Truth and Reconciliation in Canada

Actions speak louder than apologetic words says Kim Stanton.
By: /
May 18, 2012

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that is underway in Canada is unique in the world of truth commissions because it arose from a legal settlement agreement. It did not emanate from a broad-based understanding among the Canadian population that we have a shameful history that should be addressed. While indigenous peoples are already aware of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system and its continuing consequences, the majority of Canadians are not. Thus, the TRC was not borne of a situation where Canadians became aware of the colonial roots of the residential school system and demanded action to address its appalling legacy. Rather, the parties to class-action lawsuits brought forth by residential school survivors decided to settle rather than continue to proceed, at great expense, through the courts.

This origin poses a challenge to the TRC as it progresses with its work, since reconciliation between indigenous peoples and other Canadians requires a societal effort and cannot be achieved without the participation of non-indigenous Canadians. Many non-indigenous Canadians do not make the connection between the terrible legacy of the IRS system and the circumstances of many indigenous communities today with respect to negative social indicators. Recent federal government budget cuts to indigenous organizations and programs engaged in addressing the residential schools legacy will do nothing to educate the broader society or to ameliorate this situation.

Under the IRS system, the Canadian government removed indigenous children from their families and communities and sent them to distant schools run by churches, with devastating results for the children, their communities, and their cultures. On May 8, 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was concluded to settle massive class-action lawsuits, brought forth by survivors of the schools, against the Canadian government and the churches that ran the schools. The Settlement Agreement, one part of which mandated the creation of the TRC, was finalized in September 2007.

The history of the IRS system in Canada predates Confederation in 1867. After their initial dependence upon indigenous peoples, followed by a period of economic and political alliances with them, settlers gradually exerted power over those who lived here before them. The residential school system is one manifestation of this shift, reflecting the history and legacy of colonization and, in particular, a government policy of assimilation intended (as articulated by Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1920) “to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian Department.”1

The government asserted this policy through various pieces of legislation, culminating in the Indian Act passed by Parliament in 1876. Still in place today, the Indian Act defines people’s “Indian status” when they are born, and governs an astonishing amount of their lives until administering their estates upon death. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) stated in its 1996 report, the Indian Act charted the policy of assimilation adopted toward indigenous peoples.2

The IRS system lasted more than 100 years, creating a legacy for survivors and their families across most of Canada. Legal structures set up under the Indian Act prevented individuals and communities from seeking redress during most of the period of IRS operation. In addition, the Indian Act banned traditional ceremonies, causing a further loss of culture, language, and knowledge transmission that the schools reinforced.

In its 1996 report, RCAP recommended the repeal of the Indian Act and a restructuring of the relationship between the Canadian government and indigenous peoples: “Only with nationhood can Aboriginal peoples recapture the broad sense of solidarity that predated the relocations and divisions of the Indian Act era.” A succession of federal governments has failed to implement RCAP’s recommendations on this critical point. At the Jan. 24, 2012, First Nations Summit in Ottawa, the prime minister compared the Indian Act to a tree with deep roots, and indicated that the government will retain it.

The recent federal budget revealed that all federal funding would be withdrawn from the following organizations:

  • National Centre for First Nations Governance

  • First Nations Statistical Institute

  • National Aboriginal Health Organization

  • National Council of Welfare

  • The Health Department of the Native Women’s Association of Canada

  • Health programs of the Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada

  • Health programs of the Assembly of First Nations

  • Health programs of the Inuit Tapirisat

In addition, the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Test Case Funding Program for First Nations has been cut without any public announcement. This program was intended to support test cases regarding the interpretation of legislation, treaties, and constitutional instruments affecting indigenous peoples.

Even if some of the funds will be reallocated to other services, the withdrawal of funds from indigenous organizations does not appear to accord with support for reconciliation. On June 11, 2008, the Canadian government gave its long-awaited apology to survivors of the IRS. This should have given the TRC a good start, suggesting as it did that the government – and, by extension, all Canadians – acknowledged the legacy of those schools and supported the TRC’s aim to begin the healing process for the national shame of the residential schools system. However, despite the prime minister’s 2008 apology, the government has chosen to close the above-mentioned organizations, in addition to having already decided not to renew its funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF). The AHF’s creation was one of the only recommendations that the government adopted from a list of more than 400 important and well-grounded recommendations from RCAP. During its operation, the AHF funded hundreds of community-based healing initiatives across Canada. It wound down operations in March 2012.

Meanwhile, the TRC is still underway, and its February 2012 interim report called for increased health supports for indigenous peoples. The health indicators for indigenous people in Canada are an international disgrace: Rates of suicide, disability, infant mortality, traumatic injuries, and chronic and infectious disease are all higher for indigenous people compared with non-indigenous Canadians. Levels of toxins such as mercury and PCBs are higher in indigenous people compared with other Canadians. Life expectancies are lower. Overcrowded houses, lack of running water, and inadequate sewage are the norm in many indigenous communities. Given that the colonization of indigenous peoples is understood to be a fundamental underlying health determinant,3 these negative health indicators are likely to continue unless the structures and legacy of colonization are addressed.

While the TRC is expected to complete its work in 2014, the goal of reconciliation will not be reached in the next couple of years. Unfortunately, the governmental actions described above undermine the words of the apology delivered by the prime minister, and make the TRC’s monumental task that much harder to achieve. Non-indigenous Canadians’ apparent acceptance of these governmental actions signals a fundamental lack of understanding of the residential schools legacy, and a concomitant lack of support for the goal of reconciliation. Alternatively, it could indicate that many Canadians simply did not notice that the cuts occurred. Either way, this does not bode well for the TRC’s prospects in fulfilling its mandate.

Non-indigenous Canadians must become engaged in the reconciliation process. Initially, this means educating themselves about the TRC and the colonial legacy it is intended to address. In the past, the Canadian public largely acquiesced to the actions of the government when thousands of indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. Today, having educated themselves about these serious systemic issues, non-indigenous Canadians should call for the implementation of RCAP’s recommendations and challenge cuts affecting indigenous organizations and programs that work to heal the residential schools legacy. Finally, a broad-based civil-society coalition should be formed to support the TRC’s mandate, and to foster the societal effort required for the reconciliation process to succeed in Canada.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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