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The Canadian Government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008. Its primary purpose is documenting the history and impacts of the Canadian Residential School System. Truth and Reconciliation reveals the long and painful history behind Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.
First Nations in Canada
Before Europeans arrived, First Nations peoples lived on the land we now know as Canada for thousands of years. They hunted for their food and migrated to different areas of land depending on the time of the year. Each group had its own government and traditions and different groups had their own agreements among each other so they could coexist peacefully on the land.
Arrival of European Settlers
When the Europeans arrived, they began trade relations with the First Nations peoples. The First Nations traded their animal furs for all kinds of materials including tools, cloth, and pottery. Relations between the Europeans and First Nations continued to grow and alliances began to form.
Later, these alliances were solidified through the signing of treaties, which were official agreements between Europeans and certain First Nations.
An Unfair Trade
Although the Europeans and First Nations signed the same documents, both sides had very different views on what the treaties actually meant.
The First Nations thought that the treaties were a way to establish and maintain good relationships with the new settlers in their land. They believed that the treaties simply gave the settlers some access to the land for farming.
The Europeans believed that the treaties were a way for them to take away the First Nations peoples’ land so they could begin building railroads and larger settlements.
What is assimilation?
With treaties, the Europeans also hoped to end the First Nations way of life. They wanted the First Nations to assimilate, or live a European lifestyle. The Europeans believed that their way of life was the best and that it was their job to “civilize” the First Nations people. For the First Nations, this meant giving up their religion, customs, beliefs, and everything else that made them different from these new settlers.
One major, and harmful, project to force First Nations peoples into assimilation was the introduction of residential schools.
The education at residential schools was poor. Students were only taught up to a 5th grade level and focused more on labour rather than learning.
Indigenous children were forcibly taken to residential schools at the age of 5. Boys and girls were always separated at residential schools. Siblings were rarely, if ever, allowed to see each other.
In addition to their poor education, the children also had to work at the school. The girls had to clean while the boys were in charge of farming and maintenance. The schools claim this was for practical training, but it was really just because work needed to be done. They essentially used the children for free labour.
By the time the children turned 18 years old, they were sent away from the school with only a 5th grade education.
Rules in residential schools were harsh and unfair. Children were not allowed to speak their native languages or say or do anything related to their culture. If the children broke these rules, they were severely punished. Some students were abused physically, sexually, emotionally, or psychologically.
Physical abuse at residential schools was common. If students were caught speaking in their native languages, they were severely punished, with some even experiencing having needles stuck into their tongues. Some were beaten with straps and belts and others were shackled to their beds.
Some abuse was even more violent than beatings. Students were regularly assaulted, both physically and sexually, and threatened by the school staff or other students.
Not only were the students of residential schools abused on purpose, but they were also neglected. There were more children in the schools than was safe and the properties were not clean enough for healthy living. Underfeeding the children was also common.
As a result of these terrible living conditions, many students died at residential schools. Most families were never even notified of their children’s deaths. If students did not die at a residential school, many of them died shortly after leaving.
The End of Residential Schools
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Canadian government finally realized that First Nations culture was not going away with assimilation. They saw how taking children away from their families was harmful and began allowing them to live with their families while attending school, where possible.
The government also began allowing First Nations children into public schools, which ended the separation between First Nations and Canadian children. Unfortunately, for many First Nations student this transition was hard as they often experienced racism and discrimination.
The last residential school finally closed in 1996; but the damage has been done. Tragically, thousands of lives were destroyed by residential schools.
A Shameful Legacy
Survivors of residential schools, and even children of these survivors, continue to feel the impact of residential schools today. Residential schools began a cycle of abuse in the lives of their victims. Having grown up without families and with abusive adults in their lives, many survivors abused their own children.
To deal with the pain that residential schools caused them, many survivors began abusing substances, which then turned into addictions. Many survivors harm themselves physically to escape memories of the trauma. The suicide rate among residential school survivors is very high.
Bringing First Nations children into public schools was one of the government’s first steps towards reconciliation: an effort to heal all the lives they had broken with the treaties and residential schools.
Both the Anglican Church and the Canadian government admitted their mistakes in the residential school system. Unfortunately, this only happened after residential school survivors began to take to court to sue the system that ruined their lives.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)
It wasn’t until 2007 that the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement began—over 20 years after the closure of the last residential school. This agreement created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) to learn about the impact of residential schools. It is the Commission’s job to educate the Canadian public about the history and experiences of the students and their families.
After listening to the shared experiences of residential school survivors and their families, the TRC wrote a Final Report. The report was released in 2015 to highlight the terrible experiences of these survivors and highlight their strength. The Final Report marked the first time the horrific nature of residential schools was presented, marking an historic occasion and an important step towards reconciliation.
The TRC also released a series of 94 Calls to Action, a series of rallying points for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples to further pursue reconciliation.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF)
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) was created as a support system for survivors of residential schools and anyone else affected by their abuse. They provided resources for healing from the trauma inflicted there.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation closed in 2014, after its operational funding concluded. 12 regional healing centres were established after the foundation closed.
Reconciliation: A Work in Progress
In 2010, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation released a report called Reconciliation: A Work in Progress, which outlines various perspectives on the residential school experience and Canada’s steps towards reconciliation.
As mentioned in the report, reconciliation can only happen if everyone agrees to work for it. While students in Canadian public schools are learning about the history of residential schools, their knowledge is coming from a non-indigenous Canadian perspective. Yes, learning indigenous history is a great step forward, but it should be taught from a First Nations perspective. Learning from those with direct experience would add more accuracy and depth to our understanding of residential schools.
Another major point made in the AHF’s report is that reconciliation is not all about residential schools. Assimilation began before residential schools, when the treaties were first signed and the Europeans took Indigenous land to build on. Reconciliation should also focus on sharing First Nations values and beliefs, and other problems that affect First Nations today.
From Truth to Reconciliation: An Essay Collection
Upon announcement of the Final Report, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation invited several people who have dedicated their lives to promoting justice and reconciliation in Canada and around the world to write an essay about what they would like to tell the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The AHF compiled these essays in a book called From Truth to Reconciliation, which was released in 2008.
The book is broken into four parts: “Truth-Telling”, “The Legacy Lives On”, “Exploring Paths to Reconciliation”, and “Journey of the Spirit”. Each of these essays highlights a unique perspective on the relationship between First Nations people and non-indigenous Canadians, and what reconciliation means to them. Some essays focus on the history and truths of assimilation while others focus on what can be done to move forward with reconciliation. In addition, there are some essays from people around the world about what reconciliation means to them.
The historic relationship between Canada and its First Nations people can be difficult to understand, but this knowledge is incredibly important. Truth and Reconciliation is a good way to begin gathering this knowledge. For newcomers to Canada, one particular quote from Reconciliation: A Work in Progress might stand out: “It may be helpful for people to learn about Canadian history before they are influenced by commonly held misconceptions and negative stereotypes about Aboriginal people.”
As Canadians, no matter what your heritage is, it is important that we learn our true history. Doing so helps our society to rebuild broken relationships. It is not only the job of the government and the First Nations communities affected to work towards reconciliation; it is up to all of us to learn and appreciate the history of all peoples of Canada and truly value the diversity among us.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (2010) Reconciliation: A Healing Process. Retrieved from http://www.reconciliationgroup.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Civil-Engagement-Report-AHF.pdf
Canada’s First Peoples. (2007) Canada’s First Peoples Before Contact. Retrieved from http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com/
The University of British Columbia. (2009) The Residential School System. Retrieved from http://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_residential_school_system/
The Government of Canada. (March 2018) The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved fromhttps://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1450124405592/1450124456123
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation. (2008) From Truth to Reconciliation: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools. Retrieved from