Let’s add some facts to the rhetoric surrounding Reconciliation Day



By Emily Britton … 

This opinion piece is not intended to convince you that Sir John A. Macdonald was a bad man whose image should be removed from our public spaces. Nor is it to convince you that there needs to be a statutory holiday dedicated to remembering the horrific legacy of residential schools. I am writing this in the hope that providing you with information about the history of settler and Indigenous Canadian relations you will confront your own biases towards Indigenous peoples. It is easy to form an opinion when you do not have all the information. Let’s see if we can mould that opinion with fact.

From research and published articles we have learned that ~
Archaeologists cannot agree on the exact date when Indigenous peoples first entered North America, however the most conservative guesses place the ancestors of North American First Nations people crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia into North America 12,000 years ago.

Pre-contact Indigenous cultures were complex; they had economic and political systems, as well as language diversity and spiritual beliefs. These Indigenous peoples were no less civilized or advanced than the Europeans who they made first contact with in the 1500s.

Many present-day Canadians believe that the settlers defeated Indigenous peoples in a war, fair and square. This is a misconception that is rarely challenged in the classroom. In reality, 95 per cent of North America’s Indigenous population was wiped out by European diseases, such as smallpox. These diseases were spread through Indigenous communities both intentionally and unintentionally, in what can only be described as biological warfare.

Let us not forget the military role Indigenous Canadians contributed to the War of 1812. Let us also not forget the creation of reservations that were purposefully established in the least habitable or economically profitable areas of Canada, or the purposefully insidious introduction of alcohol into Indigenous communities—where cultural norms and understanding around alcohol did not exist.

The crux of this discussion is around residential schools, because the ignorance being displayed in our own community toward the subject is appalling.

The first residential schools were established in New France in 1831. The last residential school closed its doors in 1996. Yes, 1996. It is not a “nineteenth century government policy”; it is a reality in our lifetime.

Residential schools were government-sponsored religious institutions with the goal of assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture by isolating them from their communities, culture and native languages. As a result of poor record keeping and intentional concealment we will never know the exact number of children who died at these schools, however it is estimated that at least 6,000 children died in these institutions.

In many cases children were not allowed to speak their native languages and were physically punished for doing so. Boys’ hair was cut, and the children were not allowed to wear their traditional clothes, thus removing any outward signs of their culture. The missionary staff forced Christian religious practices on the students, and denigrated Indigenous spiritual traditions.

Until the 1950s, half of the school day was spent in the classroom and the other half was spent working for free. This practice was used to exploit the children and was a form of slavery. Until the 1960s, children were not routinely sent home for the holidays, meaning they were only able to see their families for two months during the summer, though some students were not allowed to go home at all.

Excessive punishment, including physical abuse such as beatings and confinement, were commonplace at residential schools. Many of the students suffered sexual abuse while at the schools; however, charges against the abusers were extremely rare. Often the abuser was allowed to continue teaching at the school, further traumatizing the victims. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that “from 1958, when it first opened, until 1979, there was never a year in which Grollier Hall in Inuvik did not employ at least one dormitory supervisor who would later be convicted for sexually abusing students.”

In 1883 Sir John A. Macdonald said the following about residential schools: “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages. Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence.”

There were no good intentions behind the establishment of these schools. The goal was extreme assimilation. The goal was cultural genocide.

Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government will move forward to create a statutory holiday dedicated to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. The creation of this holiday fulfills one of 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC was established in 2008 under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and consisted of a variety of Indigenous experts in their fields. The mandate of the TRC was to create lasting reconciliation between the Government of Canada and Indigenous peoples. The purpose of this holiday is to ensure that Canadians never forget the atrocities that too many Indigenous children faced.

The goal of the proposed holiday is not to make white Canadians feel guilty or to ask them to take personal responsibility for the systematic oppression of Indigenous peoples that has been at play for the past 500 years. In fact, the proposed holiday would not be about white Canadians at all. But if discussing these issues makes you feel defensive or guilty, maybe it’s because you have fallen into the self-serving narrative that ignores historical fact, and tells you that Indigenous struggles are of their own making.

Emily Britton is pursuing a degree in political science. She is entering her final year at the University of Guelph and intends to pursue a Master’s in her field.

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  1. Nancy Osborne on

    Excellent article. It is so important that we understand and never forget our history. Education is how our culture can continue to evolve for the better.

  2. Karen Wehrstein on

    Well-written, Emily. Fact is, Canadians are blind to their own racism when it comes to people whom our forebears oppressed, exploited and killed so as to seize land. The underlying idea that they were ‘savages’ whose demise was inevitable and necessary for the spread of ‘civilization’ is woven, however quietly or innocuously phrased, into our culture. No one wants to feel guilty, so the inclination is to make excuses. But anyone who studies the true history, as you have, knows that it was all about wealth-grabbing via land-grabbing, and both physical genocide and cultural genocide were committed.
    I agree that wringing our hands with guilt does neither white Canadian nor First Nations people any good. Better to actually *do* something, so, yes, the truth and reconciliation project was necessary. We should honour the recommendations of the Commission. Same as truth and reconciliation are good for the individual soul, they are good for the national soul, too.

  3. A grave injustice against indigenous people was committed with the full cooperation of the benighted, elitist-pleasing government in Ottawa. We need to understand the truth so that this kind of thing never happens again. There are powerful forces operating in the world today who would like to see the earth’s population reduced by 90%. Not content with the genocide perpetrated in the abortion mills, they want to bring the “selective weeding” promoted by eugenicists, to the entire human family. They only pretend to care about the well-being of those who they consider their inferiors.

  4. Susan Godfrey on

    A fine, well researched article, in my opinion. It is also my opinion that we can’t truly commemorate a holiday until, finally, all First Nations residents have potable water, stable food sources and high quality education.

  5. Thank you Emily for shedding some light on this complex subject, but I would ask you to consider the following:
    • Early indigenous peoples in Canada did have a culture, but the Europeans were far ahead in their use of the wheel, the sail, muskets, cannons and building technologies that gave them advantage.
    • The last residential school was indeed closed in 1996, but the majority were closed by 1978 which is 40 years or 2 generations ago. The negative impact of the schools should be diminishing over time.
    • “There were no good intentions behind the establishment of these schools.” Is that really a fair assessment? It is impossible for us in 2018 to appreciate the conditions faced 150 years ago when there was no electricity, no telephone, no cars and the few roads were muddy paths. When Egerton Ryerson, the founder of Victoria College that became the University of Toronto, was asked to recommend the best way to educate indigenous children, his choices were: do nothing, send secular teachers (that were virtually non-existent) to many remote communities, or bring the students into residential schools as we do today with private schools and university students. They were taught by clergy who were virtually the only educated people available and should have been among the least racist. He chose the latter which resembled his own experience of being sent from here to boarding schools in England. The teachers were given a lonely, difficult and often dangerous job. They were not all saints, but they were not all bad either and many indigenous people have attested to that, e.g. the current government leader in Nunavut.
    • “Children were asked to do work which was a form of slavery.” How was that different from most farm kids everywhere (like myself) that had to help with chores at a young age? Many still do?
    • Certainly the early settlers were not all saints, but most were very good people that formed the base of a country that today ranks among the top 5% of 200 countries on every international comparison.
    • The indigenous people were not all saints either. They fought brutally among themselves as well as against the settlers. For example, the Iroquois virtually annihilated the Huron.
    • The 617 First Nations chiefs refused to accept basic and common accountability measures on billions of taxpayer dollars that were tagged for indigenous education by the Harper government. AFN Chief Sean Atleo resigned in frustration with his people and the program could not proceed.
    • Progress is slow but it is being made.

    Keep up the good work Emily and good luck with your studies.

    • To suggest that the negative impacts of residential schools will just diminish over time is naive and simplistic. Residential schools are only part of the trauma suffered by Indigenous peoples since Europeans arrived here. Consider also loss of culture, loss of language, loss of the land base on which to practise their way of life, devastation of the population by disease, economic marginalization, being forced onto reserves, cultural practices being outlawed by the colonial government, the Indian Act controlling every aspect of their lives, treaties not being honoured. I could go on but I’m sure you get the point. It is a testament to the incredible resiliency and determination of Indigenous people themselves that they have survived all this and resisted colonial attempts to assimilate them.
      I don’t believe residential schools were ever implemented with good intentions, they were part of an assimilationist strategy designed to “get rid of the Indian problem”. Turning these schools over to the church was simply the easiest and cheapest way to implement them. We need to face up to our history honestly and stop glossing over the brutal realities of what we did. We need to embrace the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and work with Indigenous peoples so they can become full partners in this country on their own terms.
      To compare the forced labour of kids in residential schools to kids doing chores on the family farm is ridiculous!
      Stephen Harper’s accountability measures were in large part a distraction, designed to blunt the impact of Chief Teresa Spence’s protest and the Idle no More movement which was gaining traction at the time. Is Canada accountable to First Nations for the Trillions of dollars we’ve made from the lands we took?
      Thank you Emily for your commentary, this is a topic we need to talk about more often in Canada!

  6. Thanks Emily for your lucid article on the purpose and legacy of the federal Indian Residential School system – an excellent example of open-ended historical inquiry! It is so important for Canadians today to uncover and to acknowledge their past, warts and all, in all its complexity and ambiguities, in order to heal and move into the future, in our quest to build a ‘peaceable kingdom’ north of the 49th.

  7. Jennifer Rosewarne on

    Thank you Emily. Your efforts are much appreciated. I will use your article as part of a ‘topic flood’ assignment in class this semester.

  8. Everyone agrees with what has happened, but when is their closure? Does the government have any plan to end this narrative? Or just continue it for the next 100 years? And continue to pour billions into the money pit and nothing appears to change, no one appears to know where the money has gone and for what?
    There are many, many indigenous stories of mismanagement, scandal, etc. Google this: “Indigenous mismanagement spending in Canada”. Yet nothing appears to change but the narrative: We need more money. Google this and see the facts for yourself: “indigenous spending in Canada”!

  9. Excellent article Emily.

    It’s disturbing to me that we are stuck on the creation of this holiday that fulfills one of 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a full decade after the TRC was formed. Prime Minister Trudeau needs to move forward with the creation of this day now.

    I won’t reiterate the wrongs committed against Indigenous people that make it necessary – you did a great job of laying it out – but I would encourage people to access any of the articles in major newspapers with the subject of reconciliation: don’t even read the articles. Go straight to the comments section where you’ll find either no comments or ones that are so ugly and hateful you should realize instantly how badly this day is needed.

    We are not the country we think we are. You said, “the ignorance being displayed in our own community toward the subject is appalling.” That is sadly true but we are not alone.

    The basic aspect of reconciliation is respect. Reconciliation has the potential to transform us as a Nation and to actualize such convictions as healing and hope. But first we need to understand and acknowledge the almost irreparable harms done, to offer restitution and to move forward to a more inclusive future for this Canada.

    Reconciliation is a process of relationship building. As His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, the former Governor General of Canada said, “Education offers us the best chance of finding our way out of this situation. Our hope lies in learning, and an unwavering commitment to tolerance, respect and inclusiveness in our relationships.” Let the process begin in earnest. Reconciliation Day is one step.

  10. Emily, there are no RESERVATIONS IN CANADA, they are RESERVES and were called such as they were meant as a place to house indigenous peoples prior to integration ( ignorantly or arrogantly so) into our western Europian society. I would suggest reading 21 THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT THE INDIAN ACT BY GILAKAS’LA better known as BOB JOSEPH. I believe the Scoop of Indigenous children from the 1960’s to 1996 had an even greater detrimental effect on Native Culture than residential schools. See James Bartleman’s : A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE.
    Unfortunately the narrative is long from over.

  11. Miigwetch Emily for your well thought out article.

    1. Who gives a flick about Eurocentric inventions, they have done nothing but spread the disease of “progress” through this land. Wheels and muskets etc in no way make a culture superior over another, only a corporate pawn would think that… in the near future the industrial revolution will be looked at as a disastrous failure of humanity’s forsight and lack of accountability.
    2. My Grandmother went to residential school in the 40s and 50s, the priest who repeatedly abused her when she was a child is still affecting our family and her Great Grandchildren today, even though my Grandma has been dead for over 10 years, is Intergenerational Trauma a new concept for you? Without reconciliation none of the effects of these schools will be healed, it doesnt matter if its 20 years ago or 500 years ago.
    3. Do.Your.Homework. There were NO GOOD INTENTIONS BEHIND THE CREATION OF RESIDENTIAL SCHOOLS! I’ve been “blessed” to look through historical documents (that are publically available) that show very clear reasoning based on a greed for land, racism and cultural genocide as the ONLY reason for these schools. Yes some Nations asked for schools so their kids could learn new skills, but that is not what they got. They took kids away fom home to remove them from their culture and turn them into slaves, period. They gave pedophiles and religious extremists free rein to attack these kids… was it the extremists or the pedos you think had the best intentions?
    4. There was no homogenized group of “early Settlers”, who are you talking about? And it does’nt matter if they were saints or not. Large chunks of them were forcibly immigrated here by Colonial governments using them as living Pawns (aka Ukranian, Polish, Chinese, Irish, Scottish and English peasant workers etc etc). The people who were making the decisions and influencing those Pawns were the Evil People, no one said it was their naive Settler Pawns who were all the problem, some First Nations and Colonies lived side-by-side very well. The Settlers were not the ones running the government or making the schools lol, they were hidden away from the Settlers as well, for a reason. The government knew any Good Person would be disgusted and outraged at what they were doing. AND just because ALL the “teachers” at these schools weren’t homicidal pedophiles doesnt mean a very large majority of them weren’t aware of the ones that were and they did absolutely nothing to protect the children or remove the offenders. Nor did they even give the kids a proper education. Look at the “lesson plans” they used. And why did the army & rcmp forcibly remove kids if it was just school they were going to?
    5. Pointing out that the First Nations fought against each other just like everyone else on the planet sounds like a racist remark. Of course they fought, they had/have very complex societies, there were also Quaker-like societies here as well. And without Warriors helping you with winning in 1815 you would be a U.S citizen right now. So, you’re welcome?
    5. Bringing up the Harper governments innability to treat First Nations issues with the dignity and responsiblitity it’s gonna take just makes you seem ignorant. If you don’t know the specifics of a situation why even mention it? Atleo had lost the trust of the people, he was not fulfilling his duties and he was pandering to a hostile regime. Again if you dont know the specifics of something just dont bring it up, you sound really ignorant.
    5. How come you didn’t mention the English helping the Haudenosaunee fight the Huron (by supplying them with muskets no less)? Or the French trying to help them (the Huron) but unintentionally making things worse with disease and religion?
    6. Some of the Residential Schools were even called Industrial Schools. There is a huge difference between chores and working on an assembly line. If your parents used you as a child labourer then yes it is a form of slavery, they are the ones responsible to provide for their children, not the other way around, they used you. Maybe your parents should have been responsible and not have taken on more work then they could handle themselves.

    The “progress” is slow indeed. We’re waiting on you Canada. We need Reconciliation, we need a proper Nation to Nation Relationship, and we’d like it if you could move all your junk outta the bathroom and the living room, and like maybe pay some proper rent (full and on time?) or maybe pack up your stuff and go move back in with your mommy? Just putting it out there Canada.

    Good luck Hugh with educating yourself about the history of where we live and the intricate society it has become, you sound like you have a lot to learn. Maybe in the future don’t attack someone who is trying to teach you about reality.

    To Bob Slater:
    1. Calm down, stop jumping around… okay, now take a deep breath.
    2. There is a book for you to read, it’s called Indigenous Writes and I think you and Hugh could even read it together 🙂
    3. The whole Chief system as it stands now was created by the government of Canada & the Department of Indian Affairs so of course it will be corrupt and hard to manage. Canada is not known for their transparency nor accountability lol.

  12. @ Bob Slater, Dale Peacock and John K Davis. Yes, apparently we are a long way from closure and reconciliation. The narrative is also apparently far from being over!

  13. Whatever one would like to think, we have only ONE country here. It is Canada and we should all be “Canadians” first, regardless of if we just immigrated or have family roots going back to Mongolia across some land bridge.
    Inclusive should mean we strive to all have the same opportunities and similar rights and freedoms. This is a nice way to do it now that we have the luxury of some money and resources with which to work.
    Remember, back at the turn of last century the idea of sending teachers to small and isolated indigenous communities was simply not an option. The technology needed to do this did not exist. People like Sir John A. did the best that they could in the context of their time era. It is unfair to try to judge them from today’s time with the benefit of hindsight and much greater technological support.

    As Hugh says, we are essentially learning as we go. Maybe we should be faster? Talk to your MP about this. At the time residential type schools made sense. Perfect? No way! but then we send our kids today off to universities and these are essentially a type of residential school, just much better run. We do this because as students move up the hierarchy of education there comes a point where in order to receive excellent instruction we have to send them to the instructor, rather than expect the instructor of necessary quality to come to our little communities to teach. This is just another form of “residential school”… like I say much better now as we have learned better how to do this.

    Another point is that, like it or not, trying to create two or more distinct societies within one country does not work well for the long term. If we create a “them” and “us” mentality there will be friction over perceived or real differences in the rights and opportunities each group receives. This will only create friction and carried forward for several hundred years one gets situations like Bosnia. Not exactly a good analogy of course but it does come to mind. Better to start making us all ONE people now to avoid this. It will take time but in the end will be a better result.

    Last, I am not sure creating another holiday will do anything for anybody in any practical way. Some politicians might get a warm fuzzy feeling and some people will like another day off of course, but really, is this the best way to proceed?

  14. Brian, I agree with your comment that we are on the path of creating two distinct societies in Canada. I have worked with and for First Nations in Ontario and BC. My wife and I currently live in a community in Northern BC and it is evident here. Federal and Provincial financial support to First Nations for cultural, social, political, medical, and infrastructure programs of all sorts is overwhelming. I think the issue is that no politician or bureaucrat is willing to have the difficult conversations needed to bring us all together as one society.

    I have no problem supporting people to which harm has been done, but at some point those same people need to also become self sufficient and start to fly on their own. Of course there will always be an element that do not and the support will continue to be there for those people.

    One final comment. Everyone reading this should also read the UNDRIP resolution (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People) to which Canada has committed both Federally (around 2007) and now Provincially. There are I believe 43 or 47 clauses in UNDRIP which might surprise you.

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