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The Role of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police During the Indian Residential School System

Indian Residential Schools

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In the News

June 2012
Remembering the Past: A Window to the Future
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

A report by:
Marcel-Eugène LeBeuf, Ph.D.

On behalf of the RCMP

Executive Summary

This report is the first complete assessment of the RCMP’s involvement in the Indian Residential School (IRS) system. As the police force of jurisdiction in many areas where Indian Residential Schools were located, the RCMP sought to gain a better understanding of its role during this era.

Through researching and publishing this study, the RCMP wishes to document and demonstrate its dedication to the healing and reconciliation process. The contribution of knowledge from a law enforcement and sociological perspective shows the commitment of the RCMP to support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), former Indian Residential School students, First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities, RCMP members, as well as all Canadians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, in the healing process. This report helps prepare for the future as it permits assessment of past practices, actions and accomplishments, and provides an occasion for the RCMP to improve future ones.

Although this study covers a period of 100 years, it does not look at history in a linear perspective. During the Indian Residential School system, all the principle players were going through major changes. The schools, Aboriginal people, religious orders, the RCMP, the justice system, each province and territory as well as Canada as a whole, were influenced by many factors. It was impossible to visit every school, interview everyone involved with the schools and find all documents that reference the Indian Residential School system. As such, the description and the analysis of the RCMP’s role in the Indian Residential School system is limited by the data available.

This study does not intend to shed light on the systemic problems that occurred in Indian Residential Schools nor on what the police could have done with regards to the various forms of abuse suffered in the system. The focus, rather, is to explain how police officers were linked with the school system and what actions the police took, if any, if they were aware of abuse. For the study and this report, the word “abuse” refers to improper physical or sexual behavior and actions that contributed to the loss of cultural roots.

Different sources of data collected over a 30-month period between April 2007 and September 2009 helped answer a series of questions relating to the RCMP’s relationship with schools and their administration, students, other federal departments and agencies and what roles the RCMP played.

Some data, covering the period between the 1880s to 1990s, comes from complementary academic and non-academic literature. Additional data was gathered through unprecedented access to the archives of some Roman Catholic orders. RCMP files and historical files from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada produced a wealth of information.

Further data was gathered by traveling to 66 communities and conducting 279 interviews with former students, school staff and RCMP officers (active and retired). Interviews explored themes that could only be partially found in written material. Responses are treated as direct access to the individual interviewee’s experiences and perceptions. It should be noted that analysis of the interview data describes the reality as perceived by the interviewees.

The report is divided into four sections:

Contextualization of the School System

This section looks at the Indian Residential School System, its genesis and evolution as well as the recruitment, discipline and truancy of students.

The federal government signed agreements at the end of the 19th century with different churches for maintaining and managing schools for Aboriginal children. The schools were meant to become a home where children would see and understand the world through a European system of values and beliefs. In general, the published literature on this subject has overlooked the role of police in the school system.

The limited data available in historical documents as well as the data gathered through the interview process demonstrates that three main actors played complementary roles regarding Indian Residential Schools. Indian Agents assumed the entire responsibility for controlling Aboriginal peoples - by authority of the Indian Act, the church promoted a faith system, and the police exercised regulations over individuals who did not abide by the laws, such as ensuring children’s attendance at school.

The Indian Act constituted not only the legal basis to maintain the school system but also the means to force children to attend school. Truant officers, whether Indian Agents, police officers or any other identified individuals, were legally appointed to enforce such provisions relative to the schools. RCMP officers were appointed truant officers in 1933 by law; however, the report shows they had assumed this responsibility before that date.

Children would rarely denounce the abuse they suffered, and the school system prevented outsiders from knowing about the abuse that occurred. Discipline was kept strictly internal to the school system and was not associated to the police. Truancy was among the problems identified, by experts, in the Indian Residential School system. School principals were mainly responsible for finding truants and, in cases where they could not or did not find them, they would call the Indian Agent who may have then enlisted the services of the RCMP.

The report shows that Indian Residential Schools were essentially a closed system between the Department of Indian Affairs, the churches and school administrator. The problems within the schools did not attract police attention or intervention because they were mostly dealt with internally or were unknown to the police.

Contextualization of the Police Role

This section shows that the RCMP exercised social control over many activities pertaining to Aboriginal peoples, especially in Northern and Western Canada, but not within the school system per se. Most books written on the RCMP provide no information on the police and the Indian Residential Schools. Presumably, the issue was either overlooked or not seen as significant by the authors.

The report does expose some perceptions about the RCMP and describes an organization that is perceived to have participated in controlling Aboriginal peoples. These perceptions link the police with providing assistance to Indian Agents in bringing children to schools, sometimes forcibly.

What can be gathered was that the RCMP was active in enforcing the Indian Act and the Family Allowance Act and, upon the request of Indian Agents, the RCMP also provided assistance in enforcing both the pass system on reserves and the ban on liquor and dances. Given the extent of the policing and non-policing duties the RCMP was responsible for, making sure children went to school was likely not a priority.

It should be noted that the literature denouncing government inaction during the time of the school system does not include any police agency or the RCMP as a contributing institution of control.

There were very few investigations on allegations of sexual abuse conducted by the RCMP before the 1990s.

It should be noted, however, that the RCMP was not always the police force of jurisdiction and that the general term, police, will be used throughout the report interchangeably with RCMP.

Explanations from Written History

There are three main historical files used to document the research: private archives of some Roman Catholic orders involved with Indian Residential Schools, federal government files (mostly RCMP files kept by INAC) and RCMP investigation files related to abuse of former students. These files describe how officers were involved with the schools, the parents and the students. This involvement was generally, if not almost exclusively, as a response to a request coming from school or government authorities.

Religious Archives

The 420 excerpts gathered from religious archives shows that RCMP officers had different types of contact with the school system from as early as the 1890s up until the system came to an end. Some RCMP officers made their presence known in the area of the school where they worked, even though detachments were not necessarily close to the school.

The archives show that no matter the school location, the era or even the century, contact between the police and the schools persisted. Location of the school and detachments, especially in isolated areas, as well as social life in the community, may have played a role in encouraging officers to make contact with the schools. However, since the Indian Residential School system was essentially closed to outsiders, the internal workings of the school system were generally not a concern for the RCMP.

DIAND/INAC Files

Access to documents from 60 different schools indicates that the RCMP searched for and brought truant students back to school. Data shows that the police responded to requests from school authorities and that principals, staff, Indian Agents, relatives and members of the communities were also involved in bringing children or returning truants to school. With the exception of matters of truancy, there are only a few accounts of contact between police officers and children, such as investigating deaths in the community, a handful of fires at the schools and two cases of physical violence towards children.

RCMP Files

Health, safety and good care for the children appear to have been greater incentives for looking for truant children beyond the fact that officers were truant officers duty bound to find them.

The data in the report generally shows that the RCMP had a responsive, law enforcement role, within the Indian Residential School system. When action was taken by the RCMP, it was rarely initiated by the RCMP and was usually at the behest of an Indian Agent, school principal or school staff. Several investigations were conducted into different crimes, such as fires at schools, assault, vagrancy, deaths and physical and sexual abuses.

The report summarizes the 60 investigations (excluding a few historical investigations) conducted by the RCMP between 1957 and 2005 from the three territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There are 619 victims who appeared before the courts and over 40 perpetrators identified. Over 360 charges were laid for the following crimes:

  • gross indecency;
  • indecent assault against male;
  • sexual assault;
  • buggery;
  • contributing to juvenile delinquency;
  • touching a person under the age of 14 for sexual purposes;
  • traps to cause bodily harm;
  • sexual interference; and
  • assault causing bodily harm.

Oral History

Former students, school staff (priests, nuns, administrators, etc), police officers (retired or active) contributed greatly by adding details and personal recollections to the information found in historical files. Using excerpts from interviews, the report describes the interviewees’ perceptions on topics such as: recruitment, abuse and physical punishment, internal school problems, police involvement (law enforcement and social), truancy, and general observations on RCMP investigations in a community. This helps crystallize the situation as experienced by former students within the school system and the options they had to connect with police. It also clarifies the roles of school officials and the police interaction with the Indian Residential School system.

Data shows that parents wanted an education for their children. They knew that they had no choice but to send their children to school. Very few interviewees ever witnessed any direct involvement of the police when they left for, or were brought to the schools. Since recruitment was the responsibility of Indian Agents or members of the church, the RCMP occasionally provided assistance to Indian Agents or the school system in bringing children to school. It appears that RCMP officers were not systematically engaged in these activities and, based on their personal experience, members of the church and RCMP officers recalled that the RCMP was not requested nor did they want to bring the children to school. Very few former students ever witnessed any direct involvement of the police with their departure to school.

The majority of interviewees indicated they never talked about their situation or abuse within the school system with their parents, school authorities or the police. It was not so much a question of access to police as it was a lack of trust. Many interviewees said they learned to fear and not trust the RCMP over the years. The police were not perceived as a source for help but rather as an authority figure who takes members of the community away from the reserve or makes arrests for wrong-doing. As a result, many students did not even try to contact the police. Interviewed police officers confirmed that students, even those they had close contact with through sports, for example, never mentioned anything about abuse in the school. Fear, feelings of guilt and shame and perceptions that they would not be believed played a strong part in not revealing their experiences. A minority of students did, however, indicate they talked among themselves looking for support and relief.

Interviews confirmed the data gathered from other sources on the RCMP’s involvement with truants, but it also provides a different perspective. In general, members of the church didn’t request or want police help - they tried, instead, to find students themselves. Interviewed police officers were never asked to, or returned children to school. Former students, however, recalled that the RCMP was one of many resources used to find them.

In terms of police involvement, there does not appear to be a set of uniform practices used to return children to school. Location of the school, practices and beliefs of the times, periods of the year and the management of school all seem to have a different impact on how truants would be found and returned to school.

Conclusions

The Indian Residential School system was established as an independent, closed system, which was generally not open to outsiders such as the police. When requested, the RCMP assumed a responsive, law-enforcement role within the system by searching for and returning truants. Truancy represented 75 per cent of the cases itemized during the research. Outside of this role, the RCMP also gave fines to parents whose children did not go to school and conducted investigations on fires at schools, for example. While performing these duties, the RCMP was responding to requests from Indian Agents or the Department of Indian Affairs. Very rarely was it noted that officers would find truants idling about the streets by chance, without having been notified to look for them. The RCMP was responding, in its most traditional police role, to a request to protect children. One conclusion gathered is that from a policing perspective, there was no uniform practice used to return children to school. The school’s location, season of the year, and the management of school were all factors that played a part in how truants would be found and returned to school.

Interviewees also recalled the RCMP being used as a threat against their parents to get them to go to school. The threat of police action, rather than direct police intervention, arose as a recurring theme used by Indian Agents and church officials to obtain compliance from Aboriginal people.

Police officers did have contact with the schools and students and, in some instances, went beyond their police mandate in terms of teaching music or coaching sports. However, these contacts did not provide a solid foundation or enough trust to encourage students to share their problems with police officers. Engagement with students appeared to lay the groundwork for further contacts, but was not enough for abused students to report crimes which were perpetrated against them.

Children in Indian Residential Schools were wards of the federal government and consequently came under the responsibility of various religious communities. The rules of the churches did not allow children to leave the school grounds without permission or access modern forms of communication to report their problems to the police or other authority figures. Institutional factors kept the schools separate from society and provided an environment in which school rules were not to be questioned. These factors combined with student’s lack of trust for authority figures all contributed to keeping abuse from becoming public knowledge at the time it occurred. Without public or police knowledge of wrong-doing, there would be no investigation and no charges laid against abusers. This is supported by the relatively small number of files in RCMP records on these matters for the period covered by the research project.

During the interview process, many former students took the opportunity to talk about abuse. This shed a different light on abusive situations that were kept secret during the Indian Residential School era and unknown to people outside the system for so many years. The majority of interviewees also confirmed that the RCMP could not know, and in many instances did not know, because they would not be told of these occurrences. Data gathered also shows that only in a very few cases, police officers heard rumors of abuse from the community and started an investigation. Interviewed police officers, with one exception, in Lower Post, B.C., where an investigation began in 1957 ( See Appendix X, E Division section for details ), confirmed that they had not heard anything about sexual abuse before it made the news, even though they made themselves available to students through sports or other social activities. ole of the RCMP during the Indian

More recently, when the RCMP was made aware of allegations of abuse in Indian Residential Schools, major investigations were conducted and task forces were established to delve deeper into the issue. There is no doubt that the role of the police in the Indian Residential School system and society in general evolved over the years. The RCMP responded to requests without questioning the meaning of the Indian Residential School system or the social policies of the day. It was not in their mission to study and/or criticize the school system - investigating the system was beyond the scope and mandate of the RCMP. Based on the data collected, it appears the RCMP played a secondary role in supporting certain elements of the school system, but, until recently, rarely initiated independent police action.

For a full copy of this report in PDF or DVD format, please contact us.