Aboriginal Truths in the Narrative of Canada

Truth and reconciliation are new words in the vocabulary of Canadians speaking about our history and our future in this land. The standard history, which resonates especially with those of European ancestry, is a grand narrative of pioneers and waves of immigrants birthing a peaceable nation from a vast, untamed landscape. The Aboriginal peoples of Canada—First Nations, Inuit, and Métis—tell different stories, of ancient origins preserved in legends, of migrations that spanned the continent, of trading networks and treaty making and sporadic conflicts to establish boundaries between nations, of prophecies that foretold how their lives would be changed by newcomers to their lands.

Different experiences generate different perspectives on truth. Parallel histories and the world views they support can live comfortably side by side until they intrude on one another and require negotiation of a common understanding. Thomas Berger’s 1977 book Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland vividly conveyed the modern necessity of communicating and negotiating different perspectives on the land. Tense relations and confrontations between original peoples and newcomers have periodically erupted over land since early contact and have led to the issuing and signing of historic documents seeking conciliation of differences. Among these are the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which is now imbedded in the Constitution Act of 1982 and numerous treaties of peace and friendship, which have been given modern force and effect by Supreme Court decisions. “The land question” continues to be the focus of challenge, litigation, and demonstrations across Canada.

Assertion of Aboriginal title is about occupancy of traditional territories and benefit from the resources that support life, but it also refutes the doctrine of terra nullius, the claim that North America on discovery by Europeans was empty land, open to occupation and cultivation by civilized peoples without regard to the people already there. Aboriginal peoples were seen to be in a state of nature, possessing neither government nor property. The philosophies that underlay colonization of lands and colonial authority over peoples rationalized the belief that the lands would be better used, that is, more productive, under a system of private property, and the native people would be better off brought into the circle of civilized conditions.1

Aggressive civilization to accomplish colonial goals was thought to be futile in the case of adults. Residential schooling was the policy of choice to reshape the identity and consciousness of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children. The persistence of colonial notions of superiority is evidenced in the fact that residential schooling that punished the expression of Aboriginal languages, spirituality, and life ways and attempted to instill a Euro-Canadian identity in Aboriginal children, continued from 1831 into the 1970s.

The devastating effects of this program of social engineering were brought into public view in the hearings, research, and Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). In calling for a more extensive public inquiry into residential schools the Commission wrote:

No segment of our research aroused more outrage and shame than the story of the residential schools. Certainly there were hundreds of children who survived and scores who benefitted from the education they received. And there were teachers and administrators who gave years of their lives to what they believed was a noble experiment. But the incredible damage—loss of life, denigration of culture, destruction of self-respect and self-esteem, rupture of families, impact of these traumas on succeeding generations, and the enormity of the cultural triumphalism that lay behind the enterprise—will deeply disturb anyone who allows this story to seep into their consciousness and recognizes that these policies and deeds were perpetrated by Canadians no better or worse intentioned, no better or worse educated than we are today. This episode reveals what has been demonstrated repeatedly in the subsequent events of this century: the capacity of powerful but grievously false premises to take over public institutions and render them powerless to mount effective resistance. It is also evidence of the capacity of democratic populations to tolerate moral enormities in their midst.2

The RCAP recommendation in 1996 for a public inquiry to examine the origins, purposes, and effects of residential school policies, to identify abuses, to recommend remedial measures, and to begin the process of healing3 has taken over a decade to come to realization. A start was made with the federal government’s Statement of Reconciliation in 19984 including an apology for physical and sexual abuse in the schools and the establishment of a fund to support community healing. In the interim, the tide of litigation alleging emotional and cultural as well as physical and sexual abuse swelled to include thirteen thousand residential school Survivors. Court processes and decisions were proving costly to Survivors, churches, and government; the human and financial costs foreseen if litigation were to run its course were insupportable. Several of the churches involved in operating the schools were put under duress financially as a result of compensation orders, but nevertheless made frank and full apologies. The Assembly of First Nations pursued diligent advocacy and mounted international research to bolster the argument that redress for Survivors as a whole, including compensation, was just and practicable.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement5 is a court-ordered settlement endorsed by Survivors’ legal representatives, churches, and the federal government in 2006 and implemented as of September 2007. The Settlement Agreement provided for a cash payment to Survivors living in 2005 or their estates if deceased, as well as providing an individual assessment process for adjudication of cases of more serious abuse, the creation of memorials, a five-year extension of funding for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to support community healing initiatives, and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a five-year mandate consistent with many of the recommendations of RCAP.6

The truth-seeking component of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission mandate acknowledges the wrong that was done in suppressing the history, culture, and identity of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples through the enforced removal and re-socialization of their children. The healing that is envisaged through a public process of truth-telling touches families, communities, and nations as well as individuals. For Aboriginal peoples, the promise of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that their truths, as they relate to this tragic chapter of history, will now have a place in the official story of Canada that is accessible to successive generations of Canadians.

Perspectives on Reconciliation

Reconciliation—restoring good will in relations that have been disrupted—is the second component of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate. Some would say that the original work of conciliation, bringing to agreement parties who have differing interests, has never occurred. Others point out that there are countless examples, historically and in the present, of harmonious, mutually beneficial relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal individuals and local communities. The breakdown of trust and respect is most grievous when group interests are at stake, around treaty obligations or harvesting rights, for example, or when institutions exercise power over Aboriginal lives, such as in residential school policy or application of the Indian Act.

The overarching theme of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was renewing the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The scope and complexity of that undertaking was addressed in RCAP’s five-volume report to which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been directed as a resource on which to build. While the current work of reconciliation will focus specifically on the context and impacts of residential schools, testimony invited before the Commission and exploration of the history, purpose, and consequences of the schools will inevitably extend into broad systemic issues.7 The advice of the Indian Residential School Survivor Committee and the experience of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, particularly its Final Report (2006), will be especially useful in maintaining focus on the residential school experience and its Legacy.

In the course of its work over the past decade, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) has encountered many gifted individuals whose lives and work have been dedicated to promoting justice and reconciliation in individual, community, and societal relationships here in Canada and abroad. Moved by the inspiration of the late Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, Director of Research, the AHF invited a cross-section of such persons to consider and submit for publication what they would wish to convey to commissioners newly appointed to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We also initiated conversations with AHF Board members and Aboriginal youth, whose reflections in brief are presented throughout this book.

Each paper is introduced with a brief biography of the author and a summary of themes addressed. The editorial group has tried to respect the intent and language of the submissions received, editing for clarity with a light hand. We hope that the diversity of voices and perspectives represented here will prove stimulating and informative, not only to the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners, but to a broader audience as well.

The collection is organized in four sections. Readers are invited to follow a path that leads from truth-telling through the territory where the ongoing legacy of residential schools and colonialism is laid bare, as background to the next stage: exploring formal actions and informal developments, in Canada and abroad, in pursuit of justice and reconciliation. The fourth section of the book acknowledges the perspective that the personal and collective transformation at the heart of reconciliation is often experienced and understood as spiritual renewal that carries with it an ethical obligation to take concrete action.

Section 1: Truth-Telling has a strong historical component. Fred Kelly brings together the perspectives of a boy in residential school trying to make sense of contradictory experiences, an adult political leader and participant in policy deliberations, and an Elder embracing his traditional spirituality and the possibility of reconciliation with those who inflicted harm on children and on peoples. Brian Rice and Anna Snyder elaborate on the history of the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and evolving Canadian society. They provide an overview of the role of truth and reconciliation commissions and the particular challenges of restoring relationship in a post-colonial settler society.

Tricia Logan shares her learning as a young Métis person searching out evidence of Métis experience in prairie residential schools in the face of institutional indifference and inconsistent record-keeping. Her paper provides glimpses of the distinct experience of Métis students and the way in which their treatment in the residential school system mirrored their treatment in the larger society. John Amagoalik writes passionately about Inuit efforts to speak their truths to a dominant society that persists in affirming a different reality. He argues that conciliation has to come before reconciliation.

In the final paper in this section, Stan McKay writes from the vantage point of a residential school Survivor and a church leader who has spent much of his life trying to build bridges between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies. He points to the fundamental social change that is required to support reconciliation, and he proposes that a new understanding of treaties, as covenants that bind Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples together in mutual responsibility, may be the avenue for creating a shared future.

Section 2: The Legacy Lives On, adopts a different tone, revealing how injuries suffered in the past are replicated in contemporary circumstances. Beverley Jacobs and Andrea Williams report on the initiative of the Native Women’s Association of Canada to bring attention to hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. Research in the Sisters in Spirit project connects the victimization of Aboriginal women to policies that marginalized and undermined the role of women, making them vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Family disruption as a result of residential schools has contributed to severe risks to women’s safety, risks that are compounded by unresponsiveness amounting to scandalous neglect by police and community institutions.

Rupert Ross, a long-serving Assistant Crown Attorney in northwestern Ontario, paints a disturbing picture of the secrets surrounding student victims of abuse who became abusers, of family members traumatized by the lengthy removal of their children who do violence to returnees, and of the emergence in some communities of a generation of damaged children who have never been exposed to models of empathetic, pro-social family relationships. Ross points with cautious optimism to the restorative impacts of community healing initiatives based on traditional values.

Cindy Blackstock marshals evidence of the high rates at which First Nations children are being separated from their families, so that the number of children currently in alternative care exceeds the number in residential schools at their peak. She argues forcefully for reorientation of child welfare approaches, supported by adequate funding, to ensure that “saying sorry” will not have to be repeated in the next generation.

A moving reflection on resilience by Madeleine Dion Stout is like a splash of colour on a dark canvas. Madeleine shares moments and images that nourished her spirit as a child in residential school and continue to work transformation in her as an adult and a grandmother.

Section 3: Exploring Paths to Reconciliation presents conceptual analyses and case examples of reconciliation initiatives internationally and in Canada. Jennifer Llewellyn draws on her experience with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and United Nations consultative groups to set out principles of restorative justice and their application to bridging the gap between truth and reconciliation. Robert Joseph, a Maori professor, elaborates a similar concept of conciliatory justice and presents an insightful analysis of the many forms of denial that impede the acknowledgement of harms and mute the moral demands of reconciliation in democratic societies. His case study of reconciliatory justice processes surrounding a land claim in New Zealand draws on research with his own tribal group. Brad Morse provides a thought-provoking examination of the role of authentic apology in reconciling historical wrongs. He cites Canada’s approach to reparations involving Japanese, Chinese, and other segments of Canadian society and makes the case that apology may decrease rather than increase the risk of liability, contrary to conventional legal opinion.

John Bond brings Australian experience to the collection, describing the popular reaction of Australian citizens to the report Bringing Them Home, which documented the removal of mixed heritage Aboriginal children from their families for placement in institutions and foster homes. While lauding the work of the National Sorry Day Committee in pressing the government for action on reconciliation, Bond argues that improvement of basic human services and closing the gap in life expectancy is a necessary follow-up to apology. Debra Hocking is one of the Stolen Generation in Australia who was cut off from her family and suffered abuse in foster care. Her paper documents her struggle against bureaucracy to restore connection to her family and her identity and Elders who taught her compassion. Debra has become a leader and spokesperson for human rights and Indigenous reconciliation, an honouree of the United Nations and her home state of Tasmania.

Section 4: Journey of the Spirit begins to chart a course from personal reconciliation with a painful past to action to heal the alienation between Aboriginal people and Canadian society. Garnet Angeconeb, an Anishinaabe, was one of the first Survivors who broke silence to disclose sexual abuse in residential school. In interviews with Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Garnet retraces his journey from early years, through separation, suppression of memory and feeling, disclosure, and finally coming to forgiveness. He modestly omits to mention that in the course of his journey he became a journalist and manager of a media network serving a vast region of northwestern Ontario, a husband and father, a warrior of reconciliation, and a stalwart member of the Board of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

David Joanasie is an Inuk youth who reflects on his good fortune at having been reared with appreciation for his culture and fluency in his language. His view is that financial payouts have a limited effect in healing and reconciliation. He proposes that part of the compensation be directed to a community trust to support wellness, scholarships, and conservation of language and culture. Bill Mussell, a Sto:lo educator and mental health advocate, reflects on how cultural grounding in a strong family serves to protect individuals from the impacts of destabilizing influences from the surrounding society. He provides an example of how a decolonized model of adult education can deflect the damage inflicted by the residential school system. Bill emphasizes that respect for Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing fostered in elementary and secondary curricula is a necessary building block for reconciliation.

David MacDonald is a long-term participant in dialogue within the United Church and with the Aboriginal community. He sees that the years of alienation and oppression resulting from Indian residential schools require a concrete response, and he issues a call to the churches to assume leadership in effecting change. David puts forward a dazzling list of ideas for collaborative action to bring people together, break down stereotypes, and repair the breach that divides us. Maggie Hodgson, another Survivor, has been in the forefront of healing and cultural renewal for a quarter of a century. She cites the undermining and banning of ceremony as a principal cause of current demoralization. Her call to action is directed pointedly to her First Nation peers to reclaim their ceremonies and their responsibility for ethical choices, quoting an Elder’s maxim: “It’s up to you.”

The final article in this section is by Marlene Brant Castellano, a member of the editorial team. Marlene draws on research of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) and the 2006 Final Report of the AHF’s first mandate to articulate a holistic approach to reconciliation. With graphics to highlight key concepts, Marlene draws parallels between processes of healing at individual and community levels and the stages of acknowledgement, redress, and healing that prepare us for reconciliation. She proposes that the transformation to a state of wholeness and agency, in the case of reconciliation, is made possible by asking and offering forgiveness in a climate of safety and an attitude of mutual trust.

The Conclusion by the editorial team, without attempting to summarize the wealth of experience and diversity of insights offered to illuminate the meanings of reconciliation and the possibilities of achieving it, considers the imperatives for action that emerge from the preceding articles.

  1. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Volume 1: Looking Forward, Looking Back. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.
  2. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996:601–602).
  3. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996:385).
  4. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (1998). Statement of Reconciliation. Retrieved 23 January 2008 from: http://www.ainc-inac.ca/gs/rec_e.html
  5. Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada (2006). Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Retrieved 23 January 2008 from: http://www.irsr-rqpi.gc.ca/english/pdf/Indian_Residential_Schools_Settlement_Agreement.PDF
  6. Schedule “N” of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Mandate for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is attached as Appendix 1.
  7. See Schedule “N” Sections 4(a) and 7.