While the system was established by the government of Canada in the 19th century, the schools themselves were largely operated under contract by churches, with Catholic orders running most of them.
In addition to banning the use of native languages and cultural and religious practices, most of the schools were underfunded and overcrowded. Malnutrition and disease were common as were deadly fires. Former students testified to the commission about being preyed upon by clergy and lay staff at the schools. Some of the most chilling testimony included accounts of the incineration of infants born to girls who had been sexually assaulted by priests.
The schools again rose in the national consciousness just over a year ago after a search with ground penetrating radar found indications of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The technology has since located several indications of unmarked burials at other schools. Last week the federal government appointed Kimberly Murray, a Mohawk lawyer, to help communities with the searches as well as with their decisions about whether to exhume the remains.