Interim Report (TRC Canada)/Commissioner Activities

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Commissioner Activities

From the moment of their appointment, the Commissioners made it a priority to meet with former residential school students and staff. When the Commissioners took office, they initially travelled to events already organized by former students. This took them to such places as Oromocto, New Brunswick; Spanish, Ontario; Kamloops, British Columbia; and Cut Knife, Saskatchewan. The Commissioners and Commission staff also have visited hundreds of Aboriginal communities to talk about the Commission, the residential school legacy, and reconciliation.

In their public education work, the Commissioners have attended numerous conferences of Aboriginal organizations and churches, and have appeared as speakers at over 200 conferences and events organized by universities, governments, and churches, as well as by various professional and social organizations. Initially, presentations dealt with the Commission and its mandate, and the history of the residential schools. Dialogue now has moved towards engaging Canadians in discussions about the importance and meaning of reconciliation.

Early in their mandate, the Commissioners received the generous support of Governor General Michaëlle Jean in raising awareness of the Commission and the residential school legacy. The Governor General's primary interest was in engaging youth. In 2009, with the Commissioners, she hosted a special event, Witnessing the Future, at Rideau Hall. In 2010 she invited the Commissioners to help engage hundreds of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth at a forum in Vancouver immediately prior to the Vancouver Olympics. Later in the year, she attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first National Event in Winnipeg, where, as the Commission's first Honourary Witness, she participated in a Sharing Circle with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal young people to discuss the legacy of the schools.

The Commissioners also have been active in discussions with regional and federal leaders. In July 2009, they attended and addressed the Annual General Assembly of the Assembly of First Nations. In January 2010, they met with the board of the Métis National Council. In July 2010, they met with the board of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. In September 2010, the Commissioners made a formal presentation to the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples as part of the Committee's review of Canada's progress since the federal government's formal apology to residential school survivors in 2008. The Commissioners also have had meetings with various federal ministers, and provincial and territorial premiers.

In addition, the Commissioners have been involved in the activities that are outlined further in this report. Map 1 provides an overview of where the Commission has been in the first two years after the appointment of the current Commissioners.

By the end of September 2011, the Commissioners had met with former residential school students in every province and territory in the country.


What People Told the Commission

Over the past two years, the Commission has made it a priority to take every opportunity to hear directly from the people most affected by the residential school system: the students and staff who worked in the schools. In this interim report, it is not possible to summarize all that the Commission was told. But, for a variety of reasons, including the advanced age of many of the former students, the Commissioners believe certain messages must be relayed to Canadians now.

People have come before the Commission to speak of tragic loss and heroic recovery. Their message is powerful because it touches the lives of parents and children. It is important because it connects our nation's past and future. It is inspiring because those who were oppressed, victimized, and silenced have struggled to heal themselves and regain their voice.

At event after event, people spoke of parents having to send children off to residential school against their will. They spoke of tearful farewells at train stations, shorelines, and in school parlours, of children crying throughout the entire flight to school, and of cold and impersonal receptions given to children on arrival.

People told the Commission of being sent to school hundreds and even thousands of kilometres from their homes. Once they were there, it was impossible for their parents to visit them. In many schools, children stayed in school over the Christmas holidays, and, in some cases, they stayed over the summer as well. Some did not return home for years at a time.

People spoke of the immediate losses they experienced at school. Traditional, and often highly valued, clothing and footwear, handmade by loving mothers and grandmothers, were taken from them and never seen again. Long hair, often in traditional braids that reflected sacred beliefs, was sheared off. Many people had bitter memories of being deloused with lye or chemicals, regardless of whether they had lice. Children lost their identity as their names were changed—or simply replaced with a number. The Commission has heard of how students lost their individuality, were forced to wear uniforms, to march in lines, to wash in communal showers—treated, as several former students said, like they were animals in a herd. In the words of countless students, it was a frightening, degrading, and humiliating experience.

Former students described how they came from loving families and were cast into loveless institutions. They spoke of tremendous loneliness, and of young children crying themselves to sleep for months. Brothers and sisters were separated from each other within the schools, and often were punished for hugging or simply waving at one another.

Food was strange, spoiled and rotten in many cases, poorly prepared, and often in short supply. Many people recalled being punished for being unable to clean their plates. Others recalled that they were always hungry, and were punished for taking food from the kitchen or the garden.

For many, little in the classroom related to their lives. The only Aboriginal people they could recall from their history books were savages and heathen, responsible for the deaths of priests. They told the Commission of how the spiritual practices of their parents and ancestors were belittled and ridiculed.

Children were separated from families to get an education, but many of them spoke of how they spent much of their school days doing manual labour to support the school. Children who had lived traditional lifeways told us that after a decade of education, they did not have the skills they needed to survive when they returned home.

Many people came with stories of harsh discipline, of classroom errors corrected with a crack of a ruler, a sharp tug of the ear, hair pulling, or severe and frequent strappings. The Commission heard of discipline crossing into abuse: of boys being beaten like men, of girls being whipped for running away. People spoke of children being forced to beat other children, sometimes their own brothers and sisters. The Commission was told of runaways being placed in solitary confinement with bread-and-water diets and shaven heads.

People spoke of being sexually abused within days of arriving at residential school. In some cases, they were abused by staff; in others, by older students. Reports of abuse have come from all parts of the country and all types of schools. The students felt they had no one to turn to for help. If they did speak up, often it was impossible to find anyone who would believe them. Those who ran away from abuse said that in some cases, this only made their situation worse. Those who raised complaints often had the same experience. Many compared the schools to jail (in some cases, complete with barbed wire), and fantasized about being able to return home. Those who ran away could find themselves in trouble at home, at school, and with the police.

The Commission was told of children who died of disease, of children who killed themselves, of mysterious and unexplained deaths.

Many students who came to school speaking no English lost the right to express themselves. Students repeatedly told the Commission of being punished for speaking their traditional languages. People were made to feel ashamed of their language—even if they could speak it, they would not, and they did not teach it to their children.

It was made clear that not only language was lost: it was voice. People said their mouths had been padlocked. At school, boys and girls could not speak to each other, meaning that brothers and sisters were cut off from one another.

If they were abused, the only people they could complain to were the abusers. Later, as adults and parents, former students did not want to talk about their experiences to their children; husbands and wives did not wish to speak to one another about their residential school experiences. Some who were not abused or beaten said they had survived by trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. To stay out of trouble, they trained themselves to be silent and invisible. Students who witnessed violence and abuse spoke of how it left them traumatized.

The Commission heard about the hopes that some teachers had had when they started teaching in residential schools. It heard from teachers who fought on behalf of students. Teachers spoke of how they came to question their own work: to wonder about the lack of resources and the wisdom of attempting to change a people's culture.

Church representatives spoke about the difficult experience of learning such distressing truths about their own church's past. They are struggling to rethink their theology and their mission in an effort to right the relationship between their church and Aboriginal peoples.

Many former students also expressed gratitude for the education they received, and spoke of the long-lasting relations that had developed between some teachers and students, and especially among the students themselves, who became family away from home.

The Commission also heard about the fun that children had in school. In the presence of a dedicated teacher, some children experienced the pleasure of learning. While traditional Aboriginal games were undermined, many told of how they survived through their participation in sports or the arts. In some cases, particularly in more recent years, parents had sent them to school to learn the skills needed to make a contribution on behalf of their people. The Commission heard about how these students made, and are continuing to make, those contributions.

Survivors described what happened after they left the schools. People no longer felt connected to their parents or their families. In some cases, they said they felt ashamed of themselves, their parents, and their culture. The Commission heard from children who found it difficult to forgive their parents for sending them to residential school. Parents told the Commission of the heartbreak of having to send their children away, and of the difficulties that emerged while they were away and when they returned.

Some said they felt useless in their community. Still others compared themselves to lost souls, unable to go forward, unable to go back. Many people lost years of their lives to alcohol, to drugs, or to the streets as they sought a way to dull the pain of not belonging anywhere. Deprived of their own sense of self-worth, people told us, they had spent decades wandering in despair. People spoke of the former students who met violent ends: in accidents, at the hands of others, or, all too often, at their own hands.

Some people still find themselves reliving the moments of their victimization. For them, residential schools are not part of the past, but vivid elements of their daily life. Sights, sounds, foods, and even individuals can trigger painful memories.

People spoke of how the residential school left them hardened. People were determined not to cry or show emotion, not to react to discipline. People said that the prospect of going to jail had been of little consequence to them because they had already been through hard times at residential school and were familiar with the feeling of being locked up and isolated.

The government broke up families by sending children to residential school. The people who left the schools said they had not been given the skills needed to keep their families together. They had difficulty in showing love. Having known only harsh discipline, they treated their children harshly. People spoke of incredible anger, the damage it did to them and caused them to inflict on others. The abused often became abusers: husbands, wives, parents, children all fell victim.

People and communities have been left with the burden of pain and the responsibility of healing. It was left to the former students and their families to regain their voice. Thousands of them have launched what they so often refer to as healing journeys.

The Commission heard from proud people, people who asserted they were survivors. They had survived mental abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and spiritual abuse. They were still standing. Many have reclaimed their culture, are relearning language, and are practising traditional spirituality. In other cases, they have remained Christians, while infusing their beliefs with a renewed sense of Aboriginal spirituality.

People who were not able to show their children love spoke of finding a way to love their grandchildren, and to make amends with their grandchildren.

It is clear from the presentations that the people who have been damaged by the residential schools—the former students and their families—have been left to heal themselves. It is also the former students who have led the way to reconciliation, and they continue to lead the way. By regaining their voice, they have instigated an important national conversation. All Canadians need to engage in this work.

People also came with requests.

  • They want justice. People spoke about the difficulties they have experienced in claiming compensation under the Settlement Agreement. They spoke of how missing school records prevent them from being compensated. They spoke countless times of schools and residences that they believe should be included in the Settlement Agreement. They also said that, in addition to missing records, school-imposed variations in their names or spellings of their names have prevented them from being compensated for all their years at school.
  • They want support for the work they have begun in healing. For too long, communities were left to shoulder this burden on their own. In many of the remote communities that are home to former students, health services of any kind are scarce, and there are virtually no mental health services available.
  • They want support to allow them to improve parenting skills. In particular, people asked for support in regaining and teaching traditional parenting practices and values.
  • They want control over the way their children and grandchildren are educated. Reconciliation will come through the education system. They want respect.
  • People are angry at being told they should simply "get over it." For them, the memories remain, the pain remains. They have started on their healing journey—usually with no help and no support. They told the Commission they will be the ones to determine when they have reached their destination.
  • They want their languages and their traditions. With tremendous effort, people have sought out traditional teachings and practices, and worked at preserving endangered languages. They want the institutions that invested so much over many decades in undermining their cultures to invest now in restoring them.
  • They want the full history of residential schools and Aboriginal peoples taught to all students in Canada at all levels of study and to all teachers, and given prominence in Canadian history texts.

As Commissioners, we have been moved, strengthened, softened by what we have heard. We were reminded afresh that all this happened to little children who had no control over their lives and whose parents found themselves power less to prevent their children from being taken from them. People came to the Commission in openness and honesty, seeking to be faithful to what had happened to them. For many people, it was an act of tremendous courage even to appear before the Commission. Some people were so overwhelmed by grief and emotion that they could not complete their statements. In other cases, the pain was so intense that it was necessary to halt the proceedings and simply hold hands. These Canadians have been carrying a tremendous burden of pain for years. Finally, they are starting to be heard. Their messages will play a crucial role in shaping the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report.

Some issues presented to the Commission have been so clear, urgent, important, and persistent that the Commission is making recommendations about them in this report.

Education

There is a need to increase public awareness and understanding of the history of residential schools. This will require comprehensive public-awareness efforts by the federal government and in-school educational efforts by provincial and territorial governments and educational institutions.

Recommendations

  1. The Commission recommends that each provincial and territorial government undertake a review of the curriculum materials currently in use in public schools to assess what, if anything, they teach about residential schools.
  2. The Commission recommends that provincial and territorial departments of education work in concert with the Commission to develop age-appropriate educational materials about residential schools for use in public schools.
  3. The Commission recommends that each provincial and territorial government work with the Commission to develop public-education campaigns to inform the general public about the history and impact of residential schools in their respective jurisdiction.

Languages and Traditional Knowledge

Residential schools suppressed Aboriginal language and culture, contributing to the loss of culture, language, and traditional knowledge. Even when those direct attacks came to a stop, culture remained devalued. There is a need for the recognition of the continuing value to communities and society of Aboriginal traditional knowledge, including spiritual, cultural, and linguistic knowledge. This will require long-term financial investments in measures for the reclaiming and relearning and sharing of this knowledge. The resources spent on this should be commensurate to the monies and efforts previously spent to destroy such knowledge.

Recommendation

  1. The Commission recommends that the Government of Canada and churches establish an ongoing cultural revival fund designed to fund projects that promote the traditional spiritual, cultural, and linguistic heritages of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

Parenting Skills

It is clear that one of the greatest impacts of residential schools is the breakdown of family relationships. Children were deprived of the positive family environment necessary for the transmission of parenting knowledge and skills. That impact continues to be seen to this day; it is evidenced in high rates of child apprehensions and youth involvement in crime. The disruption of family relationships exacerbates the impact of high mortality rates and high birth rates in the Aboriginal community. There is a need for the development and provision of workshops aimed at reintroducing wise practices for healthy families, and to compensate for the loss of parenting knowledge experienced by generations of children raised in institutional settings.

Recommendation

  1. The Commission recommends that all levels of government develop culturally appropriate early childhood and parenting programs to assist young parents and families affected by the impact of residential schools and historic policies of cultural oppression in the development of parental understanding and skills.

Extension and Enhancement of Health Support Services

Survivors have told the Commission repeatedly of their urgent need for specialized health supports available near where they live. This need is especially acute in the northern and more isolated regions of Canada. In those regions, the per-capita number of residential school survivors and the critical need for health support are higher than in the rest of the country. In many cases, a single mental-health nurse in the North is expected to service a region that is the geographic size of an entire province. They do this without the benefit of road transportation or colleagues. In some communities, there may be no such nurse at all. The suicide rates in Aboriginal communities are epidemic in some regions of the country. Many survivors increasingly are angry and outspoken about the need for more long-term help for themselves and their children, including the creation of a specialized treatment centre in the North.

Through its work supporting the Commission's community hearings, Health Canada has been able to assess and refine its approach to providing mental-health support in keeping with its obligations under the Settlement Agreement. Ideally, Aboriginal health professionals who can combine their Western medical training with knowledge of their own healing traditions and culture should be found to do this work. However, given the lack of sufficient numbers of such professionals, the current ideal formula appears to be a balanced team approach: specially trained cultural supports and traditional knowledge keepers from within the respective Aboriginal communities, working together with academically trained health specialists from the non-Aboriginal community.

The loss of knowledge about, and access to, traditional spiritual practices, language, and culture are among the most frequently named abuses experienced by students at the residential schools. For this reason, many former students take greater comfort and strength from those health support workers who come from within their own culture and community, and who can help them through the use of traditional cultural methods or languages that value that part of their lost identity.

Long-term efforts will be needed to address the deep and prolonged community impacts of government policies that sent generations of Aboriginal people to residential schools. The Commission believes in the value of investing in the long-term capacity of Aboriginal communities. This will support their efforts to provide more of their own internal healing resources and to continue their healing work, following the completion of the Commission's work and other activities associated with the implementation of the Settlement Agreement.

Recommendations

  1. The Commission recommends that the Government of Canada, and the federal Minister of Health, in consultation with northern leadership in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, take urgent action to develop plans and allocate priority resources for a sustainable, northern, mental health and wellness healing centre, with specialization in childhood trauma and long-term grief, as critically needed by residential school survivors and their families and communities.
  2. The Commission recommends that the Government of Canada, through Health Canada, immediately begin work with provincial and territorial government health and/or education agencies to establish means to formally recognize and accredit the knowledge, skills, and on-the-job training of Health Canada's community cultural and traditional knowledge healing team members, as demonstrated through their intensive practical work in support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other Settlement Agreement provisions. #The Commission recommends that the Government of Canada develop a program to establish health and wellness centres specializing in trauma and grief counselling and treatment appropriate to the cultures and experiences of multi-generational residential school survivors.

Exclusions from Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement

Compensation under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement is restricted to the former students or residents of schools listed in the Settlement Agreement or those schools that have been added to the list under specific criteria.

Former students who attended schools or residences not included in the Settlement Agreement have told us they underwent the same deprivation of language and culture, imposition of religious practices, and physical and sexual misconduct by teachers and boarding-home parents or supervisors as experienced by students covered by the Settlement Agreement. Because the schools they attended are not on the list, they are not eligible for compensation under the Settlement Agreement. They say that, once again, they are being abused, injured, or traumatized because they have been left out and isolated.

In particular, the Commission has heard such concerns of exclusion from specific groups of former students:

  • The Inuit and Innu of Labrador. None of the boarding schools in Labrador were included in the Settlement Agreement.
  • Students who attended the same schools by day as students living in the residences, but who lived in home settings. In many cases, these 'day scholars' did not stay in their own homes with their own families, but in billeted accommodation.
  • Hostel students in the northern territories. Community hostels provided housing for students whose parents were away making a traditional living off the land. Some hostels are included in the Agreement; others are not. There is no clearly understood reason why.
  • Students who attended boarding schools where the federal government did not have responsibility for the operation of the residence and the care of the children resident there.
  • Students who attended non-residential schools, as directed by the federal government, but who also were subjected to cultural denial, and harsh emotional and physical treatment.

The exclusion of these students is a serious roadblock to meaningful and sincere reconciliation.

Recommendation

  1. The Commission recommends that the parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, with the involvement of other provincial or territorial governments as necessary, identify and implement the earliest possible means to address legitimate concerns of former students who feel unfairly left out of the Settlement Agreement, in order to diminish obstacles to healing within Aboriginal communities and reconciliation within Canadian society.

Impact and Reach of Apology from Canada

On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada issued a "Statement of Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools." While not all survivors accept the apology, many have told the Commission that hearing the government's apology has been very important to their healing.

Many of the people who have addressed the Commission have made reference to the Commission's commitment to act "For the Child Taken; For the Parent Left Behind." Often, they have mentioned their own parents, noting that no one had ever apologized to them. For their part, some parents have said they felt they had been left out of the apology.

The apology does talk about the impacts of the residential schools, not just on the students, but also on their families and communities. However, there appears to be limited awareness of its actual wording.

The Commission continues to face huge challenges in raising awareness, among non-Aboriginal Canadians, of the residential school history and legacy. This presents an enormous limitation to the possibility of long-term understanding and meaningful reconciliation. The Commission believes the Canadian school system has a major role to play in re-educating the country about this part of our long-term, shared history, with its present-day implications. Making the apology available to all Canadian students in their schools would be a positive step in this direction.

Recommendations

  1. The Commission recommends that, to ensure that survivors and their families receive as much healing benefit as the apology may bring them, the Government of Canada distribute individual copies of the "Statement of Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools" to all known residential school survivors.
  2. The Commission recommends the Government of Canada distribute to every secondary school in Canada a framed copy of the "Statement of Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools" for prominent public display and ongoing educational purposes.

Establishing a Framework for Reconciliation

There is a need for analysis, by governments at all levels and by churches, of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), in order to deepen understanding of, and appreciation for, the value of the Declaration as a framework for working towards ongoing reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

Recommendation

  1. The Commission recommends that federal, provincial, and territorial governments, and all parties to the Settlement Agreement, undertake to meet and explore the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as a framework for working towards ongoing reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation

In response to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Canada created a healing fund, administered primarily by Aboriginal peoples, that would specifically address the residential school legacy and assist former students who were physically and sexually abused. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF), established for this purpose in 1998, delivers a wide array of programs while conducting innovative research on the effects of the residential system on Aboriginal peoples. Its directors convinced the federal government to expand its mandate to include not only those who attended the schools but also those who were affected intergenerationally (the parents and descendants of the students) as well. In 2010 the federal government discontinued funding for the AHF, thus depriving former students and their families of a highly valued and effective resource. The closing of the Aboriginal Health Foundation will make Canada's reconciliation journey even more challenging in the years to come.

Recommendation

  1. The Commission recommends that the Government of Canada meet immediately with the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to develop a plan to restore funding for healing initiatives to the Foundation within the next fiscal year.


The International Context

The Commissioners determined early on that the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has an international importance. This was underscored when the United Nations proclaimed 2009 as the International Year of Reconciliation. Over the past two decades, more than forty truth and reconciliation commissions have been struck following civil conflicts in countries such as South Africa, Peru, Colombia, and Sierra Leone. Canada's TRC is unique in that it is the first commission to address human-rights violations that span over a century and focus on the treatment of Indigenous children.

The Commissioners also recognize it is important to place Canada's residential school system within the international context, particularly now that the world community, including Canada, has endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The residential school system was not unique to Canada. Governments and missionary agencies in many countries around the world established boarding schools as part of the colonial process. The systems varied from time to time and place to place, but they shared many common elements and left a common legacy. For these reasons, the Commission has participated in international activities. Representatives from other countries that have a history of residential schooling for Indigenous children, or similar abuses of Indigenous peoples, also have travelled to Canada to observe Commission events.

In April 2010, Justice Murray Sinclair made a presentation to the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on the work of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2010 the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recognized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as a model of best practices and an inspiration for other countries.

In September 2010, Commissioner Wilton Littlechild addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council's fifteenth session in Geneva, Switzerland, on the value that truth commissions bring to global reconciliation efforts. There, he expressed the Commission's support for an international experts' seminar on truth and reconciliation processes. Such commissions can play an important role in resolving conflict and improving relations between states and Indigenous peoples.

In September 2010, Commissioners Littlechild and Wilson presented at the sixth gathering of Healing Our Spirit Worldwide, an international forum and healing initiative that focuses on health, governance, and drug and alcohol issues and programs in Indigenous communities across the globe. Many former residential school students from Canada participated in this event.

In October 2010, the Commissioners co-hosted a youth retreat in British Columbia with the International Center for Transitional Justice. This initiative brought together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth to learn about social justice, the role of truth and memory projects, and the specific history and purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and to identify opportunities for youth to design and participate in truth and reconciliation activities here in Canada.

In March 2010, the Commission participated in the International Expert Group meeting on Indigenous Children and Youth in Detention, Custody, Adoption and Foster Care in Vancouver. Commissioners Littlechild and Wilson attended a special forum on the Native American boarding schools in the United States that was held in Boulder, Colorado. Commissioner Wilson met with representatives of the Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles to gain insight into the recording, preservation, and educational usage of oral histories of Holocaust survivors. In May 2011, there was follow-up work at the Tenth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in an international experts' seminar on truth and reconciliation processes.

In conclusion, the Commission has established relations with international organizations that enable it to learn from the work of other commissions, and to make contributions from its own experiences.