For a very long time, I’ve felt that history must always have a contemporary relevance. It’s the activist in me, but I do believe that we must understand the past in order to make the present and future better. Now, this belief does make understanding the medieval mind a little more challenging (but by no means impossible!) and it also compels the historian to become an active participant, rather than a hidden figure in the ivory tower.
Canada is at a crossroads, a true tipping point. One fork leads to more of the same, the other leads to a redefinition of the country, its government and the way indigenous people fit into the mix. Yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced plans to abolish the Ministry of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (let’s face it, everyone still called it Indian Affairs) and replace it with two new departments: Indigenous Services (with a focus on the social service-type issues) and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (more politics). The move is contingent on legislation being tabled, but it is almost guaranteed to pass given the majority government.
According to reports, the move is based on recommendations made as part of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples back in 1996 and is designed to put First Nations on a level playing field with Ottawa. It’s too soon to tell what this will mean (and, given the history of Indigenous issues in Canada, “if anything” is a very valid answer), yet it could be a true turning point in history.
“In the spirit of reconciliation” is a phrase being used more at all levels of government and it stems from the 2015 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which investigated the residential school system, its impact and how to move forward. Although Trudeau’s move apparently draws inspiration from 1996, it is no doubt formed in the moment of reconciliation - something which his predecessor decided to quietly ignore.*
I finally read the executive summary of the TRC’s report this summer. It felt like an appropriate gesture in what is the 150th birthday of Canada. In fairness, executive summary is a misnomer: this abridged volume still weighs in at over 400 pages and it is difficult to find any way to shorten it. It’s a long and methodical read, but not as emotive as I had expected. Backed up by the most copious endnotes I have ever seen (the chapter on the history of the residential school system has a staggering 674), the report outlines the origins, goals, realities, impacts and future of the residential school system and its aftermath.
For more than a century, native children (mostly from Western Canada, the North, Northern Ontario and Northern Quebec) were removed from their communities to be educated (and often housed) in schools run by either the federal government or a religious denomination. On paper, this was to offer them the best start in a modernizing country in which there was no place for the traditional life of First Nations people. For many of the students, it was a difficult time away from all that was important and familiar to them, cut off from their families. For many others, it was a living hell of abuse. Incredibly, the last residential school only closed in the 1990s, but the damage began from the earliest days.
What I found most interesting was that the report was ambiguous as to the cause of the abuse. On the one hand, some school staff were clearly evil, given the ultimate control over a vulnerable group. On the other hand, chronic underfunding meant that inadequate resources were available, so even those with the best of intentions couldn’t make the system work, meaning that it would always fall short.
It is far more clear that the impact of the residential schools was overwhelmingly negative. Yes, there were opportunities for further education and extracurricular activities, but the few shining moments cannot outweigh generation after generation of students who grew up unable to fit into either their birth society or their ‘adopted’ society. If we accept that childhood trauma shapes the rest of our lives (and those of our descendants), then all the ills that plague Canada’s First Nations can be blamed on the residential school system: a group so distorted by the schools that they were unable to look after the next generation, which was further hobbled by their own residential school experiences and so on. Based on this argument, the statistics on health, criminality, suicide and unemployment among First Nations point to a country that has completely failed an entire group of people for over 150 years.
The apologies have been made (still waiting on the Catholic Church to step up though), the TRC report has been published and Trudeau’s government is making steps to change the route forward, but what next? Prejudices on both sides must be overcome: Canadians must drop the “drunk Indian” stereotype and First Nations must believe that there are politicians and other Canadians who do want things to change. Non-indigenous Canadians must learn a hidden chapter of history and must be ready for things in the country to change, especially in terms of government, land ownership and culture.
The TRC makes 94 recommendations to make Canada a better place for everyone who lives here. There is a lot of work to be done and it will not happen overnight. One step at a time, one recommendation at a time. Let’s talk. Let’s make this work.
*It is no secret that I believe that Stephen Harper’s government was one of the worst things to ever happen to Canada. Yes, Harper did issue the official apology for the residential school system in 2008, but his commitment to reconciliation ended there. One thing that struck me from the TRC report was how much it relied on census data for its analysis. In 2010, Harper abolished the long-form census, citing privacy concerns. While Trudeau reinstated it in 2016, we will forever have a dark age with no data. A true commitment to reconciliation will require as much data as possible to create the most detailed picture of the situation. Any government willing to abolish its core source of demographic information cannot have been sincerely committed to reconciliation.