The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is heart-wrenching and damning. The result of a six-year study of the history and legacy of Indian residential schools, which included archival research and the testimony of 6,750 residential school survivors, the report documents
- The brutal truth about Canada’s residential school system;
- The appalling treatment of Indigenous children at the schools;
- The far-reaching consequences of the abuses; and
- The continuation of the abuse today.
The report also tells us what we must do to repair this historical and on-going wrong.
The work of the TRC is over. The work of Canada and Canadians is just beginning.
T H E T R U T H
- Canada’s residential school system was established in the 1880s. Funded by the federal government, the schools were run by Christian churches, primarily Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United. The last residential school, Gordon’s School in Punnichy SK, closed in 1996.
- In his 1879 report to John A. Macdonald, Nicholas Flood Davin (after whom a Regina elementary school is named) recommended the establishment of a residential school system to “aggressively civilize” Indigenous children. As the TRC report puts it: “The residential school system was based on an assumption that European civilization and Christian religions were superior to Aboriginal culture” (4).
- In 1920, attendance at the schools became compulsory for all Indigenous children between the ages of seven and 16.
- More than 150,000 children attended the schools, many of them forcibly removed from their families.
- Mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse was rife at the schools. Food was often insufficient and of poor quality. In most cases, schools were poorly maintained and overcrowded.
- At least 6,000 children died at the schools from malnutrition, disease, and abuse ‒ a higher death rate than that of Canadians who enlisted to fight in World War II. Many of the children were buried unceremoniously in unmarked graves.
“The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of [Canada’s Aboriginal policy], which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide’” (TRC 1).
Genocide, as defined by the United Nations, includes:
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group;
- Causing severe bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources” (TRC 3).
T H E L E G A C Y
The legacy of the schools remains. The consequences include:
- The significant gap in education, income, and health between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians;
- The over-representation of Indigenous children in state care;
- The high incarceration rates of Indigenous people;
- The disproportionate number of Indigenous women who are murdered or go missing.
The legacy also includes:
- The racism many Canadians harbour against Indigenous peoples;
- On-going systemic racism, evident in ●33% – 50% less funding for First Nations schools ●22% less funding for First Nations child welfare services ●housing shortages and substandard, over-crowded living conditions on First Nations ●139 Drinking Water Advisories in effect in 94 First Nations communities lack of respect for First Nations Treaty rights ● the granting of state access to Indigenous lands and resources.
We now all know the truth. Reconciliation requires individual and collective action. Here are eight key recommendations taken from the TRC report:
- Reduce the number of Indigenous children in care.
- Eliminate the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in custody.
- Close the health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
- Eliminate the discrepancy in education funding.
- Make teaching about residential schools and Indigenous history mandatory in the public education system, K – 12.
- Create a national registry of residential school student deaths and develop procedures to protect residential school cemeteries.
- Establish a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.
- Fully adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“All Canadians must make a firm and lasting commitment to reconciliation to ensure that Canada is a country where our children and grandchildren can thrive” (TRC 364).
- Read the TRC report over the summer. It’s called Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future and it’s available online.
- If you belong to the dominant culture (that is are a white Canadian), check your privilege. Think about the ways your whiteness works for you in society.
- In the run-up to the federal election, ask candidates in your electoral district how many of the TRC’s recommendations they plan to implement.
“Without truth, justice, and healing, there can be no genuine reconciliation. Reconciliation is not about ‘closing a sad chapter of Canada’s past,’ but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice”(TRC 12).