Canada: Residential schools a form of ‘cultural genocide,’ says TRC report

By Marites N. Sison
Posted Jun 3, 2015

[Anglican Journal, Ottawa] Addressing what it described as a “cultural genocide” inflicted for over a century on Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on June 2 issued 94 wide-ranging “Calls to Action,” including the creation of a National Council for Reconciliation, a Royal Proclamation and Covenant on Reconciliation and an apology from the Pope for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.

The Calls to Action — with specific directives to parliament, the federal and provincial government, churches, faith groups and all Canadians — would “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation,” said the TRC in its exhaustive, 382-page final report.

Reconciliation is about “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship”  between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada, but “we are not there yet,” said the report released by TRC Commissioners Justice Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild. “By establishing a new and respectful relationship, we restore what must be restored, repair what must be repaired, and return what must be returned.”

During its six-year term, the TRC gathered voluminous residential school documents, received over 6,750 statements (from  former students, their families, Aboriginal communities and former school staff), held seven national events and conducted 238 days of local hearings in 77 communities across Canada. The goal: to document the truth about what happened in the residential schools, which operated from the 1860s to the 1990s, and to educate Canadians about what has been dubbed “Canada’s shame.”

For churches that operated the federally funded schools (Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic), the TRC recommended education strategies “to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families and their communities were necessary.”

The TRC also called on church signatories to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement as well as other faith groups to “formally recognize Indigenous spirituality as a valid form of worship that is equal to their own” in order to address the “spiritual violence” committed in the schools, the effects of which, reverberate to this day in Aboriginal communities.


Churches must also establish permanent funding for Aboriginal “community-controlled”  healing and reconciliation projects, education and relationship-building projects and regional dialogues for Indigenous spiritual leaders and youth to discuss Indigenous spirituality, self-determination and reconciliation, said the TRC.

About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their homes and sent to residential schools as part of the government’s policy of cultural genocide, said the TRC. “The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources,” it noted. “If every Aboriginal person had been ‘absorbed into the body politic,’ there would be no reserves, no Treaties and no Aboriginal rights.”

Cultural genocide, explained the TRC, involves the destruction of political and social institutions of a group, the seizure of their land, the forcible transfer of populations and restriction of their movements, the banning of their language and spiritual practices, the persecution of spiritual leaders and the disruption of families to prevent the transfer of its cultural values and identity to succeeding generations. “In its dealings with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things,” said the TRC.

Saying that reconciliation requires “an awareness of the past, acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes and action to change behavior,” the TRC also called for action on issues around Aboriginal child welfare, education, language and culture, health, justice, equity for Aboriginal people in the legal system, professional development and training for public servants, missing children and burial information, among others.

Canada lost an opportunity for reconciliation in 1996, when the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples’ call for Canadians to begin a national process of reconciliation and for the government to change its relationship with Aboriginal peoples was ignored, said the TRC.

It urged the Harper government and all Canadians to seize the opportunity  for “a rare second chance” at reconciliation, noting that “at stake is Canada’s place as a prosperous, just and inclusive democracy” in the global world.

Although some progress has been made, “significant barriers” to reconciliation remain, said the TRC. “The relationship between the federal government and Aboriginal peoples is deteriorating. Instead of moving towards reconciliation, there have been divisive conflicts over Aboriginal education, child welfare and justice.” It cited issues ranging from the call by Aboriginal groups for a national inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls to the impact of economic development of lands and resources on Treaties and Aboriginal title and rights.

Royal Proclamation and  Covenant of Reconciliation
On behalf of all Canadians, the federal government must jointly develop with Aboriginal peoples a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown, said the TRC. “The proclamation would build on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764, and reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown.”

This proclamation, it added, should repudiate “concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples,” including the Doctrine of Discovery, a principle of charters and acts developed by colonizing Western societies 500 years ago to expropriate Indigenous lands and territories.

All parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement — the federal government, churches (including the Anglican Church of Canada), survivors and the Assembly of First Nations — must also develop and sign a Covenant of Reconciliation, recommended the TRC.

This covenant must reaffirm their commitment to reconciliation, repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and support the renewal or establishment of Treaty relationships “based on principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect and shared responsibility for maintaining those relationships in the future.” (The report noted that some churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, have already repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery.)

Recognize Indigenous spirituality
Reconnecting with their traditional Indigenous spiritual teachings — banned during their time at the schools — has been essential to the healing and reclaiming of identity of some survivors and their families, said the TRC.

However, this hasn’t been possible for many, said the TRC. Spiritual fear, confusion and conflict exist in many Aboriginal communities today as “direct consequences of the violence with which traditional beliefs were stripped away from Indigenous peoples” during the residential schools era, it noted. “Many survivors continue to live in spiritual fear of their own traditions. Such fear is a direct result of the religious beliefs imposed on them by those who ran the residential schools.”

Survivors who have attempted to reclaim spiritual teachings have also been criticized, and sometimes ostracized, by family members who are Christian and by their church, it added. “Survivors and their relatives reported that these tensions led to family breakdown — such is the depth of this spiritual conflict,” said the report. “…This turmoil gives particular urgency to understanding the role of churches in effecting reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”

The TRC nonetheless recognized efforts made by churches, including the Anglican church, which has “developed a vision for a self-governing Indigenous church to coexist within the broader institutional structure of the church,” and appointed Mark MacDonald as its first National Indigenous Bishop.

The TRC also called on leaders of church parties to the agreement and all other faiths to collaborate with Indigenous spiritual leaders, survivors, schools of theology, seminaries and other religious training centers in developing a curriculum for all student clergy, clergy and staff who work in Aboriginal communities that respects Indigenous spirituality. Such a curriculum must teach the history and legacy of residential schools and the roles of the churches, the history and legacy of religious conflict in Aboriginal families and communities, “and the responsibility that churches have to mitigate such conflicts and prevent spiritual violence,” said the TRC.

“That Christians in Canada, in the name of their religion, inflicted serious harms on Aboriginal children, their families and communities was in fundamental contradiction to what they purported to be their core beliefs,” said the TRC. “For the churches to avoid repeating their failures of the past, understanding how and why they perverted Christian doctrine to justify their actions is a critical lesson to be learned from the residential school experience.”

Put words into actions
In asking the Pope to issue an apology “ for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools,” the TRC noted that unlike the three Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church in Canada does not have a single spokesperson with authority to represent its dioceses and religious orders. “The result has been a patchwork of apologies or statements of regret that few survivors or church members may even know exists.” It has been “disappointing” to survivors that the Pope has “not yet made a clear and empathic public apology in Canada” for residential schools abuses, said the TRC.

But apologies given by the government and churches can only go so far, the TRC said, noting that while they may be graciously received, they are “understandably viewed with skepticism” by survivors and their families. “When trust has been so badly broken, it can be restored only over time as survivors observe how the churches interact with them in daily life,” said the TRC. “…Apologies mark only a beginning point on pathways of reconciliation; the proof of their authenticity lies in putting words into action.”

National Council for Reconciliation
The Parliament of Canada must, in consultation and collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, establish a National Council for Reconciliation that will monitor, evaluate and report annually on  “post-apology progress on reconciliation to ensure that government accountability for reconciling the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown is maintained in the coming years,” said the TRC. The federal government must provide multi-year funding for this independent, national oversight body, it added.

The TRC also reiterated a recommendation it made in its 2012 interim report for the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to fully adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.

It also called on church parties to the agreement, and all other faith groups and interfaith social justice groups in Canada who have not already done so, to formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms and standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as framework for reconciliation.

On the matter of missing residential schools children, the TRC called on the federal government to allocate funds that will allow the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Register established by the TRC.

The federal government, churches, Aboriginal communities and former students must also work together to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, “including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children,” it added.

They must also work together “to inform the families of children who died at residential schools of the child’s burial location, and to respond to families’ wishes for appropriate commemoration ceremonies and markers, and reburial in home communities where requested.”

The TRC report also called on the federal government to commit $10 million over seven years to help fund the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, plus additional funds to assist communities in researching and producing histories of their own residential shock experiences and their involvement in truth, healing and reconciliation.