Healing Canada: Truth and Reconciliation

Alexandria Mitchell

BC Government

BC Government

Many years ago I sat at an inclusive leadership gathering in Cowichan, listening in to a conversation between two other participants. They were discussing the legacy of residential schools in depth, analyzing the recent work of one Vancouver-based writer who had just released a new volume on the tragedy. I, however, had no idea what they were talking about. “Residential Schools… are those boarding schools or something?” I asked awkwardly. A teen at the time, I had lived in British Columbia my entire life and had never heard of ‘residential schools’. Both of my friends looked over at me and explained a brief outline of Indian Residential Schools. Without bias they said that the Indian Residential Schools were started by the Canadian Government and churches across the country in which native children were forced to go to school, and where many of them died or experienced trauma from how they were treated there. I was completely shocked that this story had never been told to me before. They wrote me a list of a number of books I could read to find out more, and when I did a sense of anger, guilt, and confusion swelled inside me. Over 150,000 children from the 1870s -1990s were forced to attend these schools, barred from speaking their native language, fed poorly, sexually abused, and even killed. I was appalled that for the almost ten years I was enrolled in the British Columbian education system, this topic had never been broached. The more I read, the more I came to believe that it was a wrong to keep this history unspoken and hidden.

BC Government

BC Government

“The path to reconciliation will happen through the telling of truth. Only then can we truly see” said Grand Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations on the September 18th Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national event. Hearing representative native elders give their testimonials in addition to welcoming people to their land was one of the most vivid memories I have of the event. I felt myself being woven into the history of Canada and the oral history of British Columbia’s indigenous people by being present at the ceremony to bear witness to the testimonials and the commitment to moving forward. There was an energy there at the TRC, one of which was heavy with the burdens of the past, but also held a sense of hope for the future – that non-aboriginal Canadians might begin to understand the terrors of the IRS and that its survivors may have the opportunity to heal.

Since the Royal Commission of 1996, Canada has begun to delve further into its history to recognize the treatment of First Nations since the initial settlers began to explore the land. Given the marked absence of the IRS from most Canadian educational curriculum, it is no wonder that Canadian’s collective memory of this history is often lacking. The process of ‘collective forgetting’ of the most difficult aspects of our nation’s past create a false understanding of Canada’s roots and its people. If we fail to recognize the harsh realities of our past actions, how can we guarantee a future free of those mistakes? Chief Atleo explained at the TRC how the Indian Residential Schools left generations of children without a sense of identity, confused between the world of the colonists, which they could never quite be a part of, and the world of their family and culture which was being stripped away from them. This liminality of existence separates people from who they are and and understanding of their identity. I can recall that even after Prime Minister Harper made an official apology for the Residential Schools in parliament June 2008, the process of shedding light on the true history of IRS still came with many barriers. Beyond 1 million pieces of documentation and evidence were required for the class action law suit filed against the Canadian Government which led to the settlement of which the TRC was a part of (1). Ry Morgan of the National Research Centre stated back in December 2012, “One thing that is relatively consistent is that there are still not firm estimates of the number of documents out there” (2). Until the Ontario Superior Court of Ontario ruled that the federal government must disclose all documents to the TRC on Indian Residential Schools, the act of allowing the complete truth of the IRS to come to light was still stifled.

Paulette Regan a commissioner with the TRC has stated that one of the main goals is to educate non indigenous Canadians about the effects of residential schools (Blyth 295). In her writing she addressed the concept of ‘unsettling the settler within’ to allow aboriginals to begin to ‘re-story’ their past (3). Her claim supposes that the years of colonization in Canada have created this confused identity for aboriginals, the Indian Residential Schools being one of the most significant manifestations of trying to mainstream people to become similar to the settlers. By ‘killing the Indian in the child’ the schools could inject them with Christianity, English, and educational training that would make them more like the colonists. The TRC seems to allow people to re-story their past through the freedom for survivors to give their own oral testimonials, and participate in ceremonies and songs.

BC Government

BC Government

Given that, “The consequences of past and current transgressions may not be completely independent, as historical intergroup offences may influence reactions to contemporary discrimination” (4) the importance of recognizing past errors to move forward is heightened. In this way, children whose parents were survivors of the Indian Residential Schools perceive a greater amount of discrimination today as a result of knowledge of their parent’s experiences (5). This is why the process of reconciliation is vital. Even those who were not directly survivors of the IRS are affected by its legacy. The programme has reached far into the minds and hearts of the children and grandchildren of those who were taken away, and defines the relationship that these indigenous people have with Canadians and the state. “The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologizing for the Indian Residential School system (6). Whether Prime Minister Harper’s official apology had any major impact on those who were affected, it might help to set the basis for an improved relationship in the future.

A key theme of the TRC event was the recognition that the blame for the IRS was to be placed on the Canadian state and on the communities of churches which ran the schools, not on the victims. While this may seem obvious, the thousands of children that were affected lived with an understanding that it was wrong to be an Indian and that every cultural practice they had learned from their families was immoral.

Dr. Bernice King spoke to over 70,000 people who participated in a reconciliation walk on September 22nd stating, “This requires leadership action on all fronts in Canada, from political and government, corporate, faith, educational and community leadership, because, as I said, we are all in this together. We are tied in an inescapable network of mutuality, caught in a single garment of destiny and what affects one person here in Canada — no matter their background — directly affects all indirectly.” Dr. King exposed how vital it is for all of us to understand the IRS, because the history is a shared history. It’s a history that was hard to stomach for too many people for too many years such that it was never given the opportunity to be heard in the way the victims should have been. Chief Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair stated, “This is not an aboriginal problem but a problem for all of Canada. All of Canada has been damaged by this.” In this way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission becomes an endeavour to heal not only the victims, survivors, and their families, but Canada itself.

Photo:  Zack Embree

Photo: Zack Embree

The foundation on which the Canadian identity has been built on, the very way that we view ourselves and our collective past has been based on a history so removed from the truth of the colonial past. Our identity is rooted in a conception of self that values peacekeeping, politeness, respect for others, a vision of multiculturalism, and a culture of acceptance. By allowing the truth of the Indian Residential Schools to come to light, that conception is undermined in order for us to better understand and heal ourselves. The acceptance of the truth will allow everyone living in this country, aboriginal or not to carve out a new identity. This process is ever more important when considering that this programme of reconciliation can only be effective if there is a guarantee that the oppression and discrimination of the past is truly over (7). The presence of government leaders, leaders of the church, and the support of the general Canadian populace as present of September 18th may be a step towards assuring indigenous peoples the reassurance that the horrors of the past will stay in the past. We have seen popular mobilizations of Indigenous people supported by other Canadians through Idle No More and other actions over the last year. Yet, when there are issues as diverse as less funding per student for children on reserves than children in the mainstream education system, Canada’s refusal to sign the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ignore treaties, and allow people living on reserves to suffer third world lifestyle conditions, the question arises as to whether the relationship between Canada and First Nations is structurally moving in a cooperative direction.

The TRC’s hope to create a space for reconciliation can only happen when Canada and First Nations are able to define a just, and respectful new relationship.

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Angel, Naomi. “Before Truth: The Labors Of Testimony And The Canadian Truth And Reconciliation Commission.” Culture, Theory & Critique 53.2 (2012): 199-214.

BLYTH, MOLLY. “Unsettling The Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, And Reconciliation In Canada.” Labour / Le Travail 70.(2012): 294-296.

Bombay, Amy, Kimberly Matheson, and Hymie Anisman. “Expectations Among Aboriginal Peoples In Canada Regarding The Potential Impacts Of A Government Apology.” Political Psychology 34.3 (2013): 443-460

Narine, Shari. “TRC, Feds In Court Over Millions Of Residential School Docs.” Windspeaker 30.11 (2013): 18

Parliament of Canada. Statement of Apology. House of Commons, Stephen Harper. 11 June 2008.

Truth and Reconciliation National Event. Vancouver. 18 September 2013.


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