Canadian students should be educated on the impacts of the residential school system, which constituted an “assault” on aboriginal children, their families and their culture, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in its interim report released today (February 24).
TRC Chair Justice Murray Sinclair said the commission has observed a “significant degree of ignorance or lack of knowledge that exists among Canadians” about what happened in residential schools.
“Residential schools have been responsible for a great deal of difficulty, not only in the lives of the survivors, but in the lives of their families, and in the communities that the survivors come from,” said Sinclair at a press conference at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue.
“Residential schools were part of an overall approach to aboriginal people in this country, that has resulted in a great deal of misinformation existing in the minds of the non-aboriginal Canadian public, and as a result, we strongly believe it’s important for there to be a consistent, constant, and significant public education program, informing Canadians about this history, and ensuring that everybody has a basic understanding.”
Among its 20 recommendations, which Sinclair said the commissioners feel “require some urgent action”, the commission called for the development of age-appropriate education materials about residential schools for use in public schools, and public-education campaigns to inform the general public about the history and impacts of residential schools.
Other measures identified in the report include the need for mental health services for survivors, their families, and for communities where survivors reside—services that Sinclair called “sorely lacking”.
The commissioners also recommended that greater publicity be given to the Canadian government’s June 2008 apology to residential school survivors, and that federal, provincial and territorial governments explore the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “as a framework for working towards ongoing reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians”.
The interim report is the result of statements gathered in communities across the country by the three-member commission, which was established out of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to inform Canadians about the legacy of the church-run school system. The commissioners will deliver a final report at the end of their mandate in 2014.
“At this midway point, it gives us something to start with, and it is our great hope that it will serve as part of our legacy as a commission, that never again will Canadians be able to say 'I did not know',” said TRC commissioner Marie Wilson. “That never again will we be able to hide behind our national ignorance, and our societal slumber about something so important.”
More than 150,000 aboriginal students attended residential schools across the country.
The conditions they faced there, according to accounts from former students summarized in the commission’s report, included sexual and physical abuse, the inability to speak their own indigenous language or to see their family members, harsh discipline, a diet of spoiled or rotten food, and a sense of “tremendous loneliness”.
“Children lost their identity as their names were changed—or simply replaced with a number,” the report reads. “The Commission has heard of how students lost their individuality, were forced to wear uniforms, to march in lines, to wash in communal showers—treated, as several former students said, like they were animals in a herd. In the words of countless students, it was a frightening, degrading, and humiliating experience.”
The impacts of residential schools have also “shaped people’s whole life experience”, according to the report.
“The system’s impact does not stop with the survivors; it affects their interactions with their children and grandchildren—the intergenerational survivors,” the commissioners indicated. “The impact of the schools is felt in every Aboriginal community in the country.”
The TRC also released a historical publication today about residential schools, which Sinclair said the commission is hoping can help curriculum developers to form lesson plans and other education materials.
“It is through the educational system that non-aboriginal Canadians have largely been taught what they have come to learn about aboriginal people, or not to learn about aboriginal people…and we believe it’s through the educational system that that information can be corrected,” he said.
Chief Robert Joseph, the executive director of the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society, said he’s pleased with what he called a “starting document”.
“I was really moved that we finally have a document that speaks to the history of residential schools, and the pain and the trauma and loss that survivors have gone through,” he told the Straight. “And I think we can use this document as a building document.”
Joseph said he would like to see the commission place more emphasis on aboriginal languages, and on a definition of what reconciliation means moving forward, which he said “has to be the end result of all this”.
“If it doesn’t happen, none of this really matters,” he said. “We’ve got to have a way to foster and encourage reconciliation, and begin really to redevelop our relationships. That’s what’s key.”
Sinclair called today’s interim report a “snapshot” of the commission’s work to date.
“We challenge Canadians now to begin to think about reconciliation and to ask yourself, what kind of country do you want to leave for your children and your grandchildren,” he said.