Residential Schools and Reconciliation

By Dr. J.R. Miller

“Reconciliation” is a word that has gained great currency of late. It has been frequently used in discussions surrounding the Idle No More movement during the winter of 2012-13. But the term has a longer history in discussions in Canada concerning Native-newcomer relations. Notably, Chief Justice Antonio Lamer in the Supreme Court of Canada’s rulings in both the Van der Peet and Delgamuukw cases in 1996-97 made the point that the purpose of Section 35 of the constitution adopted in 1982 was “the reconciliation of the pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown.” That conception of the place of reconciliation in Canadian life is also relevant to the topic of residential schools and their legacy.

Although the history of government-First Nations relations contains many policies for which reconciliation is necessary, none is more significant than the residential schools that four Christian churches ran on behalf of the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). In general, DIA policies from the 1880s until at least the 1960s interfered with First Nations’ culture and practices in the area of governance, land tenure, spiritual observances, and economic development. Although some of these measures had unforeseen and unintended positive effects – such, as stimulating resistance to colonialism among First Nations leaders – collectively their overall impact was decidedly negative. Their net effect was to reinforce the idea that the majority of the Canadian population did not respect or value Indigenous ways and beliefs. Residential schools similarly delivered the message that non-Natives did not think highly of their society to First Nations youths, and accompanied the denigrating view with widespread neglect, abuse, and substandard pedagogy. Historically, residential schools have been the worst of a phalanx of government policies that damaged First Nations society and created the conditions that make reconciliation a pressing national necessity in twenty-first-century Canada.

Residential schooling for Native youth has had a long history in Canada. As early as the late eighteenth century in colonial New Brunswick and the middle decades of the nineteenth century in the future Ontario a variety of missionary bodies established residential schools for First Nations children. The evangelists were motivated in part by a desire to Christianize First Nations through the younger generation, but also by a well-justified concern for Natives’ well-being. In the eastern British North American colonies the process of immigration and settlement was leading to the establishment of agriculturally oriented economies in which hunter-gatherer First Nations found themselves increasingly unwelcome. The fundamental incompatibility of sedentary agriculture and migratory hunting-gathering led, in most colonies, to First Nations being dispossessed of their lands, having their fishing streams usurped or polluted, and generally being pushed to the margins of a society that was dominated numerically and economically by non-Natives. Seeing the devastation that economic displacement and alcohol were visiting on First Nations people, missionaries favoured custodial schools to teach skills that would allow young people to thrive in and alongside Euro-Canadian society.

Similar thinking – assimilation as a means to promote economic self-sufficiency – underlay the development of a residential schooling policy after Confederation. In the West, there was the additional factor of treaties recently negotiated with the First Nations in the 1870s. Six of the seven numbered treaties promised that government would create “schools on reserve” for First Nations once they were settled in their new enclaves. It is worth noting as well that many of the western First Nations leaders who had negotiated treaties in the 1870s favoured the provision of Euro-Canadian schooling, just as many chiefs in colonial Ontario had supported such institutions there in the 1840s.  Both government and the missionary churches  thought that the vocational instruction that residential schools provided would enable Plains societies in particular to survive the devastation that followed the collapse of the bison-based economy. The result was the creation of a new schooling policy aimed at First Nations in 1883. While day schools on reserves would continue to be used in some locations, increasingly the non-Natives’ emphasis was on custodial institutions located away from the First Nations communities so as to promote acculturation more rapidly and aggressively.

As is notorious, these schools had a devastating impact on First Nations students, families, and communities. Instruction, both academic and vocational, was abysmal, and the ‘graduates’ of the schools never acquired the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed in Euro-Canadian society. The students were usually warehoused in deficient quarters, fed inadequate quantities of inferior food, denied necessary medical care, and all too often abused emotionally, physically, and sexually. Almost all residential schools students experienced a degree of emotional deprivation that was scarring; and many were exposed to severe discipline that too often degenerated into physical abuse. And large, though undetermined, numbers of students experienced sexual abuse at the hands of staff or fellow students. The schools were such colossal failures that the government of Canada began an effort to shut them down in the 1940s but only succeeded after a decision of the Trudeau government in 1969 to phase them out. The last government-sponsored residential school closed its doors in Saskatchewan in 1996.

Part of the reason for the eventual closure of the residential schools was Indigenous opposition to them. Students, families, and communities frequently articulated their opposition to their corrosive effects. The young people evaded the institutions’ rules, sometimes refused to cooperate with either the classroom or vocational instruction, stole food to supplement the inadequate institutional diets, frequently ran away in fear and frustration, and sometimes even attempted to burn the schools to the ground. Their parents remonstrated with government officials about the problems their children faced, and urged their local leaders to articulate their concerns to missionaries and bureaucrats. In an undetermined number of cases parents thwarted the residential school system entirely by arranging for the whole family to be away from their reserve when missionary, Indian Agent, or sometimes mounted policeman came by to round students up to be taken to the residential school. As First Nations political leadership became more organized throughout the first half of the twentieth century, chiefs and others conveyed their criticism to governmental and church authorities whenever they could. One of the simplest but most eloquent protests was articulated by a Saskatchewan man speaking to a joint parliamentary committee on the Indian Act that sat from 1946 to 1948: “Our greatest need today is proper education.” As his comment suggested, First Nations were not opposed to schooling, but they wanted it to be carried out in ways that did not hurt their children, their families, and their communities as badly as Canada’s residential school system did.

The closure of the last school coincided almost exactly with the beginning of public awareness of the problems associated with residential schools. In October 1990, Phil Fontaine, then Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, revealed on the CBC Television program The Journal that he had been a victim of abuse at the Fort Alexander school in Manitoba. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), appointed by the Mulroney government, convened several public fora after 1992 at which harrowing accounts of abuse at residential schools were aired, and RCAP’s Final Report in 1996 included a hard-hitting chapter on residential schools and their ills. Beginning most noticeably in 1998, a rising tide of litigation by former students against the government for abuse kept the issue before the general public. Finally, Canada was beginning a long and painful process of dealing with the consequences of residential schools.

Even before the revelations of the 1990s about the legacy of residential schooling, Canada had embarked – hesitantly, tentatively, and ambivalently – on a voyage towards reconciliation that has unfortunately so far not engaged the mass of the population.  The first few steps were taken by the Christian churches that had administered the schools in partnership with government. Between 1986, when the United Church of Canada (UCC) issued the first apology, this one for the abusive and insensitive style of its evangelism generally, and 1998  the Presbyterian, United, Anglican, and several entities of the Roman Catholic Church  separately apologized for their roles. In the case of the Catholics, who had operated between three-fifths and two-thirds of the residential schools, apologies came from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the largest male missionary order involved, and then from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The responses of the First Nations to these apologies were mixed. The reception of the United Church’s efforts is illustrative.  When, after much internal debate, the UCC presented an apology to Native delegates at its General Council in 1986, the First Nations representatives said that they received, but did not accept, the statement. As well, they built a cairn of stones to mark the occasion, but left the memorial unfinished. When the Church had completed the process of making its apology good, they said, they would complete the cairn. Following the 1986 apology the other churches issued statements of regret in the early 1990s, and again in 1998 the United Church issued a second apology that atoned specifically for its role in residential schooling. On that occasion the Church’s Indigenous delegates added a stone to the cairn, but did not complete the structure.

While the churches who operated the schools were apologizing in an effort to restore relations with the Aboriginal peoples, former students of the schools were taking actions of their own to force the federal government to face up to its responsibility. Beginning with a noticeable increase in litigation in 1998, former students sued the federal government for damages from the abuse they had suffered. The government fought their individual actions, taking care to cross-sue, or ‘third-party,’ the particular denomination that had run the school involved in each case. This unhelpful act complicated the litigation and imposed on the churches the necessity to spend a great deal of money and effort on legal preparations for court. These costs, plus awards in some instances of litigation and criminal court convictions that involved the churches, drove several of the churches to the edge of bankruptcy. The government showed little concern about these side-effects of litigation, although the rising tide of actions did contribute to the development of an alternate dispute resolution (ADR) program in consultation with survivors’ organizations and the churches. While ADR was an improvement on a system of litigation by individual survivors, it proved unsatisfactory over all. It was slow, required victims to relive their traumatic experiences while testifying, and did not include an acknowledgement of wrong and intention not to have these horrors happen again when the claim was successful. These problems, the steadily increasing number of actions, and the emergence of several class actions, one of which was certified to proceed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in December 2004, finally drove the federal government towards a comprehensive settlement of residential school problems.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), which was concluded in May 2006 and later ratified by all the parties involved, took effect in September 2007. The IRSSA attempted both to deal with school-related grievances and make some progress towards reconciliation over the issue. It provided two compensation programs – Common Experience Payments that paid redress money to anyone who could prove to Canada’s satisfaction that they had attended a residential school, and the Independent Assessment Process that provided an adjudication program that could result in much larger sums to individuals who could prove they had suffered serious physical or sexual abuse.   In addition, the IRSSA resulted in $20,000,000 to fund commemoration projects, a grant to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation that had been established in 1998 in response to the Final Report  of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although representatives of residential school survivors also pressed for a formal apology as part of the package, the government of Canada was not prepared to include such a gesture in the Settlement Agreement.

Much to the surprise of most observers, the government of Stephen Harper changed its mind and agreed to a formal apology. In a moving ceremony on the floor of the House of Commons on June 11, 2008, the prime minister issued a full apology for Canada’s role in the residential schools, indicated that such things should not happen again in Canada, and asked for the forgiveness of the Indigenous peoples. The leaders of Aboriginal organizations who were present in the Commons spoke feelingly in response, with most of them emphasizing hope for a better relationship in future. Unfortunately, some of the impetus of the historic occasion was lost when the Harper government failed to act on the implications of the apology afterwards. It was as if the prime minister thought that the apology completed the agenda and he could close the residential school file. His government took no more measures to implement the commitments in the apology, folded the unit of the civil service that had had responsibility for residential school matters back into the mammoth Indian and Northern Affairs Canada department, and short years later gave notice that it would not extend the life of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation that had been created in 1998 to help survivors and communities cope with the damage residential schooling had caused.

These measures in the aftermath of the prime ministerial apology were the opposite of what the federal government should have done if it wished to build on the apology. If Prime Minister Harper’s statement in the House of Commons was to be part of a movement towards reconciliation, it had to be the first step of such a process. Ideally, it would have led to a series of discussions and agreements with Aboriginal leaders that would have begun to erode distrust and edge towards a shared commitment to solve problems. Rather, the government’s actions made relations worse.  Among the obstacles to reconciliation, none was more significant than Canada’s initial refusal to sign on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that had been adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007. It was only after some delay, and by accompanying acquiescence with some largely meaningless qualifications, that Canada became a party to the convention in November 2010.

Aside from the compensation packages and the prime ministerial apology, clearly the most important element in the attempted settlement of grievances related to the residential schools abuse has been the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Unfortunately, the TRC has had a mixed history during the first four years of its five year mandate.   The first three commissioners appointed in 2008 found themselves unable to work together and resigned. Consultations on a new trio of commissioners consumed more than a year before a TRC headed by Manitoba Cree judge Murray Sinclair took up the task of pursuing reconciliation in 2009. The Commission has had some notable successes, particularly the four National Events that it held in Winnipeg, Inuvik, Halifax, and Saskatoon between June 2010 and June 2012. These large gatherings were four of the seven National Events that the IRS Settlement Agreement specified the TRC would hold during its mandate. The earliest of the Events attracted a great deal of media attention and temporarily, at least, awakened the general public to the ongoing challenge of pursuing reconciliation in the shadow of the residential schools’ noxious legacy. But with attention to the Events noticeably waning, it remains to be seen if the final three occasions, including Montreal in the spring and Vancouver in the autumn of 2013, will galvanize the public sufficiently to build momentum behind the reconciliation movement.

The TRC has similarly encountered challenges in pursuing its other main objectives. The collection of copies of original documents from the federal government and the churches involved has run into obstacles. The various denominations involved have expressed concern about privacy issues in relation to individuals mentioned in documents they hold. For its part, the federal government has dragged its feet, claiming that it could not discharge its obligation under the Settlement Agreement to produce documents because the task was too great and too expensive. In late January 2013, the Superior Court of Ontario ruled that the federal government must collect, copy, and hand over all relevant documents. How the Harper government responds to this judicial setback – appeal or acquiesce? – will either advance or hinder the work of the TRC and the reconciliation cause in general The TRC has announced that a National Record Centre will be established at the University of Manitoba but it is unclear what sort of documentary record the they will be able to leave behind.

Finally, the eruption of Indigenous protest headed by Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat and the Idle No More movement in the winter of 2012-13 holds the potential to advance or kill the faltering reconciliation movement in Canada. Although the specific complaints and aims of the two protests differ in important respects, their combined impact on the general public could have the effect of building public support that will push the federal government to undertake more meaningful policies to assist First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. The core messages of Idle No More (INM) in particular are perfectly aligned with the dynamics of a reconciliation movement.  INM emphasizes the necessity to return to the treaty relationship between Indigenous and immigrant peoples as a platform for our relations. That focus strengthens the emphasis on ideas of partnership and cooperation. The prevailing sentiment was well captured in a sign that an INM demonstrator carried on Parliament Hill on January 28: “Remember Canada – You are a treaty partner.” (Globe and Mail, Jan. 29, 2013) A positive response from non-Natives to these protests could well restore and augment the momentum behind the reconciliation movement. On the other hand it is equally possible that the protests could alienate the general public and provide the federal government with the cover it needs to shut down any significant efforts to address Native problems. In that unhappy event there is a good chance that reconciliation will be gravely, if not mortally, wounded. In early 2013, the future of reconciliation over residential school and other problems afflicting Native Canada is clouded.


J.R. (Jim) Miller, is the Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations and a Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan. He is the author of Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (University of Toronto Press, 1996) and Compact, Contract Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2009).


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