Residential schools was ‘cultural genocide,’ most Canadians agree

About 10,000 people joined the “Walk for Reconciliation” in Ottawa May 31, part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Photo: André Forget
About 10,000 people joined the “Walk for Reconciliation” in Ottawa May 31, part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Photo: André Forget
Published July 10, 2015

Seven in 10 (70 %) of Canadians agree with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) finding that the Indian residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide,” according to an Angus Reid Institute survey.

The survey, released July 9, also found that almost half (48%) of Canadians believe the TRC was a worthwhile process for the country, with 57% saying it has been worthwhile for Aboriginal people, generally, and residential schools survivors, specifically.

There is “widespread support” for the commission’s recommendations, the survey said. Two, in particular, received 80% support: the creation of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and the inclusion of Aboriginal history, including residential schools, in the standard curriculum for all Canadian students.

However, there was pessimism about whether the federal government would act on the TRC recommendations. Two in five (43%) say they expect Ottawa to take “less action than they believe it should.”

The survey measured support for eight recommendations: create a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women; include Aboriginal history in the curriculum for all Canadian students in kindergarten through Grade 12; increase federal funding for on-reserve education; create a national council for reconciliation; provide federal funding for Aboriginal language preservation and revitalization; provide $10 million funding for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; create a national day for truth and reconciliation; and create public monuments to residential schools in Ottawa and all provincial and territorial capitals.

The poll offers “really useful information in the sense that it provides a mirror in terms of what Canadians are widely thinking…[and] a mirror against which to reflect our church’s experience,” said Henriette Thompson, director of public witness for social and ecological justice for the Anglican Church of Canada.

Thompson said she was struck by the fact that the recommendations that received widespread support “actually are the ones that our church has been working on in quite a dedicated way” along with other church denominations. She noted the church’s advocacy on the call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women, mostly recently, with the nationwide ringing of cathedral and parish bells for 22 days in May and June.

Such support will continue on various fronts, she said, including the annual day of commemoration for missing and murdered Aboriginal women on October 4. The church will develop worship and liturgical resources “to find a way to engage pari shesand dioceses even more, to connect the call for inquiry at the local level,” said Thompson. Since 1980, at least 1,017 Aboriginal women and girls have been murdered; 164 have been classified by the RCMP as missing under suspicious circumstances.

The Anglican church and other churches have supported calls to make the teaching of Aboriginal and residential school history mandatory in classrooms, a recommendation that the TRC already made in its 2012 interim report, she added. Inquiries and follow-ups have been made with the ministries of education in provinces and territories to determine how they have responded to this recommendation. “Over the last couple of years, we have followed up and inquired [about whether this is being implemented],” said Thompson. Teachers have also been asked about their experience in teaching Aboriginal and residential school history in their classrooms and schools.

“We will continue to work on that. As a church we are present in many communities and we have a great interest in what our children are being taught and what we, as members of the church, have come to learn, especially if you’re of a certain generation where you were not taught that history in school,” said Thompson. “We want our children to learn [this part of Canadian history]. There’s a pervasive sense of having been let down in our own education by not having learned residential school history and Aboriginal history in school.”

The survey also showed that 69% of Canadians support the TRC’s call to increase funding for on-reserve education and to create a national council for reconciliation that will monitor, evaluate and report annually on “post-apology progress on reconciliation to ensure that government accountability for reconciling the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown is maintained in the coming years.”

However, the survey said, “the narrative of wide-ranging support for the TRC’s recommendation doesn’t hold true in all parts of the country,” with feelings “more muted” in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and “to a lesser extent,” in Alberta. Support for describing the residential school system as “cultural genocide” was strongest in Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario.

In Saskatchewan, most are opposed to five of the eight recommendations identified in the survey, supporting only the three that are most popular across the country: have Aboriginal history in the curriculum (69%), create a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women (63%) and increase federal funding for on-reserve education (55%).

On whether the TRC process will result in a better life for Aboriginal people, the survey said that “the best phrase to describe Canadian views about the impact of the [TRC] on First Nations might be ‘cautiously optimistic.’ ”

Asked whether they are optimistic or pessimistic that the TRC process will result in a better situation for Aboriginal people, 56% said they are “moderately optimistic.”

Conversations around healing and reconciliation and the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action will continue across all levels of the church, said Thompson, noting that the Anglican Aboriginal perspective on this is expected to emerge out of the upcoming Sacred Circle, a triennial gathering of Indigenous Anglicans that is scheduled in August. Comments from Indigenous Anglican leaders were not available at press time.

The fact that women and youth had the “highest positive responses to moving forward bodes well for us,” she added. “There’s a correlation to youth and women in our church, for whom there is a highly positive view of Aboriginal rights and self-determination.”

At the ecumenical level, Thompson said the ecumenical justice organization, KAIROS, of which the Anglican church is an active member, has made a submission to the UN human rights committee, asking that Canada “take seriously its responsibilities to Indigenous peoples,” including the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“We are continuing even in this sensitive and also opportunity-rich times in which we are preparing for [a federal] election to really work hard together with all kinds of partners, [including] the government itself and those running for office,” to ensure that the TRC recommendations are implemented, she added.

In its exhaustive, 382-page summary of the final report released in June, the TRC identified 94 Calls to Action-with specific directives to Parliament, the federal and provincial governments, churches, faith groups and all Canadians-that would “redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation.”

Reconciliation is about “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship” between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada, but “we are not there yet,” said the report released by TRC Commissioners Justice Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild. “By establishing a new and respectful relationship, we restore what must be restored, repair what must be repaired, and return what must be returned.”

During its six-year term, the TRC gathered voluminous residential school documents, received over 6,750 statements (from former students, their families, Aboriginal communities and former school staff), held seven national events and conducted 238 days of local hearings in 77 communities across Canada. The goal: to document the truth about what happened in the residential schools, which operated from the 1860s to the 1990s, and to educate Canadians about what has been dubbed “Canada’s shame.”

For churches that operated the federally funded schools (Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic), the TRC recommended education strategies “to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families and their communities were necessary.”

The TRC also called on church signatories to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement as well as other faith groups to “formally recognize Indigenous spirituality as a valid form of worship that is equal to their own” in order to address the “spiritual violence” committed in the schools, the effects of which reverberate to this day in Aboriginal communities.




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