Preliminary response to Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Canada was founded upon a grave injustice: the appalling mistreatment of North American indigenous populations by European settlers, including countless acts of physical and cultural violence.

Days ago, the The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released their final report. One part, on page 20 of the summary, seems especially important:

Together, Canadians must do more than just talk about reconciliation; we must learn how to practise reconciliation in our everyday lives — within ourselves and our families, and in our communities, governments, places of worship, schools, and workplaces.

The argument that we bear no moral responsibility for the choices of our ancestors, and that we have no responsibility for systemic patterns of oppression that still exist, is logically and ethically weak. Similarly, the argument that colonization happened so long ago that no recourse is possible or necessary today ultimately perpetuates structures of injustice.

Conversely, the idea that we can to some extent make a sincere and meaningful effort to atone for past and present failings has great appeal. Having dispossessed sophisticated societies of almost all their land and spent decades treating aboriginal people with either cynical viscousness or inhuman contempt, it’s shocking and wrong that a rich state like Canada tolerates the conditions under which too many indigenous people live. There’s no non-aboriginal Canadian community where the question of whether they get drinkable water depends on whether the municipal, provincial, or territorial government is fond of the local mayor, but many aboriginal communities today function under conditions that would spur immediate attention and action for non-aboriginals.

As the first step toward reconciliation, this has to end. Scholars like Taiaiake Alfred are right to question the basic legal and moral validity of the Canadian state, built as it was upon imperialism and conquest. As Alfred explains in Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (2008):

All land claims in Canada, including those at issue in the BC treaty process, arise from the mistaken premise that Canada owns the land it is situated on. In fact, where indigenous people have not surrendered ownership, legal title to “Crown” land does not exist — it is a fiction of Canadian (colonial) law. To assert the validity of Crown title to land that the indigenous population has not surrendered by treaty is to accept the racist assumptions of earlier centuries.

Canada’s aboriginal peoples would probably be justified in pointing to centuries of mistreatment and treaty violations as just cause for settlers to be expelled. But, based on my limited knowledge and experience, that’s not what anyone is asking for. Most indigenous Canadians who I have met want the spirit of the treaties honoured: to share the land, and to live in peace and friendship.

I am acutely aware of how unqualified I am to discuss these matters. In my defence, I am working to develop a base of knowledge for my academic work. In addition to Peter Russell’s Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism, I am currently reading Dwight Newman’s The Duty to Consult: New Relationships with Aboriginal Peoples and the Kino-nda-niimi Collective’s impressive and inspiring volume The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “Preliminary response to Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission”

  1. This obviously isn’t a directly comparable circumstance, but I think this cartoon effectively undermines the argument that the racist actions of those in the past have no ethical relevance today:


  2. Truth and Reconciliation: Not an aboriginal problem, a Canadian one

    “My belief and hope is that Canadians are starting to get it. I’m hopeful that through these events that people are starting to open their eyes. That really the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples has to change. Because there has been a lot of suffering.”
    – Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde

    That’s just one of the many hopes Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde has for the report being released today by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

    The report was 6 years, $60-million-dollars. and more than 6000 personal stories from former residential school students in the making. It is the result of the largest class action in Canadian history and many people are hoping that by opening up a national dialogue about the wounds inflicted by residential schools … it will also make history.

  3. Justice Murray Sinclair: TRC report, second chance at equal relationship

    More than six thousand aboriginal people shared their stories over the past six years, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, traveled the country, meeting with those whose lives were affected by residential schools.

    Yesterday the TRC released its summary report, and while the commission’s job may be done, many say the real work is just getting started.

    There are 94 policy recommendations in the report… touching on education, justice and health.

    There is a call for an inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women.

    And much, much more.

    Through its nearly 400 pages, it chronicles a litany of racism, rape, assault and death… describing this long episode in our country’s life as cultural genocide.

    Justice Murray Sinclair, Manitoba’s first aboriginal judge, is the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was in our Ottawa studio.

  4. It is important to let the truth to be known as so many people in our society continue to see the aboriginal people as responsible for the unequal status they hold in our societies. I am a big believer that we must make amends as we have a lot to learn from the way that native people treated the earth. Their vision of community was also superior to ours in many ways.

  5. “Conversely, the idea that we can to some extent make a sincere and meaningful effort to atone for past and present failings has great appeal. ”

    What I find is that, for many folks, the idea that we can not make meaningful, sincere amends to atone for the past, and that “the past must remain the past” seems to have great appeal. Obviously there is an interest at play here – if we can’t do anything, we needn’t do anything. Ditto for the logic that says “I’m not a settler because I was born here”. The challenge when speaking to folks like this, I find, is the need to propose the specific amends in a way that links directly to the past and ongoing crimes and discrimination.

    Another difficulty is the issue that amends made towards first nations communities are primarily directed towards communities rather than individuals. For Canadians who might not feel much belonging to the community they live in, the idea that they might have some moral or legal obligation towards a community, that a community might have some collective positive rights based on past injustice, is difficult to swallow. This is, of course, the ongoing “common sense” belief in assimilation (if you don’t live in a community why should anyone else? And how does not living in a specific community constitute “assimilation?” To you and me the answer might be obvious, but to someone who doesn’t see the particularity of social atomization this is more difficult).

  6. Canadians routinely recognize that the public services and standards of living in other Canadian communities are a source of moral obligations. That’s the normative basis for equalization payments between provinces: the idea that all Canadians should experience comparable public services.

    To me it seems that bringing the standard of public services in aboriginal communities up to the standards experienced elsewhere is a necessary undertaking, and one which ought not to be terribly controversial.

    Compensation to individuals, while potentially justified, doesn’t have the same sort of precedents in Canadian politics.

  7. The facts were laid out in a clear no-nonsense report using the United Nations definition of genocide to which Canada is a signatory:

    In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

    (a) Killing members of the group;
    (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
    (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
    (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
    (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

    Most specifically under section E, Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group, can there be any doubt whatsoever about forcibly removing more than 150,000 indigenous children from their families, driving them into residential schools where they were stripped of their identities, improperly fed, sexually and physically abused and where more than 6,000 died?

    And tragically there is more. According to the seminal book by Professor James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains, Sir John A. Macdonald’s policies in building our national railway led to purposely starving the Plains Indians into submission, forcing them from their lands resulting in thousands of deaths. There are Ian Mosby’s startling findings of nutrition experiments foisted unknowingly on residential school children. There is a report by Dr. Peter Bryce, Canada’s first medical health officer in 1907, demonstrating that former Ministry of Indian Affairs Residential School Supervisor, Duncan Campbell Scott, knowingly allowed thousands of indigenous children to die of tuberculosis.

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