Indigenous Residential Schools in New France
By: Dr. Scott Berthelette
Dr. Scott Berthelette
Scott Berthelette is Red River Métis and an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Queen’s University. He holds a PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan. Berthelette’s research and teaching centres on the history of New France, Indigenous peoples, the Métis, the fur trade, and Euro-Indigenous relations in North America.
Listen to the author discuss this article
Note: a glossary of key terms follows at the end of the page.
Residential schools have a long history in Canada dating back to the era of New France (1608-1760), particularly in the seventeenth century when Catholic missionaries and religious orders established boarding schools to educate, convert, and assimilate First Nations children. The goal was to turn Indigenous children into obedient subjects of the French Crown, part of an ambitious plan to grow New France’s population through the cultural and religious assimilation of allied First Nations. In the early 1630s, Samuel de Champlain repeatedly promised his Wendat, Innu, and Algonquin allies that “our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people (alors nos garçons se marieront à vos filles, & nous ne ferons plus qu’un seul peuple).” Following up on Champlain’s bold declaration, Louis XIV’s chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert proclaimed about 30 years later that the French and First Nations would “become one people and one blood (un mesme peuple et un mesme sang).” In the absence of French settlers, who were difficult to recruit for the distant and relatively cold (compared to France) settlement, Champlain and Colbert thus laid out a plan to establish a French colony in northeastern North America through the transformation of First Nations into French subjects.
The seventeenth century French policy of assimilating Indigenous populations into French culture and religion was called francisation or “Frenchification.” This colonial strategy sought to incorporate Indigenous allies into the French body politic through religious instruction, cultural integration, and intermarriage. Education was a critical pillar of France’s assimilationist policy. French priests and nuns committed to Catholicism and empire would attempt to carry out the policy of francisation by turning Indigenous children into Christianised, obedient, and Frenchified subjects to King Louis XIV. The Récollets, Jesuits, Ursulines, Sulpicians, and the Congrégation de Notre-Dame would establish boarding schools in Québec and Montreal for Algonquin, Innu (Montagnais), Wendat (Huron), Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and Abenaki boys and girls, who would form the majority of the Indigenous student population. From the start then, the residential school experiment in New France intertwined with the official French policy of francisation.
The Récollets were the first religious order to operate a boarding school for Indigenous students at their mission Notre-Dame-des-Anges, near the Quebec settlement in 1620. The Jesuits, who replaced the Récollets, established a seminary for Indigenous boys at the site of the earlier Récollet school in 1636, which they operated with mixed success until 1642. The Capuchins opened a seminary at Port Royal in the 1630s where they instructed Mi’kmaq and Abenaki boys, as well as the sons of the first French inhabitants of Acadia. The Ursuline nuns, led by Marie de l’Incarnation, operated a boarding school for Indigenous girls at Quebec from 1642 until the end of the century. The Congrégation de Notre Dame, a women’s religious order committed to education led by Marguerite Bourgeoys, founded a boarding school for girls in Ville Marie (Montreal), where they educated children from the Sulpician mission of La Montagne (Kanehsatà:ke). While the Marguerite Bourgeoys and her Sisters educated Indigenous girls, the Sulpicians ran a parallel school for boys at Kanehsatà:ke.
All boarding schools for girls and boys followed a similar academic curriculum – to read, write, speak, and pray in both French and Latin. Unlike the residential school system of the late nineteenth and twentieth century Canada, New France’s boarding school were polyglot spaces where priests and nuns also encouraged children to sing, converse, and write in their native languages. By allowing students to retain their own languages while also teaching them Christian prayers and songs in those languages, the religious educators hoped the children would lead their parents and elders to the Catholic faith. In addition to religion and more traditional academic pursuits, religious orders also taught skills that they believed would help First Nations integrate into the French colonial society of the Saint Lawrence Valley. The Ursulines and the Congrégation de Notre-Dame taught Indigenous girls sewing, embroidery, as well as how to milk cows and other duties of the countryside that would have befitted the wife of a habitant (French settler). Récollet and Jesuit missionaries and their donnés (lay servants) instructed Indigenous boys in European agriculture, woodworking, masonry, and other trades. Ultimately, these boarding schools for boys and girls, which operated with the goal of Indigenous religious conversion to Christianity and cultural adaptation to French norms, contributed towards the wider colonial project of francisation.
First Nations parents initially allowed their children to attend boarding schools under the persistent pressure from missionaries and as part of furthering a political and commercial alliance with the French. For many Indigenous peoples of North America, it was customary to temporarily exchange young children and adopt members of opposing societies to secure peace treaties, alliances, and commercial compacts. The Wendat, Algonquin, and Innu peoples of the Saint Lawrence Valley and eastern Great Lakes had done so with Samuel de Champlain in the earliest years of New France. For example, the Wendat had exchanged their own young man named Savignon for a young Frenchman named Étienne Brûlé. To consolidate their alliance with French colonists, Indigenous peoples were willing to entrust their children to the care and tutelage of French religious orders whilst simultaneously welcoming youthful French traders and missionaries to live amongst them. By temporarily exchanging children and young adults, both sides created relations that brought peace to the two groups and lessened the prospect of future warfare.
In the seventeenth century, New France’s commercial and political existence depended on maintaining positive relations with their Indigenous neighbours. Beaver pelts and other animal furs were the colony’s principal export. The tumultuous “Iroquois Wars” of the seventeenth century pitted the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy against a coalition of First Nations and the French colonists of the Saint Lawrence Valley. The embattled French colony needed these Wendat, Innu, Algonquin, and Abenaki warriors to confront the militarily powerful Haudenosaunee. Understanding that the French were reliant on their Indigenous allies, priests and nuns refrained from inflicting corporal punishment on their Indigenous pupils and often acquiesced to student demands by offering traditional foods, opportunities to hunt and fish, and in general to come and go from the boarding schools as they pleased. Paul Le Jeune, a Jesuit missionary, who had already modified the boarding school’s menu to include traditional Indigenous dishes such as sagamité (corn-based stew), advised, “one must seize the occasion to subdue them by love (il faut prendre son temps pour les ranger par amour).” Ursuline nuns, for example, allowed students to accompany their parents on the winter hunt and then re-enter school afterwards even though departures and re-entries into a cloistered life would never have been permissible in France. Therefore, First Nations children enjoyed a much greater degree of freedom than their French counterparts in Jesuit and Ursuline boarding schools. Despite this gentler touch (by European standards at least), First Nations children often found the boarding school curriculum too regimented and isolating.
As will hopefully be demonstrated with the following examples, the experiences of Indigenous youth and children at boarding schools in New France varied considerably. Pastedechouan, a 12 or 13-year-old Innu boy, left for France in 1620 in the care of Récollet missionaries. Baptized as Pierre-Anthoine, Pastedechouan lived and was schooled for five years at La Baumette, a convent near the town of Angers in France where he learned to read, write, and pray in both French and Latin. Because he was isolated in France, Pastedechouan never had an opportunity to learn how to survive in Innu society. As a result, when Pastedechouan returned to Canada as a young man and eventually turned his back on Christianity, he failed to reincorporate into Innu society because he was unable to hunt and procure food for his family. The Récollet strategy of bringing children away from their cultural environment and isolating them far from home to indoctrinate them was the progenitor of the Indian residential school system in Canada. Pastedechouan experiences also paralleled those of survivors of residential schools in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries who suffered cultural isolation, loss of identity, and multigenerational trauma.
Andehoua, an 18-year-old Wendat youth, was one of the original six students of the Jesuit seminary at Notre-Dame-des-Anges who arrived in 1636. Given the baptismal name of Armand-Jean, Andehoua seems to have taken to Catholicism very quickly and was reportedly diligent about keeping his prayers, going to confession, and adhering to religious fasts. Andehoua’s Jesuit instructors reported on how the young man used his oratory skills that were respected by his people to convince the Wendat to support the Jesuits, especially combatting rumours that the Jesuits were the cause of disease epidemics. Andehoua’s connection with the French Jesuits lasted until his death in 1654 when he travelled to the Hôtel-Dieu at Quebec to request aid for an unspecified malady proclaiming that he “had never been untrue to his baptismal promises (s’estoit iamais dementy des promesses de son baptesme).” Andehoua died shortly afterwards at the age of 36 having received absolution from his Christian family.
Thérèse Khionreha, a 10 or 11-year-old girl from a predominantly Christian Wendat family, was the first student to attend the Ursulines’ seminary at Quebec in 1639. Like many of the Indigenous girls at the Ursuline school, Khionreha learned to read, write, sing, and pray in Wendat, French, and Latin. In 1642, after living at Quebec for two years, Khionreha started on her return journey to Wendake (the Wendat homeland) joining the company of René Goupil, Isaac Jogues, Guillaume Cousture, and another Wendat youth, Eustache Ahatsistari. En route, a Haudenosaunee war party, who were at war with the Wendat and the French, captured the group. Later, when living as an adopted captive among the Haudenosaunee, Khionreha became a leader in her longhouse and provided instruction in Christian prayers to fellow Wendat captives and new Haudenosaunee converts. Even Samuel de Champlain himself briefly partook in the education of three Innu girls who he gave the monikers Charité, Espérance, and Foi (Charity, Hope, Faith). All three were apparently delighted at the idea of receiving a French education, but Foi soon went back to her people. Espérance and Charité stayed with Champlain who taught them how to use a needle for making clothes and for embroidering. When, in July 1629, Champlain was forced to surrender Quebec to English privateers, Espérance and Charité remained behind with their families whilst the French colonists and merchants returned to France.
By the early 1700s, the missionary experiment with residential schools for Indigenous children in New France was over. A solidifying racial ideology on both sides of the Atlantic, which theorized that differences between French and Indigenous peoples were not cultural but biological, had led metropolitan ministers and colonial officials to wonder if their attempts to implement a policy of francisation could ever succeed. The residential schools of New France have become a mere footnote in the legacy and literature concerning the Canadian Indian residential school system’s history (for example it covers 1 out of 45 chapters in The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada). Nevertheless, the ultimate failure of the religious orders’ efforts to educate, convert, and assimilate Indigenous children speaks to the wider history of New France and to Indigenous autonomy and resistance in that era. The failure of the educational experiment in New France also speaks to the weakness of French colonial power in North America. In the seventeenth century, the French of the Saint Lawrence Valley were limited in numbers and bordered by enemies, and thus were not able to dictate to their Indigenous allies or force them to send their children to school. As much as French colonial officials wanted to pursue an assimilationist policy, military alliances and commerce depended on maintaining good relations with First Nations. While New France’s residential schools and assimilationist Indigenous policy may have failed, they nevertheless provided an important blueprint for the later Canadian Indian residential school system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which were meant to isolate Indigenous children and assimilate them into the dominant Euro-Canadian culture and society.
Glossary of Key Terms
Innu, Algonquin, and Wendat: The Algonquin, Innu (Montagnais), and Wendat (Huron) were some of the earliest allies of the French merchants and colonists in the Saint Lawrence Valley. In addition to exchanging furs, the French and their Indigenous allies fought alongside each other against their mutual enemy the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).
Haudenosaunee (Iroquois): An early French alliance with Wendat, Innu, and Algonquin peoples had incited the enmity of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) in 1609 prompting the near century long “Iroquois Wars.” Eventually some Haudenosaunee (mostly Mohawks) would convert to Christianity and reside near the French. The Sulpicians and Congrégation de Notre-Dame instructed Christianized Haudenosaunee boys and girls respectively at the mission of La Montagne (Kanehsatà:ke) in the late seventeenth century.
Récollets: The Récollets were a reformed branch of Franciscans formed in the spirit of the Catholic Reformation. They were the first missionaries to New France arriving in 1615 and operated a boarding school for Indigenous children at their mission Notre-Dame-des-Anges, near the Quebec settlement in 1620.
Jesuits (Society of Jesus): The Society of Jesus was founded in Paris in 1534 by Saint Ignatius Loyola. The first group of Jesuit missionaries arrived at Québec in 1625 with their mission to evangelise New France’s Indigenous allies. They took over from the Récollets in 1632 and operated their own boarding school at Notre-Dame-des-Anges from 1636 until 1642 with mixed success.
Ursulines: A religious order of women that arrived in Quebec in 1639 under the leadership of Marie de l’Incarnation. The Ursulines operated a boarding school for Indigenous girls at Quebec from 1642 until the end of the century.
Congrégation de Notre-Dame: A women’s religious order committed to education that founded a boarding school for girls in Ville-Marie (Montreal) where they educated children from the Sulpician mission of La Montagne (Kanehsatà:ke).
Sulpicians: The Society of Priests of Saint-Sulpice arrived in Canada in 1657 and established themselves in Ville-Marie (Montreal) as missionaries and educators. Sulpicians operated a school for Indigenous boys at La Montagne (Kanehsatà:ke).
Paul Le Jeune: Jesuit missionary who was named superior of the Jesuits at Quebec in 1632. Inaugurated the series of Jesuit Relations that publicized and celebrated the success of the Jesuit boarding school in New France.
Marie de l’Incarnation: Ursuline nun that spearheaded the initiative to educate Indigenous girls at a Quebec seminary from 1642 until her death in 1672.
Marguerite Bourgeoys: The founder of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame de Montréal who organized a school for Indigenous girls on the Sulpician reserve of La Montagne (Kanehsatà:ke).
Samuel de Champlain: The “Father of New France” who played a major role in establishing a French colonial presence in North America from 1603 to 1635.
Pierre-Anthoine Pastedechouan: Innu youth brought to France by the Récollets for 5 years to be educated at La Baumette, a convent near the town of Angers. Because he was isolated in France for so long at a critical age, when he returned to Canada, Pastedechouan failed to reincorporate into Innu society because he was unable to hunt and procure food for his family.
Armand-Jean Andehoua: An 18-year-old Wendat youth who took to Catholicism very quickly and was reportedly diligent about keeping his prayers, going to confession, and adhering to religious fasts.
Thérèse Khionreha: Wendat girl who attended the Ursulines’ seminary at Québec in 1639. When she was later taken captive and adopted by the Haudenosaunee, Khionreha became a religious leader in her longhouse and provided instruction in Christian prayers to fellow Wendat captives and new Haudenosaunee converts.
Charité, Espérance, and Foi (Charity, Hope, Faith): Innu girls taken into Samuel de Champlain’s household where he taught them how to use a needle for making clothes and for embroidering.
Francisation | Frenchification: France’s seventeenth-century policy to transform Indigenous peoples (particularly children) through religious instruction, French education, and cultural integration. This assimilationist policy, which sought to reduce Indigenous peoples into Christianized, obedient, and Frenchified subjects of the French Crown, was ultimately deemed a failure.
Anderson, Emma. The Betrayal of Faith: The Tragic Journey of a Colonial Native Convert. Harvard University Press, 2007.
Codignola, Luca. “Competing Networks: Roman Catholic Ecclesiastics in French North America, 1610–58.” Canadian Historical Review Vol. 80, No. 04 (1999): 539-585.
Cowan, Mairi. “Education, Francisation, and Shifting Colonial Priorities at the Ursuline Convent in Seventeenth-Century Québec.” The Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 01 (2018): 1-29
Deslandres, Dominique. “L’éducation des Amérindiennes d’après la correspondance de Marie Guyart de l’Incarnation.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses Vol. 16, No. 01 (1987) : 91-110.
Deslandres, Dominique, John A. Dickenson, and Ollivier Hubert, editors. Iconographic research by Jacques Des Rochers. Translated by Steven Watt. The Sulpicians of Montreal: A History of Power and Discretion 1657-2007. Montreal: Wilson & Lafleur, 2013.
Government of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company Ltd., 2015.
Greer, Allan. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-century North America. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
Jaenen, Cornelius. ‘‘Education for Francization: The Case of New France in the Seventeenth Century.’’ In Indian Education in Canada: The Legacy, vol. 1, edited by Jean Barman, Yvonne Hébert, and Don McCaskill, 45-63. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1986.
Jackson, Victoria. “Silent Diplomacy: Wendat Boys’ ‘Adoptions’ at the Jesuit Seminary, 1636-1642,”Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 27 (2016): 139-168,
Magnuson, Roger. Education in New France. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.
McShea, Bronwen Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019.
Miller, J.R. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
Simpson, Patricia. Marguerite Bourgeoys and the Congregation of Notre Dame, 1665-1700. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.
True, Micah. Masters and Students: Jesuit Mission Ethnography in Seventeenth-Century New France. Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.
Trudel, Marcel. Les écolières des Ursulines de Québec, 1639-1686. Montréal : Cahiers du Québec Collection Histoire, 1999.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Exploration of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791; the original French, Latin, and Italian texts, with English translations and notes. 73 Volumes. Cleveland: The Burrows Company, 1896-1901.
 Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 73 vols. (New York, 1959), 5: 211.
 ANOM, COL C11A 2/fol.297, Lettre de Colbert à Talon, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 05 avril 1667.
 Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (Cleveland: The Burrows Company, 1896–1901), 16: 180-181.
 Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (Cleveland: The Burrows Company, 1896–1901), 41: 158-159.