Residential Schools and Reconciliation

The introduction of residential schools represents a dark period in the history of Indigenous peoples in this country. When did the introduction of the residential schools begin? In the late 18th century, the relationship between First Nations people and the Crown was based upon commercial and military needs. The role of the Indian Department was to act as intermediary between First Nations people and the military. For example, after the loss of the War of Independence in 1783 in the American colonies there was an influx of United Empire Loyalists into Quebec and the Maritimes. The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 resulted in the establishment of a boundary between the American colonies and the remaining British territories in North America. The lands reserved for First Nations peoples through the treaties and alliances that had been negotiated with the British government by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 were ceded to the American colonies in the signing of the Treaty of Paris (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2014). The Six Nations people of the Iroquois Confederacy also lost lands in this war. The response by the Indian Department was to negotiate a series of land surrender treaties which paved the way for a peaceful establishment of an agricultural colony. In return, the Six Nations people were granted two parcels of  reserve lands, one at the Bay of Quinte and the other along the Grand River (INAC, 2011).

As settlers continued to arrive, the number of land surrender treaties increased. However, these treaties were produced so quickly that the terms contained poor descriptions, missing signatures and confusion over boundary lines. As the country became more settled, the role of First Nations peoples as allies waned. The government began to view First Nations people as in need of being ‘civilized’ so the role of the Indian Department shifted once again to one of encouraging the abandonment of traditional lifestyle in favor of becoming more agricultural and sedentary; in other words, being assimilated into British society.

The Crown, believing that they had the responsibility to care and protect the interests of the First Nations people, viewed their roles as guardian until such time as the ‘Indian’ could be fully integrated into society. To aid in this mission, the Indian Act that was introduced in 1867, gave authority to the Department of Indian Affairs to intervene in all aspects of Indian peoples’ lives such as determining who was an Indian, control over Indian lands, resources and moneys, outlawing ceremonial practices, and who could enter and leave the reserve.

One outcome of the Indian Act was the “Indian Education Policy.” The Davin Report of 1879  recommended the adoption of the residential school model which was similar to the one operating in the United States. The purpose of residential schools were to “Christianize and civilize” First Nations children. Residential schools were viewed as the primary vehicle for civilisation and assimilation. The education curriculum focused on reading, writing, arithmetic and languages. However, the underlying intent was to force the children to abandon their traditional languages, dress, religion and lifestyle. Native children were forced to attend residential schools, separating them from their families and communities, thus from the influence of culture.The result of this was the loss of language, culture, connection to family and community and environment, parenting, and spirituality. This has had lasting impacts to today.

The Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action

The residential schools are now closed and Indigenous people are still dealing with the impacts of that experience. In 2007, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was reached between legal counsel for former Indian residential school students, legal counsel for the Churches, the Assembly of First Nations, other Aboriginal organizations and the Government of Canada. Among the five elements of this settlement agreement was the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC had several mandates: to educate Canadians about the deplorable conditions of the residential school system, to document experiences of the survivors and their families, and to create a process of reconciliation that called for renewed relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples based on mutual respect and understanding. The TRC ‘Calls to Action’ released in June 2015 included 94 recommendations directed to governments, churches, organizations and all Canadians (Government of Ontario, 2016).

These recommendations in the ‘Calls to Action’ cover several areas: child welfare, education, language and culture, health and justice. The ‘Calls to Action’ also include recommendations aimed at the Canadian governments specifically to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, develop a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation, establish a National Council for Reconciliation and develop professional development and training for public servants. Other recommendations are aimed at the church, education systems, legals systems, youth programs, museums and archives, missing children and burial information, commemorations, media, sports and business as well as education for newcomers to Canada (TRC, 2015).

Five elements of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement:

  • a Common Experience Payment (CEP)

  • an Independent Assessment Process (IAP)

  • measures to support healing

  • the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

  • bringing closure to the legacy of Indian residential schools

(Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, 2018)

Learning Activities

  1. The following link provides information about the TRC Calls to Action. Take some time to familiarize yourself with what is contained in these calls to action:
    Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action

  1. Pick one of the 94 recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation ‘Calls to Action.’ How will you personally respond to that call? What are some things that you can do to help move forward with reconciliation?


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