A light was shone on a dark, troubling chapter in Canada’s history on Tuesday, June 2.
The country’s church-run, government-funded system of residential schools, which operated for more than 120 years, was officially branded a “cultural genocide” that tore aboriginal families apart.
The massive report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Justice Murray Sinclair, was six years in the making. It interviewed almost 7,000 residential school survivors, documenting the abuse and they suffered and the scars they live with. The report makes 94 recommendations which call for a complete rebuilding of Canada’s relationship with it’s aboriginal population.
A key recommendation in the report summary is to create a mandatory, age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and the contributions of Aboriginal Peoples taught across Canada from kindergarten to Grade 12.
And to Sophie Pierre, education is the key to being able to move forward from this troubled legacy.
“There’s been so much written about, so much studied, and yet there still seems to be so little that is known by Canadians, about the true history of Canada,” Pierre said in an interview with the Townsman. “Especially in regards to the history of aboriginal people.”
“One continues to hope that eventually something is going to make an impact, and it’s going to stick. I certainly hope it’s going to be this report.”
Pierre is a former Chief of the ?aq’am (St. Mary’s) Band near Cranbrook, and recent Chief Commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission. She also attended the St. Eugene Residential School, before attending Mt. Baker Secondary School in Cranbrook. The St. Eugene Residential School (now the luxury hotel at St. Eugene Mission Resort) was the only such school in the Diocese of Nelson, and one of 18 in British Columbia. It operated as a residential school from 1912 to 1970.
“The thing is that children today still aren’t learning about it,” Pierre said. “What’s so frustrating — and this is what the chief commissioner mentioned — is that lack of education we have in this country. The continued disregard. There’s been so much already that’s been published, and yet we continue to have school systems that have the whole notion that this was an empty place when Columbus wandered in.”
It is estimated that of the 150,000 students who attended the institutions, more than 6,000 children died during their time there. The last school, located outside of Regina, closed in 1996.
Pierre said that hearing the report summary Tuesday was a very moving experience.
“I certainly hope the government will take this and do something with it, as opposed to what many people are afraid of, that it will be just like all the other reports. We’ve had study after study, going back to the 40s even, where recommendations were made, that we needed to have a better representation of what Canada’s history is. And yet, even today in 2015, it’s still not totally ingrained in our community.”
The Ktunaxa Nation have established a prominent and positive presence in the region, with good working relations with neighbouring municipal governments, school districts and other institutions. This relationship is still fairly unique, Pierre said.
“The relationship that we have as a nation with the people who have chosen to make their home within our traditional territory (is positive). We have a good relationship with the school system, with the college. We have positive relations with the health authority.”
But all of that has been because the Ktunaxa has been forward-looking, with forward-looking leadership, Pierre added.
“I wish it was like that for all aboriginal communities, but quite frankly it’s not. The teachings that go on in our schools (on Ktunaxa territory) are a result of the recognition of what we as a nation have to offer, and the schools opening their doors for us. That doesn’t happen all over the province. It certainly doesn’t happen in much of the rest of Canada. That’s just really sad.
“We have quite a prominent place in our traditional territory here, and that’s the way it should be, because our history is the history of this place,” Pierre said. “So it becomes a history of everyone who lives here, and every child who’s going to school deserves to know what the history is of the place they call home.”
Several years ago, the Ktunaxa First Nation and the Diocese of Nelson conducted a series of reconciliation workshops over their mutual residential school history, opening up a new chapter in relations between the two groups.
“Until there’s a real recognition and acceptance of what the history is, I don’t know if it’s really possible for people of my generation to really have closure,” Pierre said. “If we were all able, as a society, to move forward, and by that I mean recognizing the history, by having aboriginal people feel that they are really a part of Canada — then I think that future generations aren’t going to continue with that legacy. Because we haven’t had that, that’s why we continue to have that negative legacy going forward.”
“As the Ktunaxa Nation, we’ve taken that to heart as much as we can, for being responsible for our own future. For making that difficult choice that we made many years ago, to take the former residential school and turn it into something positive.
“We recognized that this is really bad, it’s our history, it’s the history of the whole region, the history of Canada. But we’re making a choice that we’re going to change that, that that’s not the only memory that future generations will have.”
Highlights from the Truth and Reconciliation report on residential schools
OTTAWA – The Truth and Reconciliation Commission examining Canada’s residential-school system has released a summary of its six-volume report, the culmination of six years of study of the church-run, government-funded institutions, which operated for more than 120 years.
Some of the 94 recommendations it contains:
– Adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
– Establish a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation reaffirming the nation-to-nation relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and the Crown;
– Solicit from Pope Francis an apology for the role played by the Roman Catholic Church;
– Call a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women;
– Establish a written federal policy reaffirming the independence of the RCMP to investigate crimes in which the federal government may be an interested party;
– Change the oath of citizenship to reflect treaties with Aboriginal Peoples;
– Establish, through the provincial and territorial governments and the federal government, national standards for foster care and reduce the number of aboriginal children in care;
– Repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code, the so-called spanking law, in order to outlaw corporal punishment;
– Create a mandatory, age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, treaties and the contributions of Aboriginal Peoples taught across Canada from kindergarten to grade 12;
– Build a residential-schools monument in every provincial and territorial capital;
– Increase CBC and Radio-Canada funding to better ensure it can support reconciliation and include the languages and perspectives of Aboriginal Peoples;
– Pass a federal law establishing aboriginal education standards to ensure children going to school on reserves have access to the same resources as those outside their communities;
– Develop post-secondary programs in aboriginal languages;
– Establish mechanisms to narrow the health-care gap between Aboriginal Peoples and other Canadians, including building aboriginal healing practices into the health-care system and spending more on aboriginal healing centres;
– Allow trial judges to exempt Aboriginal Peoples from mandatory minimum sentences and work to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal Peoples in prisons and jails;
– Settle residential-school claims with those excluded from settlement agreement, including Metis, day school students and those in Newfoundland and Labrador.