Peter Harrison

In the late summer of 2007, the conversation among a group of senior federal officials turned to the question of immigration. The discussion was wide-ranging and covered both the challenges and the opportunities that Canada, as a country dependent on immigration, continues to face. At one point, a comparison was made between Canada’s experience and that of European countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other members of the European Union. The question was raised as to why the integration of immigrant populations into Canadian society has seemingly been more successful than elsewhere. One hypothesis raised was that, unlike many European nations, Canada has never been a colonial power. The argument was that since Canada has never had overseas dependencies—such as the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria, or the British in Hong Kong or India—entitlements to residence in the colonizing jurisdiction had not been created. Furthermore, it was also argued that some of the current tensions in European societies may well be an ongoing result of previous colonial policies and attitudes.

As a participant in this conversation, I must admit to taking great exception to the statement that Canada has never been a colonial power, whatever the comparison with experience elsewhere. While Canada has not extended its hegemony to other lands and continents, national objectives have historically been heavy with domestic colonial policies and attitudes regarding First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. And, as I noted at the time, this is nowhere more evident than in the legacy of the residential school system and the impact these schools have had on individuals, families, and communities and will have on future generations. Taking children away from their families and communities, often forcibly, and attempting to eradicate all vestiges of their language, culture, and spirituality in order to assimilate them into mainstream society can only be described as a colonial objective. Add to this the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse that many of these children were subjected to in institutions that should have had the duty to protect them, and the only conclusion to be reached is that Canada, despite its virtues, has been as much a colonizer of its own people as other countries have been in their overseas dependencies.

What this and other conversations have convinced me of is the enormous challenge of educating the Canadian public about this dark chapter of our history so that informed debate can take place and reconciliation can begin. This is the challenge of coping with ignorance, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will face at the beginning of and throughout its mandate. At the time of the conversation noted above, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement,1. Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Retrieved 7 October 2008 from:] which had been negotiated and accepted by the national Aboriginal organizations, the churches that ran the schools, and the Government of Canada, had also received approval from the courts in the nine jurisdictions where the schools had been located. The future fate of the Settlement Agreement, which is the largest out-of-court settlement of a class action in Canadian history, was at that point still in the hands of the residential school Survivors. As members of the class action, they could accept the Settlement Agreement as a whole or opt out and pursue their own legal remedies. If more than 5,000 of the estimated 86,000 Survivors had opted out, then the Settlement Agreement would have become void. In any event, fewer than 400 Survivors opted out, and the court-monitored Settlement Agreement came into effect on 19 September 2007, at which time began its five-year life.

Much has happened in the intervening year. The common experience payment has been paid out to over 61,473 claimants as at 31 March 2008 (for a total of over $1.19 billion), and the process of reconsideration of disputed claims is under way.2 The independent assessment process for assessing and compensating individual cases of abuse has been put in place, and adjudication hearings have begun. An additional endowment ($125 million) has been provided to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been created. In addition, the business of the House of Commons was suspended for the day on 11 June 2008, and the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, apologized to the Survivors of residential schools and asked for their forgiveness.3 Many Survivors were present in the chamber while national Aboriginal leaders addressed Members of Parliament and the whole country from the floor of the House of Commons, and countless others watched the proceedings in communities and at gatherings across Canada and around the world.

While much has happened, much more remains to be done. As many Aboriginal leaders and residential school Survivors have pointed out, the payments under the Settlement Agreement are important in the process of healing and reconciliation, but they are by no means sufficient by themselves. The increased public awareness occasioned by the Apology was welcomed and timely, but it needs to be nurtured and built upon. And so there are great expectations that the TRC—the jewel in the crown of the Settlement Agreement—will be able to achieve its objectives in a lasting way.

Toward Reconciliation

There are many layers to the goal of reconciliation with many different players involved: individual Survivors struggle to reconcile their residential school experience with its ongoing impact on their lives; spouses and family members are on journeys of understanding and healing; whole communities are trying to cope with social issues resulting from the abuse suffered in the residential schools; and reconciliation with the institutions responsible for the schools—the churches and the government—is an ongoing challenge with its own set of dynamics. But what of the Canadian public—civil society—as a whole? How can they be informed about the legacy of residential schools? Is reconciliation possible without a clear understanding of the role and impact of these institutions? Judging by the conversation outlined above (and I have had many others like it), even informed professionals are unaware of the enormity of the residential school phenomenon. So how much more difficult will it be to engage a public that has even less knowledge and, in some cases, less interest? The education of the Canadian public is thus one of the key objectives of the TRC, and this will be a mammoth task.

When first faced with the facts of residential schools many people are incredulous, and their disbelief leads to a plethora of questions, such as: How could this have happened in a society that sees itself as caring and tolerant? This quickly evolves into a deeper understanding of the situations still faced by many Aboriginal people in Canada, their families, and their communities. This often turns to outrage and the desire for further action. This empathy can be a wellspring of support for the TRC and its work and could strengthen the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada if tapped into effectively. It would be a great gift to Canada if the story of suffering and despair endured in residential schools gives rise to greater understanding and leads to positive partnerships with Aboriginal peoples.

Facing the Sceptics

There are sceptics and those who simply dismiss the residential schools issue as being of little consequence. The TRC will undoubtedly hear from such individuals. Indeed, if the TRC is to rewrite this dark chapter in Canadian history, it should hear such views; there would be merit in seeking these individuals out so that myth can be replaced with fact and ignorance thereby dispelled. I have heard many sceptical comments in the conversations referred to above. What are some of these? How can these be countered? The remainder of this article will deal with some of the more egregious ones. It is only to be hoped that these comments arise because of a lack of knowledge, information, and understanding by the commentator. If so, then the TRC is well placed to face them head-on and to correct the record in a definitive way.

Dispelling the Ignorance of Typical Comments

This happened long ago, so why bring it up now?

Those few who are aware that residential schools had existed at all often have the perception that they were a phenomenon only of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It comes as a complete surprise to them that even though many schools closed in the 1960s and 1970s, the last school (Gordon Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan) did not close until 1996. (In fact, the youngest recipient of the common experience payment was only 17 years old and present on the floor of the House of Commons for the Prime Minister’s apology.) This misperception is an impediment to fruitful dialogue because it is easier to dismiss something that happened in the past than to face the fact that over 80,000 former students are still alive, even though their number is continually declining as older Survivors die. Perhaps as individual stories begin to emerge from the activities of the TRC, and as the tremendously powerful work of organizations such as the Legacy of Hope Foundation become known, civil society will realize that Indian residential schools are as much a part of recent history as they are of the distant past.

The churches were only doing what the government asked them to do …

The residential schools were sponsored and funded by the Government of Canada and were operated by the mainline churches (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and United). A total of 132 of these schools4 are recognized pursuant to the Settlement Agreement (this number could increase as appeals of the schools listed are considered). As the TRC grapples with the legacy of the schools, it will be important to clarify who was responsible for what. While the government policy was clearly one of assimilation of Aboriginal children into the dominant society, how this was undertaken was largely a matter for those who administered the schools. Strict discipline and acceptance of abusive practices in individual institutions and lack of protection from abusers are issues that will need to be aired if reconciliation is to take place. The TRC will need to hear directly from government and administrators of the institutions, or their representatives, in order to probe these matters.

The policies were well-meaning and in tune with their times …

It is easy to look back in history and to justify certain actions because that was the way things were done then and because policy-makers were well-meaning. This approach is too simplistic and requires much further analysis. Providing children with an education is undoubtedly a laudable objective of any society, but doing it in a way that demolishes cultures and demeans the children is surely unacceptable at any time. Add to this the physical and sexual abuse suffered by many students at the residential schools, then it has to be asked: Was this ever acceptable as the way things were done? Certainly not! A role of the TRC should be to have this question answered in a fulsome way.

They got an education, did they not?

This is perhaps the most common reaction to the question of residential schools. It is usually mixed with the sentiment: complaining about the experience in the schools is somehow a lack of gratitude. This reaction is probably the most insidious because it continues to be based on the perceived superiority of the dominant society.

Many former students did get an education, and some of the schools have been recognized as having played a major role in supporting the development of Aboriginal leadership throughout the decades. But, even where success was evident and in cases where former students are of the view that their education at a residential school was a key to this success, the question is not about the what of the education process, but about the how.

Sadly, many students at the schools got little or no education of a lasting nature, and the quality of the education many received was inferior to that of non-Aboriginal people. Even worse, being forced to live for many years in an institution and in an environment where abuse of all kinds was rampant often led to learned behaviour of a negative kind. The prevalence of sexual predators, and what they did to little children, is perhaps the most terrible of the impacts. This education continues to have an impact on later generations—the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Survivors. The TRC will be instrumental in shedding light on how such learned behaviour has led to challenges within Aboriginal communities and how it has affected the condition of Aboriginal peoples generally.

But everyone got the strap in those days…

It seems that everyone has a tale to tell about how they were punished at school for various infractions. Somehow, this is seen as a justification for the abuse that occurred within residential schools. While corporal punishment may have been more prevalent in past years than it is today, the scale of such punishment at residential schools was beyond any level of acceptability. The lawyers and adjudicators refer to the standards of the time in determining levels of abuse. The TRC will hear many stories from Survivors that will dispel the myth of the strap because the abuse meted out often far exceeded any of the standards of the time, or of any time: to be hunted down for running away from school; to be put in a cage for several days for all to see; to be humiliated before the entire student body; and to be deprived of nourishment and access to sanitary facilities during this time. This was not just the strap.

Non-Aboriginal people in Canada had similar experiences, so what is so different about this?

Unfortunately, there were similar experiences: the Duplessis orphans,5 the Barnardo children,6 and Mount Cashel.7 Even more cases are coming to light at seemingly respectable educational and religious institutions in Canada and elsewhere.
The fact that there were similar experiences does not simply justify any of them. Each has to be dealt with in a way that promotes healing and reconciliation based on the circumstances involved. However, residential schools and their impact were, and are, different. They were created as a matter of national policy and had the express objective of taking the Indian out of the child. This is why a national process of reconciliation and the role that the TRC will have in this process are so important.

Why can people not just get over it?

This opinion is closely related to the perception that residential schools are part of ancient history and not of the present, and this is usually based on ignorance of the gravity of the abuse suffered by former students. How does someone come to terms with having been raped on multiple occasions as a child? How can current infirmities and dependencies resulting from previous abuse be overcome, if at all? Where is the hope that has been systematically destroyed? While many former students are on a healing journey that involves coping with the past and building for the future, many are not. This will be a major challenge for the TRC as it tries to dispel the myth in civil society that somehow this whole matter was an aberration while at the same time promotes reconciliation through healing.

This whole thing is not fair to the many good people involved …

The Settlement Agreement came into being because of the number of class action suits for alleged abuse being brought against the defendants—Canada and the churches that ran the schools. It came into being to right many wrongs, not to laud the contribution of dedicated people of whom there were undoubtedly many. So it is not surprising that the dialogue to date has focused on the many terrible things that happened in the schools. This will continue as the TRC begins its work. The challenge will be to hear all sides of the residential school story—the good, the bad, and (equally important) the indifferent—while not diminishing in any way the suffering of former students and the negative impact the schools have had on Aboriginal societies.

The location and operation of many of the residential schools was such that these were isolated entities, often with little outside contact or input. This undoubtedly contributed to the flourishing abusive practices. However, surely little can remain hidden for long in such closed environments. So, particular interest will be of any observations and conclusions the TRC will reach as to why many of those good people were oblivious to the abuse that was happening around them. Or, if they were not oblivious, then why did not more of them step forward and take action to protect the children in their care?

Is it not time to just move on and let bygones be bygones?

This opinion is dismissive of the trauma experienced by many Survivors of residential schooling and underestimates the difficulty of coping with the ongoing impact of such trauma. It is the naive view that somehow a page can be turned and all will be well—a matter of pulling oneself together and getting on with things. Anyone who has ever grieved or suffered trauma knows how enormously wrong such statements are and how they reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition.
There may well be a time to move on, but only when individual Survivors, families, and communities have the strength and support to cope with their past experiences and to deal with the trauma that has been inflicted on them. Each healing journey is different; some are more difficult than others, others have never begun. The nature and the pace of each journey can only be determined by each traveller, but the TRC can be instrumental in helping so many travellers reach their destination.

In October of 2007, I had the privilege of addressing a group of professionals who were to become adjudicators in the independent assessment process mandated by the Settlement Agreement. I urged them to remember that those who were abused in a residential school were defenceless little children and that what happened to each of the Survivors they help, whatever their age, happened when they were a child. My message to them was that, as they adjudicate individual cases of abuse, they have an enormous gift to impart above and beyond a financial settlement, and that is the gift of hope. With institutions such as the Aboriginal Healing Foundation continuing their critically important and acclaimed work, and now with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission beginning its activities, maybe the gift of hope will be granted to all Aboriginal children—past, present, and future.


Peter Harrison is a professional geographer and holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) from the London School of Economics and Political Science (United Kingdom), a Masters of Arts from the University of Victoria (British Columbia), and a doctorate from the University of Washington (Seattle, Washington).

Peter has been the Skelton-Clark Fellow at Queen’s University since June 2008. Prior to this, he has held a number of deputy minister and senior government positions; most notably, he was Senior Associate Deputy Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada where he was responsible for the Northern Affairs Program and the Inuit Relations Secretariat. Concurrently, Peter was the Executive Director and Deputy Head (Deputy Minister) of Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada where he was responsible for implementing the largest court-ordered out-of-court settlement (Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement) in Canadian history.?He was also responsible for the common experience payment, the creation of an independent adjudication process (to deal with specific cases of abuse), and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He also shepherded the development of the Government of Canada’s apology in the House of Commons to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Survivors of residential schools.

Peter is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society; a Fellow, Governor, and Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society; and Adjunct Professor at the World Maritime University (Malmö, Sweden). He is a recipient of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Gold Medal for Public Service, and the J.B. Nicholls award for his lifetime contribution to ocean and coastal management in Canada.

  1. Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada (IRSRC) (2006)
  2. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (no date). Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada 2007-2008 Departmental Performance Report. Retrieved 31 March 2009 from:
  3. See Appendix 2.
  4. Government of Canada (2007). Application for Common Experience Payment for Former Students Who Resided at Indian Residential School(s). Retrieved 7 October 2008 from:
  5. During the 1940s to 1960s, under the leadership of Maurice Duplessis, the Quebec government was responsible for having healthy, orphaned children diagnosed as mentally challenged and having them sent to psychiatric institutions. Many had suffered from physical and sexual abuse while at these institutions. For more information on the Duplessis orphans, see: Roy, Bruno (1994). Memoire d’asile: La Tragedie des enfants de Duplessis. Les Éditions du Boréal; and Perry, J. Christopher, John J. Sigal, Sophie Boucher, and Nikolas Paré (2006). Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis (Les Enfants de Duplessis). Psychiatry 69(4):283–301.
  6. The “Barnardo children” were young British children sent to live and work in Canada and Australia between 1870 and 1939. Approximately 30,000 children, considered orphaned but many were from foster homes, had been shipped to Canada and, once there, were neglected, abused, and treated as servants. For more information, see: Bagnell, Kenneth (2001). The Little Immigrants: The Orphans who came to Canada. Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press Ltd.; and Corbett, Gail H. (2002). Nation Builders: Barnardo Children in Canada. Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press Ltd.
  7. Between 1898 and 1990, the Christian Brothers of Ireland in Canada operated the Mount Cashel Orphanage, a facility for boys in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In the late 1980s, allegations of sexual abuse began to surface. An investigation by a royal commission found that there was evidence of abuse, and eventually nine Christian brothers were convicted and sentenced. The institution was subsequently closed in 1990, and the Government of Newfoundland has since paid compensation to the victims. For more information, see: Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Response of the Newfoundland Criminal Justice System to Complaints (1991). Volume One: Report. St. John’s, NL: Office of the Queen’s Printer; Harris, Michael (1990). Unholy Orders: Tragedy at Mount Cashel. Markham, ON: Penguin Books; and Berry, Jason and Andrew M. Greely (2000). Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.