Canada’s first Prime Minster, Sir John A. MacDonald, was quoted as declaring to the House of Commons in 1883, “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.
In 1867, when Canada was formed as a nation, residential boarding schools were already being developed through a number of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches across the country, supported, in part, from small governmental grants towards the students attending. In the years proceeding, the system continued to grow until an estimated 150,000 students of indigenous culture had passed through their systems, prior to the final school closure in 1996.
Canada’s dark legacy of residential schools and their impact on Métis, Inuit and First Nation students and their parents lives on through the first hand accounts of its survivors and their stories of physical, mental and sexual abuse, cultural genocide, and the traumatic aftermath they have had to live with.
It was in September 19, 2007, that the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was established in Canada, offering varying degrees of financial and emotional settlement to those victimized by the schools, and becoming the bridge which led to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
The objectives of this lawsuit filed against the country, and the subsequent creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were many, including:
1. Acknowledge Residential School experiences, impacts and consequences;
2. Provide a holistic, culturally appropriate and safe setting for former students, their families and communities as they come forward to the Commission;
3. Witness, support, promote and facilitate truth and reconciliation events at both the national and community levels;
4. Promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the IRS (Indian Residential School System) system and its impacts;
5. Create as complete an historical record of the IRS system and legacy. The record shall be preserved and made accessible to the public for future study and use;
6. Make recommendations concerning the IRS system and experience including: history, purpose, operation and supervision of the IRS system, the effect and consequences of IRS (including systemic harms, intergenerational consequences and the impact on human dignity) and the ongoing legacy of the residential schools;
7. Support commemoration. of former Indian Residential School students and their families.”
Finally, their stories would be told, and the Government would be held responsible for upholding the ninety-four Calls to Action which it entails, thereby preserving its tragic history, and further educating Canadian citizens on this bleak time of our country’s past.
The underlying theme of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to not only acknowledge the abuse and long term suffering Aboriginal people experienced at the hands of the Residential schools, but also to allow for a better relationship between the Aboriginals and other Canadian institutions and Canadians, as a whole, and to nurture a greater understanding of the culture which was largely eradicated since Canada’s inception as a country.
Consisting of ninety-four Calls to Action to hold the Canadian Government accountable for the atrocities of the Residential school system, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s website outlines and illustrates the demands of survivors, their families and those otherwise affected by the long-term adversity they’ve faced for over one hundred years. The Calls to Action consist of several clauses for clarification, however their specific points are toward the fair and ethical treatment of all Aboriginal peoples, which encompass education, healthcare, employment equity, as well as commemoration and recognition to those families who have endured these hardships, to name a few.
Armed with the stories of survivors and a plan to hold the Government of Canada responsible for their stories to be shared, acknowledged and their rights to be upheld as all Canadian citizens, the TRC committed to a total of a five-year contract, divided into two parts, the first of which would see a preliminary budget being put into play, along with national events to educate the Canadian public as well as significant research findings. The second part of the contract would see a focus on the culmination of the survivors’ stories and the development of a nation-wide research centre to further continue the advocacy and remembrance of the somber history experienced by one-hundred-fifty thousand children and their families.
It is virtually impossible for any parent to comprehend the agony of having his or her children removed at an early age, in some instances never to be heard from again, their graves unmarked, even unknown. In fact, according Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment, children develop an innate attachment to at least one of their primary caregivers in the first years of their lives, and should this bond be broken or separation occur, the long term effects can be devastating, and include depression, delinquency, and PTSD to name a few. Without assistance and access to competent, affordable healthcare, along with being subjected to negligence from our Government, our hospitals and mental health resources, the TRC has played an integral role not only in the newfound recognition of our flawed treatment to our Aboriginal population, it has also proven indispensable for assisting in the reparation and further healing of those who need it most.
Comparatively, one cannot fathom the anguish of taking his or her child to the hospital off-reserve, only to have his or her child die in care for the sake of bureaucracy, in particular on Canadian soil, however this is the truth that many had to live, and for countless years, unnoticed and disregarded.
Moreover, in its mission, the TRC has acted as a firm endorsement for the more ethical treatment of those of Aboriginal descent in our criminal justice system. Once again, the effects of the long-standing trauma experienced by students and families of the residential school system is proven by the Justice Department of Canada, which indicates on its website, that both as victims and offenders, the Aboriginal population of Canada is notably higher than any other minority, with 28% of victims of Aboriginal descent reporting abuse, as opposed to 18% of non-indigenous citizens, and with 33% of Indigenous people accused of homicide, making that ten times higher than the rate of non-indigenous perpetrators.
Quite remarkably, it was not until 2018 that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly addressed the Calls to Action outlined by the TRC, introducing the Recognition and Implementation Rights Framework, designed to support further recognition of the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and a step toward honouring the Government’s commitment to fulfilling each of the ninety-four Calls to Action which are so imperative in the fundamental healing and newfound rapport between Canada and its Indigenous peoples.
The question remains: Have we done enough to support those affected by the enormity of the trauma caused by the Residential Schools? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Residential Schools Agreement would certainly be a start in the movement towards commemorating lives lost, and further educating the country on this somber part of its history, however there is still work to be done, and will be as the country evolves and further stories are shared, publicized, and healing continues.
An example could be the mental health and subsequent substance abuse crises that has swept several reserves across the Northwest Territories, as illustrated by Julia Christensen (2017) who states, “Community wellness workers have also argued that intergenerational trauma-specific counselling is urgently needed across the territory, but few are equipped with the skills necessary to provide it.” Furthermore, Christensen goes on to state that rates of alcohol abuse are exceedingly high compared to the rest of the country, and with few affordable or accessible programs available, residents are deemed helpless in the pursuit of change or better health.
Ultimately, our country has failed its founding citizens. Our government and our churches have turned a blind eye to the plight of the Aboriginal people, and in doing so, has caused irreparable damage to its history as a democratic and fair nation. The very Constitution Act, in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, states,
15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (Department of Justice, 2018)
We have committed a horrific injustice to our Aboriginal people for over one-hundred-fifty years, and continue to do so by allowing the Government to maintain a lackadaisical attitude toward their needs. A public apology, a benefit to survivors, and even ninety-four Calls to Action upheld by the TRC to the Canadian Government would be a start, but in many ways, it is too little, too late.
So long as there is limited access to affordable nutritious food, clean water, mental and physical healthcare on our reserves, as we appreciate throughout the rest of the country, we are and will be failing our Indigenous people, and I would personally call on the Canadian Government to ensure this becomes a priority, with affirmative and noticeable actions.
Public apologies, handshakes from bureaucrats and announcements do little. Our Aboriginal population has suffered enough, and the time for Idle no More is now.