883, the federal government and churches developed a country-wide system of residential schools. At its height in the 1930s, the school system contained 80 institutions, operated by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches. The schools operated on a half-day system in which students spent one half of the day in the classroom and one half at work. In theory, the work component was to prepare Indigenous children for future professional lives; in reality, it had more to do with running the schools inexpensively.
Although some students left the schools with positive memories, generally students' experiences were negative. Many factors contributed to an often miserable environment: lack of proper food and clothing; insufficient instruction, often in English or French—languages that many students didn’t know; harsh overseers; imposition of Catholicism at the expense of Indigenous spirituality; and isolation from family. Frequent punishment and a disparagement of Indigenous culture were common; sometimes physical and sexual abuse occurred. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that approximately 3,200 Indigenous children died in these overcrowded schools, where disease was common. Some students were even subjected to nutritional “experiments” without their consent. Children resisted this harsh treatment. Some refused to cooperate, stole food or supplies, and escaped; in extreme cases, some burned their schools down. By the 1940s, it became evident to the government and missionary bodies that the schools were ineffective. Indigenous protests helped secure a change in policy; by 1986, most schools had either been closed or turned over to local hands. The last residential school closed in 1996.
Indigenous communities have been working to resolve the lasting negative effects of the residential schools on families. In 2005, the Canadian government established a $1.9 billion compensation package for the survivors of abuse at residential schools. The Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, created in 2007, required the federal government and churches to provide financial compensation to former students. In 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to all former students of Canadian residential schools. He recognized the profound damage of the schools to Indigenous culture, heritage, and language. Harper wrote that “We now recognize that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologize for failing to protect you.”