Gregory Younging

Now the apology done applause can begin
Now the apologies done applause begins
If it bleeds it leads If it cries it flies …
Now the struggle has a name …
Some truth some reconciliation and gone with the wind
If it feeds the need If it dies it dies1

Inherited history

My own understanding of the immense impact of the residential school system came as a gradual realization. My family members who attended residential schools either sheltered me from, and/or sheltered themselves from the reliving by telling about, the experience. The generation of our parents, aunts, and uncles did their best to grow up together on Beatlemania and Trudeaumania after the experience. My cousins and I later found out that our parents would sometimes seek condolence among each other. (In the knowledge that they were the last generation to go through the experience first-hand, they did not want to burden us with it.) As for me and my cousins, we listened to The Guess Who as kids and, then later, watched Gretzky (yes, I dreamed that one day I would play like him). Although most of my female cousins preferred The Carpenters and Rod Stewart (and maybe were not so much into hockey), we tried to blend in and be good little Canadian kids; but it never really worked. As teenagers, we all retreated into our own self-reflections each in our own way, sometimes supporting each other, and we came out with a collective stark discovery: “Something is wrong here!”

As we became young adults, some of the residential school stories started to slip out. And when they did, in what I recall as my darkest moments, my cousins would share them with me. “Do you know how Uncle lost a finger?” “Did you ever wonder why they all speak Cree and they didn’t teach us?” “This is hard, but do you know what happened to your mom?” In a way, it was perhaps good that we were on a slow learning curve about what happened (just like Canada is now). There was usually plenty of time between the unceremonious unveilings of our family’s residential school experience to slowly contemplate what it might mean. Yet even so, I now realize that I blocked out parts of this second-hand knowledge of our family history. On some level of my consciousness, I did not or do not want to know. Indeed, this realization has helped me understand why the generations before us blocked out the first-hand knowledge and did not want us to know.

My mother was one of the many residential school Survivors who did not make it through high school. She recalls that, as a middle-aged adult, she visited a friend who was taking university courses and saw coursebooks on the table and told her friend, “I have read those books so maybe I could go to university someday.” Soon after, she entered an upgrading program and then started taking university night courses. She became the first Survivor to do her master’s and doctoral research on the residential school system. Dealing with the Shame and Unresolved Trauma: Residential School and Its Impact on the 2nd and 3rd Generation Adults is Dr. Rosalyn Ing’s (my mother) 1990 University of British Columbia Ph.D. thesis. Due to my mother’s extensive research on the multi-generational impacts of residential schools, I have been made acutely aware of myself and my cousins as second-generation Survivors and my daughter, nieces, and nephews as third-generation Survivors, although the impact on us could never measure up to that of the generations before us.

I will never forget the profound experience I had at The Banff Centre for the Arts Publishing Workshop in 1991. All of the workshop participants formed imaginary publishing companies and developed book project ideas to promote at a mock book fair. My book concept was a book on residential schools (in the back of my mind it was my mother’s research). I stood up to introduce my book to the booksellers and book sales agents at the pretend book fair—who were actually real publishers, booksellers, and book sales agents and some were of the best in the business—and started to tell them about how “it is time for a book about this dark chapter in Canadian history to be published.” As I continued, trying to impress my high-profile audience, my voice began to crack, and then I was suddenly overcome with tears. I backed away for a few moments to regain my composure. I tried to continue my presentation, but the tears flowed even harder. I tried again, but I just could not do it. In the end, I had to walk away thinking to myself?“what is this I just experienced?” There’s that word again: “experience.”

Our generation inherited this family history by just being who we are—part of the continuum of our ancestors’ legacy right through to the few generations that preceded us. This was not by our own choice, and certainly this was not by our parents’ choice as they attempted to shelter us from it, but the truth eventually prevails. Indigenous peoples often refer to our “blood memory,” meaning that the experience of those that have gone before us is embedded in our physical and psychological being. What happened to me at The Banff Centre in 1991 was that the pain of my family, those who went to residential school, was being channelled through me, and I was experiencing it as my own pain. Blood memory is also closely linked to the Indigenous precept of the present generation being the transition between the past and future generations; thus, we carry the responsibilities of honouring our ancestors’?legacy and safeguarding the rights and well-being of future generations.

The blood memory state of being is not exclusive to Indigenous peoples, although it is certainly more prevalent in Indigenous existence. In order for this grand concept of reconciliation to work, Canadian people, too, need to inherit the history of those that have gone before them if they are to forge a better path into the future.

The neo-conservative right, in both Canada and Australia, relies for its arguments on historical revisionism or denial. They claim that Aboriginal poverty and ill health are the result of the failure of contemporary policies rather than the product of hundreds of years of colonialism and that any moral wrongs occurred as part of colonial history.2

Apart from their relationship with Indigenous peoples, Canadians first need to undergo a type of micro-reconciliation within themselves. In so doing, the present generation of Canadians need to face up to what has been done in their name, and they must own it as being part of who they are. Canadians need to play catch-up in the big reconciliation game, because Indigenous people have already done that. Canadian reconciliation must begin with: 1) throwing out all the historical disassociations and denials, and 2) getting out of the prevailing generation-centric headspace. As we attempt to venture down the road toward reconciliation, Canadians would probably benefit a lot by learning from, and viewing the world like, Indigenous peoples; not vice versa.

The documented, ignored history

Canada’s unknown history is well-documented and goes back to the early foundations of international law governing interactions and agreements between nations. The principles of international law were expressed by the British Crown in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which stated “that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected … should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them.”3 The Upper and Lower Canada acts of 1850, one being An Act for the Better Protection of the Lands and Property of Indians in Lower Canada and the other An Act where the Better Protection of Indians in Upper Canada imposition, the property occupied or enjoyed by them from trespass and injury, further recognized these principles within their titles.

The British North America Act of 1867 also acknowledged the responsibilities of the Royal Proclamation and upheld the honour of the Crown in Section 91(24), stating that “It shall be lawful for the Queen … to make Laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada, in relation to … Indians and Lands reserved for the Indians.”4 It was on the basis of international law and treaty processes established in Europe that treaties were signed between the British Crown and the Indigenous nations from 1871 to 1921 in the territory that became known as Canada. These treaties involved two categories of lands: 1) unsurrendered Indigenous territories, which would remain under Indigenous control, and 2) land bases that were for British settlement. This is why Canadians need to recognize that they too are treaty people.5

This early history of the relationship between Britain/Canada and Indigenous peoples is based on international law, nation-to-nation negotiations, and mutual consent. However, towards the end of the treaty period, Canada began to stray down a path leading away from international law to an adversarial and hostile relationship with Indigenous peoples. This era, which continues through to today, includes the residential school system and several other breeches of international law that was later developed through the United Nations. With An Act to encourage the gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in this Province, and to amend the Laws respecting Indians of 1857 and An Act to amend and consolidate the laws respecting Indians [Indian Act, 1876] (the treaty process had begun that year), Canada also began passing laws designed to eliminate Indigenous peoples without their consent. In the later 1800s, Canadian parliamentarians began to view Indigenous peoples as an obstacle to complete control of the resources and territories in Canada and began to speak of “the Indian problem.” The legislation and policies from this period of Canadian history have since been amended and altered, but the basic tenets remain.

Canada’s record in the United Nations, 1948 to 2009

In 1922, Cayuga Chief Deskaheh, then leader of Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy, went to the League of Nations in Geneva to ask that Canada be prevented from taking over Haudenosaunee lands. Although The League of Nations did not agree to pursue the issue, supportive statements were made by Dutch, Panamanian, Estonian, and Persian delegations who administered sound rebukes to the United Kingdom and Canada for their treatment of Indigenous peoples.6 In 1923, the Haudenosaunee applied to become members of the League of Nations, as did the Maori in 1925, but both claims were denied. The League categorized these claims of Indigenous nationhood as “domestic.”7

Canada would find itself at odds with international standards for its treatment of Indigenous peoples several more times. When the UN was formed immediately after World War II, one of the fundamental purposes was to prevent what had happened to the Jewish people in Germany (the Holocaust) from happening to any other peoples of the world again. Never Again. This would be achieved by constructing a new international human rights regime to complement and support the ongoing body of international law. This human rights regime is now paramount and includes such prestigious United Nations documents as:

  • Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
  • Geneva Conventions, 1949 (four protocols during wartime)
  • Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 1959
  • Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, 1967
  • Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1963
  • International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966
  • Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982
  • Convention (No. 169) Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, 1989
  • Convention on Biological Diversity, 1993
  • Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, 2005
  • Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007

From the start, Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples was at odds with the UN human rights regime beginning with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states the following:

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law …

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.8

There is ample evidence that the residential school system clearly committed all acts of genocide listed above between 1831 and 1998, and more evidence is sure to emerge during the term of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada engaged in efforts to dodge the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by presenting an illusion of acceptance. On 3 September 1952, Canada became a signatory to this convention. Meanwhile, Canada redefined genocide in its Criminal Code to omit any mention of policies or actions Canada was currently engaged in that would reflect genocidal acts as defined by the United Nations. The residential school system also stands in breech of the following articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief …

  1. Everyone has the right to education …
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups …
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.9. Retrieved 15 April 2009 from:]

In 1978, Sandra Lovelace took her case of Indian Status removal and sexual discrimination under the Indian Act to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. The Committee asked for more information and allowed the Canadian government to defend its actions. The Canadian government claimed that it would like to change the law, but did not feel it could without the agreement of First Nations people, who were divided on the issue.10 In 1981, the Committee found that Canada was in breach of Article 27 of the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Report of the UN Special Rapporteur 2004

In 2004, The UN Commission on Human Rights mandated Special Rapporteur Rodolfo Stavenhagen to investigate the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people in Canada. He found that:

Poverty, infant mortality, unemployment, morbidity, suicide, criminal detention, children on welfare, women victims of abuse, child prostitution, are all much higher among Aboriginal people than in any other sector of Canadian society, whereas educational attainment, health standards, housing conditions, family income, access to economic opportunity and to social services are generally lower.11

Stavenhagen’s report states that Canada’s interpretation and implementation of existing Aboriginal and treaty rights set out in the Constitution Act of 1982 has been slow. Also, the insufficient land base of First Nations reserves was in need of expansion to allow for future growth and development.

While Aboriginal persons may eventually attain material standards of living commensurate with other Canadians, the full enjoyment of all their human rights, including the right of peoples to self-determination, can only be achieved within the framework of their reconstituted communities and nations, in the context of secure enjoyment of adequate lands and resources.12

Stavenhagen recommends:

That special attention be paid to the nexus between the Residential Schools restitution process, the transgenerational loss of culture and its attendant social problems such as adolescent suicide rates and family disorganization … That new legislation on Aboriginal rights be enacted by the Parliament of Canada, as well as provincial legislatures, in line with the proposals made by RCAP [Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples] … and that it adopt an even more constructive leadership role in the process leading to the adoption of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as demanded by numerous Canadian indigenous peoples’ organizations and expected by many other organizations worldwide.13

The United Nations’ Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) was established in 1982 as a subsidiary organ of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. In 1985, WGIP began preparing a draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,Declaration and submitted it to the sub-commission.14 The Declaration went through over a decade of redrafting and debate in WGIP and other rigorous and involved formal UN processes and forums. It was not until 2007 that the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration by an overwhelming majority; however, it was opposed by the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

The politics around the Declaration is an arduous struggle between Indigenous peoples and nation states in which a new paradigm for Indigenous peoples’ integrity as international entities unto themselves will emerge.
The Declaration is on par with other UN human rights declarations and conventions listed previously. The Declaration contains all aspects of rights required for decolonization and the re-emergence of Indigenous nations. Indigenous peoples can no longer be viewed as cultural groups contained within the borders of nation states. Likewise, Indigenous peoples rights can no longer be regarded as the subjects of colonial nation states. The new, emergent consciousness displaces the familiar discriminatory models of imperialism and colonialism, based on racism.15

Reconciliation and opposing the Declaration

Canada’s proposed attempt at reconciliation against the background of its UN record and Stavenhagen’s 2004 report is difficult to reconcile, especially when this report specifically recommended that Canada should take a leadership role in supporting the Declaration. How are Indigenous peoples in Canada supposed to comprehend this? Are we being asked not to make a connection between the country’s domestic policies on Indigenous peoples and its international ones? Are the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the Apology supposed to overshadow the undoing of the Kelowna Accord and Canada’s overt anti-Indigenous stance in the United Nations? To worsen the situation, of the four UN member states opposed to the Declaration, Canada is the only one who has not shown any movement since September 2007.

On 3 April 2009, The Government of Australia officially announced its support of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the most comprehensive international tool to advance the rights of indigenous peoples. An overwhelming majority of the States voted for the Declaration in the General Assembly in 2007, and we are pleased to see that this support is today expanding further with Australia endorsing the Declaration.16

Debate has also taken place in New Zealand’s Parliament, where Indigenous Members of Parliament, who knew of Australia’s impending announcement of support for the Declaration, raised the issue and will continue to mount political pressure. There have also been strong statements from Barack Obama on Indigenous rights, such as the following message he made as a senator before he became the president of the United States:

Indian nations have never asked much of the United States, only for what was promised by the treaty obligations made by their forebears. So let me be clear: I believe that treaty commitments are paramount law, I’ll fulfill those commitments as president of the United States.17 18

What may occur in New Zealand and in the United States regarding the Declaration is a matter of speculation at this point in time, but some potential for a change of positions appears to exist in the two countries. No such sign of potential change of position has yet been shown from Canada. The Apology of the current minority government and its purpose of supposedly paving the way for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is not an isolated initiative. It must all be interpreted in the broader national and international context. The Government of Canada’s position on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples puts the country out of line with the UN human rights regime and the aspirations of Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere.

Neither a meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples can occur under these circumstances nor a UN member state like Canada—which attempts to portray an image of respect for tolerance and human rights to its citizens and the world—can continue to uphold such a paradox in the face of international opinion and pressure. Such open hostility will continue to taint Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples and act as an impediment to reconciliation. Canada WILL sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is only a matter of time, but history has already recorded the initial and ongoing opposition. This, too, will become another part of future generations of Canadians’ inherited history and Indigenous peoples’ blood memory.


Gregory Younging is a member of Opsakwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba. He holds a Master of Arts degree from the Institute of Canadian Studies at Carleton University and a Master of Publishing degree from the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University. He received his doctoral degree from the Department of Educational Studies at University of British Columbia.

Gregory has worked for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Assembly of First Nations, and Native Women’s Association of Canada. From 1990 to 2003, he was Managing Editor of Theytus Books. He is now Coordinator of the Indigenous Studies Program at University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna. Gregory is a former member of Canada Council’s Aboriginal Arts Advisory Committee (1997–2001) and the British Columbia Arts Council (1999–2001). He is Chair of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus of Creator’s Rights Alliance (2002–present).

Some of his articles have been published in Australian Canadian Studies Journal (1996), Prairie Fire Literary Journal (2001), Indigenous Affairs Journal (2003), (Ad) Dressing Our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literature (2001), and most recently, Aboriginal Oral Traditions: Theory, Practice, Ethics (2008). He has edited or co-edited the Gatherings series now in its tenth volume. Gregory has also published a book of poems, The Random Flow of Blood and Flowers (1997).

  1. Excerpt from The Tragically Hip’s song Now the Struggle has a Name (2009). Retrieved 28 April 2009 from:
  2. Warry, Wayne (2007:53). Ending Denial: Understanding Aboriginal Issues. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
  3. To see the full text of the Royal Proclamation of 7 October 1763, please visit the National Aboriginal Document Database:
  4. For full text, see:
  5. See: John Ralston Saul’s article, “Reconciliation: Four Barriers to Paradigm Shifting,” in this publication.
  6. Lâm, Maivân Clech (2004). Remembering the Country of their Birth: Indigenous Peoples and Territoriality. Journal of International Affairs 57(2):129–150.
  7. Henderson, James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood (2008). Indigenous Diplomacy and the Rights of Peoples: Achieving UN Recognition. Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing.
  8. United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948. Retrieved April 15 2009 from:
  9. United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 [emphasis added
  10. Sandra Lovelace biography (no date). Retrieved April 15 2009 from:
  11. United Nations (2004:2–3). Human rights and indigenous issues: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, on his mission to Canada (21 May to 4 June 2004). Retrieved 15 April 2009 from:
  12. United Nations (2004:22).
  13. United Nations (2004:23–25).
  14. Posey, Darrell and Graham Dutfield (1996:29). Beyond Intellectual Property: Toward Traditional Resource Rights for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Ottawa, ON: International Development Research Centre. Retrieved 15 April 2009 from
  15. Henderson, James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood (2008). Indigenous Diplomacy and the Rights of Peoples: Achieving UN Recognition. Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing.
  16. Australian government announcement on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 3 April 2009, Cited in the Statement by Michael Dodson – United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues – Pacific community nominated member & Forum rapporteur. Retrieved 15 April 2009 from:
  17. Obama, Barack (no date) Barack Obama’s Commitment to Native Americans. Retrieved 15 April 2009
  18. Paul, Alexandra (2009). Chiefs hope Obama will listen:First Nations leaders meet with his advisers. Winnipeg Free Press, 9 January 2009. Retrieved 15 April 2009 from: