On June 1st, 2008, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in Canada. Its focus is the abuse and mistreatment of Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and placed in the Indian Residential School (IRS) System.

Eleven days after the TRC was established, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a public apology to the Aboriginal People of Canada.

 The Canadian TRC has a daunting task ahead of it. Having established its five-year mandate, the Commission has begun a cross-country tour to raise awareness. Its formation has met with mixed reactions from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians alike. Some reactions question the premise of the Commission itself: Is truth enough to allow for reconciliation? What about justice? Can there be legal prosecution of those individuals and organizations responsible for the crimes committed? Other questions focus on possible challenges and outcomes: How will language play a role in the TRC? Will an attempt be made through the TRC to re-invigorate Aboriginal languages? How or will the TRC affect actual conditions in Aboriginal communities? Will the TRC affect the outcome of ongoing land claim disputes?

UPDATES: Since I started writing on this topic, all three TRC Commissioners have stepped down. The TRC is currently searching for new Commissioners. To learn more, click here or check out the TRC website.

Some Background information on the Indian Residential School system:

By tracing the changes in the relationship between Aboriginals and settlers as reflected in official policy before Canada’s confederation, we can glean an important shift in colonial ways of thinking about indigenous peoples. In the Proclamation of 1763, for example, there was a clear articulation of the “separateness” of the Aboriginals and support for self-governance. The  Proclamation put forward a “policy of civilization,” where training in agriculture, commercial fishing and industrial training (to work in saw and grist mills) were to be provided to the First Nation communities. The hope was that a modern economy would develop and these communities would become self-sufficient. It wasn’t until 1857 and the Gradual Civilization Act that a radical shift in this policy would take shape. It was during this period that Aboriginal self-governance and the concept of “civilization” were seen as conflicting. As a result, official policy moved from that of self-governance to one of assimilation. To the colonial administrators, the attempt to “civilize” the Aboriginals had appeared to fail, and efforts were refocused and redirected towards an educational policy. Aboriginal adults were viewed as a lost cause and the focus became Aboriginal children, their education and the desire to shape them into skilled laborers.

The political landscape during this period was changing rapidly. As a newly formed nation (Confederation occurred in 1867), unity took precedence over diversity and Aboriginal people were seen as an impediment towards a national identity and harmony. The Indian Residential Schools were one way in which this unity could be reached. As a result, the newly formed Canadian government passed a series of Acts that awarded new power and control to the government department of Indian Affairs.

 It was during this period that day schools were deemed insufficient and residential schools that would more fully separate children from their parents, communities, and cultures became the norm (Miller 112-120). Through collaboration with the Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic and United Churches, the government of Canada ran the IRS system for over 100 years.

The construction of the IRS system was a reflection and perpetuation of the existing discourse surrounding Aboriginal people. They were seen as “savages,” “uncivilized” and were framed as the “Indian Problem.” The IRS system was seen as one solution to this problem.

Many children in these schools suffered from abuse and mistreatment. Their living conditions, in some cases only now coming to light, were substandard at best. Many children (estimates range from hundreds to thousands) died in those schools. Adequate records were not kept of the deaths (Milloy 77-79). Forbidden from speaking their native languages and practicing their own culture, they often returned to their communities without an ability to communicate with their own families. Drug and alcohol abuse became rampant in former students. The IRS system remained in place for over one hundred years. The last school closed its doors in 1996.


Archuleta, Margaret L., Brenda J. Child, and K. Tsianina Lomawaima, eds. Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, 1879-2000. Phoenix, Arizona:  Museum of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Chrisjohn, Roland David. The Circle Game : Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus Books, 2006.

Churchill, Ward. Kill the Indian, save the man : the genocidal impact of American Indian residential schools. San Francisco : City Lights, 2004.

Jack, Agness, ed. Behind Closed Doors: Stories from the Kamloops Residential School. Pentiction, BC: Theytus Books, 2001.

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. “To Remain An Indian”: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education. New York : Teachers College Press, c2006.

McKegney, Sam. Magic Weapons : Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community After Residential School. Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press, 2007.

Miller, J.R. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1996

Milloy, John. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

Trafzer, Clifford E., Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc, eds. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

International Center for Transitional Justice. October 15, 2008. http://ictj.org/en/where/region2/513.html#BAC

Truth and Reconciliation Commission. October 16th, 2008. http://www.trc-cvr.ca

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