A five-year fact finding process on abuses suffered by indigenous people in Canada’s residential schools culminated on Tuesday, June 2, with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) summary report. Led by Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, the commission compiled harrowing testimony from thousands of residential school survivors who shared their experiences of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse they suffered at the schools; the commission also documented over 6,000 deaths throughout the history of residential schools Days before the report’s release, Canada’s Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin publicly referred to the residential school system, which wasn’t fully dismantled until 1996, as an act of “cultural genocide” – marking the first time a public official of her stature explicitly linked this part of Canada’s history to the word “genocide”.
The TRC was formed in 2008 as a result of a settlement between residential school survivors, the federal government, and the churches that managed the schools. The Canadian government and churches established the first residential schools in 1883, and the program quickly grew to over 80 schools by 1930. It was common practice for government officials to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their homes at the age of four or five, and send them to live at the schools in order to “Christianize” the children and remove their connection to their indigenous heritage. Without any other institutional controls, church officials running the schools often resorted to verbal, physical, and sexual violence on students, and the Canadian government even conducted nutrition experiments at some schools as part of nutrition experiments after World War II. The federal government estimates that over 150,000 indigenous students passed through the system in its more than 100-year-old history, the legacy of which contributes to haunt Aboriginal communities today with the perpetuation of discrimination, violence, and broken families.
The TRC issued 94 recommendations for reconciliation between Canadians and Aboriginal Peoples as part of its summary report, including the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the incorporation of testimony from survivors as part of a revamped school curriculum that educates all Canadians on the history and legacy of residential schools. The federal government, which issued a formal apology in 2008 for the injustices of the residential schools, has not yet publicly commented on the findings and recommendations of the TRC.
“Landmark Report Urges Education on ‘Cultural Genocide’ of Aboriginals“, by Gloria Galloway and Bill Curry (The Globe and Mail)
“Aboriginal Success is the Best Form of Reconciliation“, by Wab Kinew (National Post)
“McLachlin Said What Many Have Long Known“, by Ken Coates (The Globe and Mail)
Rather than denying or diminishing the harm done, we must agree that this damage requires serious, immediate and ongoing repair. We must endeavour instead to become a society that champions human rights, truth and tolerance, not by avoiding a dark history but rather by confronting it.” – TRC Chair Murray Sinclair
The unveiling of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, entitled “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future”, has the potential to be a watershed moment for Canada. For over 130 years, residential schools and their legacy have entrenched a system that served to strip indigenous peoples of their personal, familial, and cultural identities, fuelling a cycle of societal problems as each successive generation has struggled to cope with the trauma left behind. Meanwhile, this system has further reinforced an alarming gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians on a broad range of quality of life indicators, including healthcare, education, and employment. Until now, there has been little national discussion on the underlying systems that have produced these outcomes and how to reconcile historical wrongs so that Canada’s institutions, relationships, and values can contribute to justice and equal opportunity for all Canadians.
The work of the TRC provides a starting point – not an ending point – for transforming those systems and pursuing a different future in Canada. TRCs have been used around the world as a means to promote understanding, justice and healing after periods of national trauma, in ways that could not be achieved through adversarial court processes. Such commissions include Argentina after a military campaign to abduct and kill opponents in the 1980s, South Africa after the end of apartheid in the 1990s, and Rwanda’s after the genocide in the 1990s, among other examples. The heart of these processes revolve around providing victims a safe space to testify about the injustices they experienced, and sharing these experiences on a national level so that the country can make necessary changes based on a shared understanding of the past.
In practice, however, TRCs have struggled to achieve this ideal. Argentina remains mired in a series of political disputes between leftist and conservative forces that have even involved accusations of the President’s involvement in a political assassination. While the lot of many black South Africans has improved since that country’s TRC, ghettoization and racial violence still persist. And Rwandan President Paul Kagame, initially lauded for his efforts to reconcile the country after the genocide, has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies and is linked to the assassination of political opponents both inside and outside the country’s borders.
Each of these examples demonstrates the difficulty of moving past “truth” and achieving true “reconciliation”. The path of reconciliation is long and difficult precisely because it demands the transformation of institutions that typically are laden with inertial forces and resistant to change, which goes beyond general awareness of past injustices.
In Canada, the TRC’s recommendations for change touch on several institutions that exhibit different challenges and rates of change. These include:
The educational system – By definition, educating Canadians on the true history of residential schools will take at least a generation, as school systems begin incorporating this history in their curricula for a new crop of students. The very decision on how to adapt school curricula may take several years, and be implemented at different rates across the country, as each province ultimately controls its curriculum.
The political system – Beyond the residential school settlement in 2008, which laid the foundation for the TRC, an official government apology, and monetary compensation for victims of residential schools, governments of all political parties have been slow to link the legacy of residential schools with political reform in other areas of governance. Those areas include: greater sovereignty and support for Aboriginal groups in education and health care, improved social services to address a rash of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and a greater voice for indigenous peoples in natural resource and environmental protection decisions. While political parties may pay lip service to the need for reconciliation in principle, the true test of their commitment will come when they are presented with difficult decisions about allocating resources to these issues amidst competing goals.
The prison and penal system – Despite comprising only X percent of the Canadian population, Aboriginal people account for over half of the country’s prison population. Many enter the prisons for crimes related to drugs and/or violence, which are at least partially the legacy of the broken families left behind by residential schools. Yet the overrepresentation of indigenous peoples in Canadian prisons tends to perpetuate this cycle, especially as the use of solitary confinement increases and exacerbates mental health issues among inmates. While not directly targeting Aboriginal peoples, the Conservative government’s preference for stronger prison sentences may worsen this problem.
The legal system – Of all of Canada’s large institutions, its courts seem to have embarked on the process of reconciliation sooner than others, as evidenced by recent decisions strengthening indigenous peoples’ rights in natural resource matters. Still, there are several unresolved issues on the matter of Aboriginal rights, not the least of which is making sense of a patchwork of different laws and treaties across Canada. An important question that will surely be tested in the courts is the TRC’s recommendation for the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the legal status that implies for indigenous sovereignty in a host of governance issues.
Aboriginal and Canadian identity – One the most difficult residential school legacies to reconcile is the viability of Aboriginal identity. Decades of residential schooling decimated the ability of Aboriginal communities to transmit traditional languages and cultures to each successive generation. One consequence of this psychological displacement has been that life on many Aboriginal reserves continues to be marked by high unemployment, substance abuse, violence, and suicide, making it difficult for Aboriginal youth to successfully negotiate their heritage and traditional knowledge with the pressures of broader Canadian society. In recent years, however, a revival of indigenous artists have entered mainstream Canadian society, from Joseph Boyden’s novels to A Tribe Called Red’s “electric pow-wow” dance music. These artists provide a vehicle for renewed Aboriginal self-expression and shared cultural understanding between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. In this respect, they have an important role to play in ensuring that the TRC’s report becomes a living document that leads to broader systems change towards justice in Canadian society.
The aspirations of truth and reconciliation are certain to be challenged in these and other systems, as institutions struggle to adapt. Whether this process ultimately leads to reconciliation depends in large part on whether the rates of change in these multiple systems complement each other, or work at cross-purposes as aspirations are raised in one system while remaining unmet in others.
Suggested Discussion Questions
How does Canada’s TRC compare to those used by other countries? What key differences exist, and how do those shape the potential outcomes of this process?
What additional systems require change in order to achieve true reconciliation? What inertial forces need to be overcome for that change to occur?