Lessons on nation-building and indigenous relations

Canada’s Truth Commission provides much needed guidance for finding justice and reconciling a country’s many historical narratives.

By: /
11 June, 2015
Attendees of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's take part in a closing ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa June 3, 2015. REUTERS/Blair Gable
Mark Kersten
By: Mark Kersten
Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice and Criminology

The use of Truth Commissions is typically associated with states transitioning out of periods of autocracy or violent political conflict. Commissions like the famous South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission are widely recognized as useful tools of transitional justice and are aimed at moving communities affected by mass atrocities and violence towards peace and democracy.

But not all Truth Commissions are focused on consolidating transitions. Some, like Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are aimed at re-opening and unsettling the past.

As such, the recently released report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have lessons that resonate internationally and, in particular, in those members of the international community, like the United States and Australia, that forged nation-states at the cost of destroying native and indigenous communities. In particular, how can such states move forward by acknowledging and confronting a bitter and violent past?

The statistic are harrowing, the numbers unbecoming of a modern, liberal, and democratic state like Canada. And yet, when Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its long-awaited report last week, many Canadians likely thought: “Wait. We did what? I had no idea.”

The Commission outlined the Canadian government’s 120-year policy of forcibly displacing tens of thousands of Aboriginal children and assimilating them via Residential Schools. Many were subsequently mentally, physically, and sexually abused. Some 6,000 perished. The odds of a child dying in a Residential School were greater than the odds of a Canadian soldier perishing in WWII.

But the Commission’s report also exposes certain dilemmas and opportunities for a country confronting its violent past and reconciling uncomfortable facts with a vision and version of Canada that is widely seen as incommensurable with the systemic abuses perpetrated against Aboriginal communities.

In search of justice

Seeking justice for past crimes exposes a host of dilemmas. Amongst the most salient is how to effectively recognize both the individual and collective nature of the crimes committed. By virtue of the fact that all human life is social life, mass atrocities inevitably include some element of collective or communal violence.

In Canada, this has been recognized by the ongoing debate over whether the treatment of Aboriginals in the Residential School System constitutes “cultural genocide,” a crime which necessitates an appreciation of not only the violence committed against the individual children who were torn apart from their communities but also the consequent and devastating tears in the social fabric of indigenous communities. The current discourse around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings exposes the dual-nature of violations committed by the Canadian state against Aboriginal communities — the violation committed by the seizure and mistreatment of the child via the Residential School System as well as the residual violation incurred by the affected communities.

The complex nature of such crimes also makes them remarkably difficult to address. Beyond issuing reparations to affected individuals and communities, perhaps the most meaningful and long-lasting measure that Canada can take, and one described at length by the Commission, is to re-imagine how Canadians learn of the Residential School System and the wider oppression of Aboriginal communities.

Teaching historical narratives

The observation that Canada’s education system has failed to adequately cover the history and treatment of indigenous peoples is, of course, nothing new.

In response to the Commission’s report, John Ralston Saul echoed what has been vocalized on dozens of occasions:

“We know that the curricula in schools and universities do not reflect the reality of the country. Curricula are always intellectual constructs, often ideological interpretations. Ours, for example, largely exclude the fundamental building block of our society – that is, the indigenous reality, past and present.”

Canadian students have regularly insisted that they don’t learn or engage sufficiently with the historical abuses of aboriginal communities. Courses generally still privilege the successes of Canadian state formation, romanticize the emergence of a country via British-French military battle and political negotiation, elevate our country’s growth as a power punching above its weight in the world wars and the post-WWII era, and celebrate our contributions to global democracy, human rights, and peacekeeping. Canada harnessed the wild and toiled in near-impossible circumstances in order to create a fair, equitable, and democratic state.

At best, the treatment and history of aboriginal peoples dips in and out of this dominant narrative. At worst, the role of indigenous peoples are relegated to the neglected footnotes and margins of this grand story.

Yet the solution to effectively educating students on the treatment of aboriginal peoples in the Residential Schools is not to (re)present it as a dark ‘chapter’ in our past. Indigenous history should not simply be castigated into a separate ‘unit’ in our history courses. Doing so risks presenting the violence and atrocities committed against aboriginals as an aberration, as a mistake, or as something that somehow and simply also happened alongside a growing, liberal and democratic nation. Put another way, it would send the message that nation-building and abuses of aboriginal groups happened rather than demonstrating the crimes were perpetrated because of the form that nation-building in Canada took.

Truly confronting and understanding the abuse of indigenous groups in Canada requires us to appreciate that these atrocities were committed as a logical consequence of 19th and 20th century Canadian state- and nation-building. Rather than simply including Aboriginal history, the Truth Commission represents the latest opportunity to collapse and integrate these two narratives. As the Commission itself noted:

“Nation building has been the main theme of Canada’s history curricula for a long time, and Aboriginal peoples, with a few notable exceptions, have been portrayed as bystanders, if not obstacles, to that enterprise.”

Keeping the story of Canadian nation-building separate from the atrocities committed against Aboriginal peoples is yet another form of violence, yet another medium of alienation, and yet another in a long line of attempts to deny reconciliation.

The Commission’s report should not descend into an exercise of collective self-flagellation. As The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders writes, the cultural genocide of Aboriginal people “may be a source of national shame, but it does not have to define Canada.” As with every state borne of colonial nation-building, our history is both wonderful and violent, emancipatory and oppressive. Being able to recognize and teach it as such is something Canadians could be proud of it. It would, to borrow the words of the Commission’s report, change the “way we talk to, and about, each other.”

It is remarkable and promising that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has and continues to dominate headlines in Canada.

In many, if not most, states, mass atrocities are swept under history’s rug — ironically, often in the name of ‘reconciliation.’ But acknowledging the past is one thing. It is something else altogether to take the steps necessary to ensure that it becomes impossible to deny or forget. That is a truth that all nation states that forged futures at the expense of their native communities would do well to learn.

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