As I sit here writing, it’s Truth and Reconciliation Week in Canada. With a deadline looming, there were several topics I considered writing about, but this week—the last few weeks, if I’m being honest—there’s only one on my mind. That being the Truth and the stories I learned it from.
The necessity for Truth dates to 1884, when a School System with one educational goal was created. That goal was to civilize the Indians and assimilate them into Canada’s Anglo- or Franco-Christian society. 139 schools were formed and operated by the Canadian government and the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Churches.
“Their education must consist not merely of training of the mind, but of weaning from the habits and feelings of their ancestors, and the acquirements of the language, art and customs of civilized life.” – Egerton Ryerson, Report of Dr Ryerson on Industrial Schools, 1847
“Indian culture is a contradiction in terms. They are uncivilized. The aim of education is to destroy the Indian.” – Nicholas Flood Davin, Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half Breeds, 1879
The 139 Schools were located all over Canada, across every Province and Territory except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, which did not mean that the Indian children from those regions of Mi’kma’ki (i.e. Present day Martimes), were exempt from the Schools. A frequent strategy used by governmental authorities was to take children to schools that were far from their home communities, to remove them from the influence of their families.
“When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who has learned to read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial school where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” – Sir John A. MacDonald, Debates of the House of Commons, May 9, 1883
“If these schools are to succeed, we must not have them too near the bands; in order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say this is hard, but if we want to civilize them we must do that.” – Hector Langevin, Debates of the House of Commons, May 22, 1883
To view a map of the Indian Residential Schools, visit https://nctr.ca/records/view-your-records/archival-map/
Absent was the power of choice when it came to educating little Indians. By 1920, it was mandatory for every Indian child between 7 and 16 years to attend an Indian Residential School. By 1933, custody of children was forcibly surrendered from Indian parents and given to the Principals of Residential Schools. More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were stolen. Those children told us the Truth of what they experienced, how they survived it, and what happened to the children who didn’t make it home.
For a depiction of this forcible surrender, see The Scream (2017), acrylic on canvas, by Kent Monkman of Fisher River Cree First Nation.
The children who made it home are Survivors. Their stories and the courage they have in telling them, are the reason we know the Truth. They were the driving force behind the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2007 and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which began in 2021. Survivor stories are the reasons that non-Indigenous people in Canada can no longer deny or the Truth. The TRC was born out of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement which resulted from a lawsuit (i.e. Blackwater v. Plint) that just 27 Survivors brought against the Government of Canadian and the United Church of Canada in 1996. The TRC was tasked with facilitating the sharing and documenting of Survivor stories; providing safety and support for healing; creating a historical record of the Schools; making recommendations to the government; and promoting awareness of the Schools and their impacts to all Canadians.
From Survivor stories we know about the malnutrition, unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, exposure to extreme temperatures, high rates of infections the children were subjected, among many other forms of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse. This abuse caused intergenerational trauma for Indigenous people that we still feel today. This trauma manifests itself in unemployment rates, overrepresentation of Indigenous youth in the foster care system, high incarceration rates, and much lower life expectancies due to diabetes, hypertension, substance abuse, and poor mental health (Reconciliation Education, 2023).
“Indian children in the residential schools die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem.” – Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent, Indian Affairs
From Survivors, we also know about the children who never made it home. As of today, more than 2200 unmarked graves have been discovered on the grounds of 17 residential school sites. There are 122 more schools that are either in the process of being searched or haven’t been searched yet. If a record of these deaths were kept, we don’t have access to them. Our questions of who are they?, what happened to them?, and what are their stories? have gone unanswered.
Visit Leddy Library’s (University of Windsor) dashboard, The Discovery of Unmarked Graves for Missing Children across Canada, to track that graves that have been confirmed, the planned searches at other sites, and those where search plans have yet to be announced.
It’s been more than two years since the mass grave found in Kamloops gained national media attention. The Canada Day that followed saw some allyship from settler Canadians. Messages of ‘Cancel Canada Day’ and wear orange instead gained traction. But somewhere along the line, Canadians stopped paying attention. Maybe it’s to be expected. After all, it’s been 8 years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released their findings and issued 94 Calls to Action intended to redress the legacy of the residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation. The Calls to Action affect every Canadian. They call for: changes to the child welfare, education, health, and justice systems; legislative changes; reconciliation from churches, businesses, media, sport organizations, museums, archives, and educational institutions.
All these Calls for Reconciliation, yet most Canadians have yet to seek the Truth that must be known before Reconciliation is possible. A Leger survey asking Canadians how they planned to engage with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation found that 48% of respondents would not take any specific action. While 23% were planning to wear orange to show their support, only 15% planned to actively listen to Indigenous Peoples, and 12% planned to have conversations about reconciliation with family and friends.
These numbers only reinforce how important Survivors stories are. There is still so much to be learned by Canadians and that starts with the stories. If Canadians knew the courage and persistence of Survivors and their families who, for generations, told and retold their stories only to be met with disbelief and denial, would they listen? What if they knew that Survivor courage and persistence is the reason for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and everything that came out of it? If they knew the horrors that lay within the stories of Survivors’? If they knew the complicity or active participation of their churches and leaders? If they knew of the active participation of the Crown? What will it take for Canadians to listen, learn, and take responsibility for Reconciliation?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of those Canadians, but chances are you might know a few. If it feels safe for you to do so, consider pointing them to the stories and encouraging them to listen. Maybe next year, there will be fewer than 48% with their heads in the sand. Maybe some of the 23% will do more than performative allyship. Maybe more Canadians will listen and encourage others to do the same.
If you or someone you know is seeking Truth, start at the Indian Residential School Survivors’ Storybase. Search for stories from Survivors of the Residential School closest to you and go from there. If you want to talk to kids about Truth and Reconciliation, there is a collection of age- appropriate resources for Kindergarten to Grade 8 students. When you’re ready to Take Action, there are resources available for that too.
Anishinabek Nation. (2023). Indian Residential, Day, and Industrial schools. https://www.anishinabek.ca/an-overview-of-the-schools/#1662617357588-056c9a0e-1b32
Davin, N. F. (1879). Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds. https://collections.irshdc.ubc.ca/index.php/Detail/objects/9427
Dickson, C. & Watson, B. (2021, May 29). Remains of 215 children found buried at former B.C. residential school, First Nation says. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tk-eml%C3%BAps-te-secw%C3%A9pemc-215-children-former-kamloops-indian-residential-school-1.6043778
Leger 360. (2023, 29 September). Surveys: Truth and Reconciliation Day. https://leger360.com/blogs/truth-and-reconciliation-day/
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. (2023). History of the TRC. https://nctr.ca/about/history-of-the-trc/
Reconciliation Education. (2023). What are the Truth & Reconciliation Commissions 94 Calls to Action & how are we working toward achieving them today? https://www.reconciliationeducation.ca/what-are-truth-and-reconciliation-commission-94-calls-to-action#2
Ryerson, E. (1847). Report of Dr. Ryerson on Industrial Schools. https://collections.irshdc.ubc.ca/index.php/Detail/objects/9435
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.