A Primary Source Activity on the Creation of Residential Schools in Canada

James Miles

James Miles teaches Social Studies, I.B. History, and Social Justice 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, where he has taught for six years. He recently completed his MA in Social Studies Education at UBC. He is interested in incorporating local history, historical photographs, and other primary sources into his classroom.

I’ve written here before about finding useful and appropriate primary source evidence for students. So I thought I’d share one activity my grade 10’s recently completed that I felt was valuable and effective. This activity used a set of the Critical Thinking Consortium’s (TC2) online History Docs to answer the essential question: what were the main reasons residential schools were created in Canada?

Before beginning this activity I questioned my students prior knowledge on ‘Indian’ Residential Schooling in Canada. I found that students with little or no knowledge of Residential Schooling had immediately positive associations with the schools and their goals: “to educate/to help/to make lives better.”  Others, who knew more, had a clear position that the schools were there “to hurt/abuse/assimilate” Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Instead of telling my students “the” story of why residential schools were created I provided them with primary source documents that helped them create a narrative or account of why the schools were created. The 11 primary sources that are included in the TC2 History Docs set, helped students to get into the mind of the historical actors who decided to create, run and administer the schools. The sources include excerpts of treaties, government reports, photographs, principal reports and even an excerpt from a school yearbook.

The Lesson

Before beginning I gave the students some background information on Residential Schooling through a brief lecture that covered the key developments answering questions like who, where, what, when, how. The students would deal with why.

I then modeled the first activity by reading aloud and thinking aloud through one of the primary sources the students had been given. In my thinking I demonstrated for the class I questioned the author of the source, their purpose or motivations for creating the source, its reliability and credibility, and then finally I identified information in the source that would help me answer the essential question.

In partners, students spent the class working through the documents identifying the origin and purpose of the source and then finding evidence that could be used to answer the question. Students were also instructed to consider if they found the source to be reliable or credible (topics we had discussed in previous classes). The students had the choice to reject certain sources as long as they explained why.

This source work did take some time and certain students struggled with what could be gained from certain sources. This provided moments in the class to stop and give examples of how inferences could be made from the sources (about photographs for example).

After this evidence building and sourcing class, the following day students used the documents to write a one-page account answering the essential question. They had to include references to as many sources as possible, but I set a minimum of five. I suggested acceptable methods to the students for referencing:  The Davin Report (Source #4) suggests that… It is clear from Source 6 that… The Indian Act states…

The students worked away sharing documents and evidence with their partner, each creating their explanation of why the residential schools were created, having no problem writing at least an entire page in the process.


I have done this lesson twice now and found that most students enjoyed working with the documents to build a “case” for why the schools were created. I also feel this lesson has value as it helps students to take historical perspectives of the actors involved in the creation and development of Residential Schooling in Canada. There is also a clear ethical dimension to this topic, which can be used to extend this lesson.

Two Notes on this Activity/Lesson

  1. The method of this lesson takes inspiration from both the Historical Thinking Project’s Evidence resources and also SHEG’s Reading like a Historian curriculum which employs a similar method for using primary evidence.
  2. I am aware that these documents and this lesson does not provide or offer Aboriginal perspectives on Residential Schooling. These perspectives are something I attempt to add to the topic/discussion when I address the ethical dimension through first hand accounts.