– By Nina Badwal –
This September 30th, we will commemorate the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – a statutory holiday to remember the tragic legacy of residential schools in Canada. A bill creating this new holiday (Bill C-5) was unanimously passed by the Senate in June 2021.
Establishing a national holiday was one of the 94 “Calls to Action” (recommendations) from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) – a report that was released in 2015 documenting the history of the residential school system and how its assimilation policies affected Indigenous children and their families.
Kuper Island Indian Residential School in British Columbia. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
During a period of more than 150 years, First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families to attend church-run residential schools. About 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to go to these schools where many suffered physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and neglect – and many never returned home.
Grade 4 teacher Catherine Inglis says her students at Rose Avenue Junior Public School in St. James Town, have a difficult time understanding how a school system could mistreat children. “I do find with the younger students, it’s still often a shock, even if they had been taught about it, they don’t always retain everything. So for some of them, they’ll be like, ‘this isn’t fair’ and they’re getting their heads around fairness. They really do put themselves in the shoes of other kids and try to understand how a system, how could a teacher, how could a school do those things.”
A class portrait of students, priests and nuns at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Manitoba, February 1940. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
The TRC concluded: “For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide’.”
“I think the TRC has definitely tried to help Canadians and the world understand what it was like for these people, for these human beings who went through such a traumatic experience,” says Frank Pio, Indigenous Education Resource Teacher at the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
Pio says the TRC report has been an important resource for children in an educational setting and that people can no longer be ignorant about the dark history of residential schools. “The elders feel that obviously not enough has been done but at the same time, it’s better than it was. And one of the things they say is: people can’t say anymore that they don’t know. There is more information out there.”
Since May 2021, hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered at former residential school sites across Canada, using ground-penetrating radar. Inglis says the discovery of 215 children found at the former site of a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia was a topic of discussion in one of her classes. “We’ve heard there have been stories out there for years, that there are these unmarked graves in many of the schools. And with some of the older children, I’ve had those discussions…We revisited what it means to be a Treaty person, we actually were able to engage in a workshop with the Urban Indigenous Education Centre.”
Pio says, “I think Canada is trying to incorporate this idea of reconciliation. But one thing I’ve been told by elders is: it should be called reconciliACTION – there can’t be reconciliation without action.”
Sources: National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and the Canadian Press.