Content warning: this article contains brief descriptions of abuse within residential schools
At the end of May, a discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation sent shockwaves across Canada. Through the use of ground-penetrating radar, unmarked graves of 215 children were found on the school’s property.
The Kamloops Indian Residential School operated from 1890-1978, first by the Catholic Church and then the federal government. Beginning in the 1870s, and until their closure in 1996, government and church-run residential schools were located throughout Canada with the purpose of stripping Indigenous children from their cultures, languages, and identities under the guise of assimilation and education. More than 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their families to face high levels of physical and sexual abuse at the schools. Survivors have been vocal for decades over the fact that many children never made it back home.
Since 2007, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has documented the experiences of residential school survivors in order to fully understand the extent of abuse, as well as the legacy of intergenerational harm the schools have inflicted on First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities. Its final report, released in 2015, outlines specific actions the federal government must take to address the systemic inequalities Indigenous peoples face as a result.
Trudeau’s government has faced criticism for its slow implementation of the TRC’s calls to action, despite his political rhetoric of reconciliation. Additionally, while acknowledging its importance, some Indigenous peoples expressed skepticism about whether the TRC is adequate enough to address Canada’s legacy of colonialism.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The TRC emerged in 2007 from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which remains Canada’s largest class-action settlement. The parties of the legal settlement consisted of Residential School Survivors, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit representatives, the Government of Canada, and associated church bodies. The TRC’s mandate was to educate all Canadians about residential schools through the stories of Survivors and their communities. The TRC documented the experiences of 6500 people with the purpose of “preserving the record of the human rights abuses, promoting continued learning, honouring Survivors, and fostering reconciliation and healing on the foundation of truth telling.”
In 2015, the TRC presented a final report outlining the lasting legacy of residential schools on Indigenous peoples and communities, and defined specific steps the federal government and other bodies need to take to advance reconciliation. The TRC’s 94 Calls to Action span child welfare, education, language and culture, health, criminal justice, missing children and burials, media, sports, and business.
The federal government has not only stated its commitment to implement the recommendations, but also the enactment of the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the “design [of] a national engagement strategy for implementing a national reconciliation framework informed by the TRC.” Six years later, what has the Trudeau government accomplished?
Beyond 94 is a CBC project dedicated to tracking the implementation of the TRC’s recommendations for reconciliation. According to their research, only 11 of the 94 calls to action have been completed, and less than half have projects underway. Meanwhile, a study by the Yellowhead Institute argues that only a dismal 8 have been fully implemented.
Some of the calls to action that are considered to have been completed include:
1) Federal acknowledgement of Indigenous language rights;
2) A federal Missing and murdered Indigenous women’s and girls inquiry;
3) Federal support for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation;
4) Long-term support from all levels of government for North American Indigenous Games;
5) Federal support for Indigenous sport programs and athletes.
The current rate of implementation is 2.25 action items per year, and at this level the TRC’s recommendations will not be fully completed until 2057. In light of the tragic discovery at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the federal government’s lack of strategy regarding the handling of missing children and burials has also been highlighted. Some other glaring problems include Canada’s tokenization of Indigenous peoples and cultures to appear inclusive, as well as serious funding and resource shortages dedicated to the TRC.
There is also criticism about the operations process itself, such as the absence of an independent body to oversee the government’s implementation strategies and to provide accountability. In fact, the 53rd recommendation states the need for Canada to create a National Council for Reconciliation, which has yet to be done. Before and following the Kamloops discovery, TRC commissioners have been pressuring the federal government to enact the calls to action with more urgency. This is especially crucial as many Survivors of residential schools are elderly, and only half of them are still alive today since the TRC launched in 2008.
“Reconciliation is Dead”
As a result of the Kamloops discovery, the Senate passed a bill to make September 30th a statutory holiday to remember the legacy of residential schools and to honour the process of truth and reconciliation. While this gesture arguably fosters awareness and dialogue, it is not the radical systemic transformation that many Indigenous activists have been fighting for. It should be seen as a superficial action given the government’s continued assaults on Indigenous territorial and economic sovereignty.
For over ten years, Unist’ot’en activists of the Wet’suwet’en Nation in Northern British Columbia have been organizing blockades in attempts to stop the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their ancestral and unceded territories. While the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs rejected the pipeline, a court injunction issued by the BC Supreme Court resulted in the dismantling of the blockades by armed RCMP officers and the arrests of Indigenous activists and elders. The federal government sided with the courts despite its rhetoric of reconciliation, and even went as far as framing the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs as “Aboriginal extremists.” Following the forceful dismantlement of blockades to protect their land from government and corporate interests, the Unist’ot’en rallying cry became “reconciliation is dead.”
More than sites of resistance, the blockades also functioned as spaces for “self-determined wellness and decolonization… through re-establishing relationships with land [and] ancestors.” This perhaps best exemplifies the limitations of the TRC and the federal government’s approach to reconciliation thus far, in that neither work to fundamentally dismantle the colonial systems in place that prioritize profits and extraction over the land and its peoples.
Government and corporate control of traditional territories constitute a long pattern of Indigenous land dispossession and genocide, which includes the creation of residential schools to strip Indigenous peoples of their land-based relationships, cultures, and identities. For many Indigenous peoples, decolonization goes hand-in-hand with land sovereignty and the right to self-determination.
As such, the continued undermining of Indigenous governance over their unceded homelands subverts the government’s efforts at reconciliation and highlights the limitations of the TRC’s calls to action. For instance, Trudeau has continually backed resource development projects such as the Keystone XL, Trans Mountain, and Coastal GasLink pipelines that have not received the free, prior, and informed consent of the Indigenous communities they impact. Further, the TRC does not substantially address the right to self-determination over land and governance, nor the impacts of resource development within Indigenous territories that affect land-based relationships.
It is well past time that Canadians work to truly understand that the history of their country is based on the forceful colonization of Indigenous communities and their lands. While the TRC has been important for increased awareness of residential schools and funding for Indigenous communities and programs, it fails to meaningfully address the roots of colonization and the oppression of Indigenous peoples entrenched in land dispossession. During this time of national mourning and reckoning, it is crucial to amplify the Indigenous voices that have been leading the fight for sovereignty and restitution for centuries.
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Edited by Tuti Sundara