The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and its implications for education

implications for education

Sandra Styres, Adjunct Professor and Dawn Zinga, Associate Professor and Chair at Brock University, highlight the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and outlines implications for education

“Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem, it’s a Canadian problem. It involves all of us” (Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC Chair)

On Wednesday 11 June 2008, the then Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a Statement of Apology to former students of Indian residential schools on behalf of the Government of Canada, for their role in the operation of those schools. The apology was intended as a recognition that the residential school policy of assimilation was wrong, had caused irreparable long-term harm, and had no place in the ideology of the country. Canada fell into an identity crisis when the myth of Canada the Good was challenged by the acknowledgement of this shameful and ugly part of Canada’s history. After all, what does this mean for our past, our future, our identity and our reputation as a nation? What does it mean for us individually as citizens of a nation that could actively participate in and condone such acts of abuse and genocide?

Residential schools

Residential schools were government-sponsored church-run schools. The schools in Canada were predominately funded and operated by the Government of Canada together with Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United churches. The residential school era dates from the 1870s through to the 1990s. Indian residential school administrators and clergy, with the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Indian Agents, forcibly and violently removed over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) children ages 4–16 from their families and communities.

Nicholas Flood Davin in his 1879 Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds states “[I]f anything is to be done with the Indian, we must catch him very young. The children must be kept constantly within the circle of civilized conditions” (p. 12). These schools were established to “kill the Indian in the child” by: isolating FNMI children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures; severing connections to family and eliminating parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural and spiritual development of their children; stripping Indigenous children of their language; disrupting intergenerational transmission of vital traditional knowledge thereby destroying links to ancestral culture and traditions; and institutionalised assimilation into the dominant “Canadian” culture. These children would often be placed in schools hundreds of miles away from their home communities in an effort to keep them from running away as well as to minimise parental visitation and the likelihood that the children would be able to tell family or community members about the realities of the schools.

In 1920, amendments to the 1876 Indian Act made it legally mandatory for every FNMI child to attend residential school. The Indian Act was developed over time through two separate pieces of legislation regarding First Nations peoples across Canada: The 1857 Gradual Civilization Act and the 1869 Gradual Enfranchisement Act. Under the Indian Act an Indian1 was defined as: “First, any male person of Indian blood reputed to belong to a particular band; Secondly, any child of such person; Thirdly, any woman who is or was lawfully married to such person.” (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2002, p. 1)

While the 1876 Indian Act does not include the Métis and Inuit people, under this definition Métis and Inuit children were also forced into residential schools and have been and continue to be equally impacted by these experiences. Church officials consistently put pressure on Indian Affairs to ensure that Métis and Inuit children attended residential schools. In 1911 Indian Affairs school inspector, J. A. K. McKenna made the argument that it was in the best interests of the country to admit Métis children to Indian residential schools and sent a letter to the secretary of the Department of Indian Affairs stating:

Our Indian residential schools are the only agencies for the proper upbringing of these unfortunate class of children. What is to keep them from becoming outcasts and menaces to society if they be not taken into Indian schools—schools established and maintained, be it remembered, not for the mere purpose of fulfilling the conditions of Indian treaties, but in the interest of the commonwealth. (as cited in Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 23-24).

Similarly in the North, in 1927 A. L. Fleming, conducted an experiment requesting that two boys be sent from the Northwest Territories to a school in the south stating that “[t]he idea is not to educate these boys and send them back to the simple primitive Eskimo life, but to send them back for all practical purposes as white men” (as cited in Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015a, p. 26).  The experience proved disastrous for the two boys and they returned to the North after a year during which they suffered horrendous chronic illnesses such as influenza, pneumonia, measles, and tonsillitis. The department of Indian Affairs, while initially focusing most of its financial resources and political energies in educating First Nations children also, upon pressure from church officials, extended that treatment to Métis and Inuit children in the best interest of the commonwealth.

The 1876 Indian Act (and amendments) is administered by the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and is still in full force and effect. It is the legislation that governs First Nations people and their communities. It is very wide-ranging in scope, covering governance, land use, healthcare, and education. Duncan Campbell Scott, then Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, in his 1920 speech to parliament regarding Bill 14, an amendment to the Indian Act stated: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department and that is the whole object of this Bill.” (Titley, 1998, p. 50)

Following the passing and ascension of the 1920 Bill 14, parents were forced to surrender legal custody of their children to the school principals – who were church employees – or face imprisonment. The principals became the legal guardians of the FNMI children in their schools. By assuming legal guardianship of the children the schools were no longer under any obligation to advise the parents of the status and well-being of their children, even in the event of illness or death. In some cases parents never heard from their children again – they are often referred to as the lost generation. Far too many of the children in those schools suffered various forms of horrendous atrocities and abuse. Some died as a result of neglect, illness, and abuse or from exposure when they attempted to run away and tried to go home.

At the peak of the Residential School era there were over 130 residential schools located across the country. The last Canadian residential school, the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996. The objectives of residential school policies were based on the assumption that FNMI cultures, languages and spiritual beliefs were inferior and savage and that institutionalised assimilation was the only way to “save souls” and “civilise” the Indians. While there are an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt through the generations and has contributed to social problems and mental health issues that continue to exist. As Johanne Coutu-Autut, spouse of a former Turquetil Hall resident, so eloquently states: “I want Canadians to understand that the [legacy of the residential schools] does not just affect the lives of the person who actually attended the school but family members, such as spouses and children, are also very deeply affected about this sad legacy in history.” (cited in TRC, 2015, p. 183)

The Canadian government implemented this policy of assimilation and genocide for economic and political reasons. The government wished to get out of its legal, financial, and ethical responsibilities to FNMI people under the Treaties in order to gain access and control of land and resources: “If every Aboriginal person is absorbed into the body politic, there would be no reserves, no Treaties and no Aboriginal Rights” (TRC, 2015, p.3).

One of the outcomes of the 2008 Canadian Government Apology was the mandate to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was established June 1, 2008 as an independent body whose mandate was to:

(a) Acknowledge residential school experiences, impacts and consequences;

(b) Provide a holistic, culturally appropriate and safe setting for former students, their families and communities as they come forward to the Commission;

(c) Witness, support, promote and facilitate truth and reconciliation events at both the national and community levels; and

(d) Promote awareness and public education of Canadians about the Indian Residential School system and its impacts.

The TRC completed its work in 5 years and presented its final report in June 2015. In order to remedy the legacy of residential schools and move toward reconciliation the final report contains 94 Calls to Action covering five broad areas relating to child welfare, education, language and culture, health, and justice. We have pulled out the most salient points from each of the broad areas. Each of these points have direct relevance and particular implications for education across diverse contexts. The TRC calls upon the government, in genuine consultation and with the full participation and informed consent of FNMI peoples:

Child Welfare

To reduce the number of FNMI children in care by ensuring that social workers and others who conduct child-welfare investigations are properly educated and trained about: the history and impacts of residential schools; and the potential for FNMI communities and families to provide more appropriate solutions to family healing. Also, to develop culturally appropriate parenting programs for FNMI families.


To develop strategies to close funding, educational attainment, and employment gaps; to draft new FNMI education legislation that includes a commitment to sufficient funding and would incorporate the values and principles of FNMI peoples; to provide adequate funding to end the backlog of FNMI students seeking to enter post-secondary education; and to develop culturally appropriate early childhood education programmes for FNMI families.

Language and Culture

Acknowledge and recognise that FNMI rights include FNMI language rights; enact an FNMI Languages Act that incorporates the values and principles of FNMI peoples; appoint an FNMI Languages Commissioner who will have oversight of FNMI language initiatives across Canada; post-secondary institutions to create university and college degree and diploma programmes in FNMI languages; enable residential school survivors and their families to reclaim names changed by the residential school system by waiving administrative costs for a period of five years for the name-change process and the revision of official identity documents.


Acknowledge that the current state of FNMI health in Canada is a direct result of previous Canadian government policies, including residential schools; recognise and implement the healthcare rights of FNMI people as identified in international law, constitutional law, and under the Treaties; provide sustainable funding for existing and new FNMI healing centres to address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harms caused by residential schools, and to ensure the funding of healing centres, medical and nursing schools in Canada; to require all students to take a course dealing with FNMI health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and FNMI rights, and Indigenous teachings and practices.


Ensure that lawyers receive appropriate cultural competency training, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and FNMI rights, Indigenous law, and FNMI–Crown relations; law schools in Canada to require all law students to take a course in FNMI people and the law, which includes the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and FNMI rights, Indigenous law, and FNMI–Crown relations; provide more supports for FNMI programming in halfway houses and parole services; create adequately funded and accessible FNMI-specific victim programmes and services with appropriate evaluation mechanisms.

Child welfare, education, language and culture, health, and justice are socio-political constructions that also have direct implications for educational contexts. Justice Sinclair, TRC Chair, challenges each of us to pick just one of the Calls to Action to implement in our daily personal and professional practices. With each of us working to fulfill the Calls to Action we can pave the road to reconciling colonial relationships – this in turn leads to greater economic, social and political wellbeing both for FNMI people and for Canada as a whole, nationally and within the global arena.

Map of Residential Schools in Canada

implications for education

Sources: McCord Museum; Claims and Historical Research Centre, DIAND; National Archives of Canada; Archives Deschâtelets; Archives of Ontario; General Synod Archives of the Anglican Church; United Church of Canada Archives; University of Victoria; Provincial Archives of Manitoba; Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference of the United Church of Canada Archives; Anglican Diocese of Calgary Archives; Calgary Office of Parks Canada; Nakoda Archives; Provincial Archives of Alberta; Vancouver City Archives; United Church of Canada Conference, British Columbia Archives; Archives of St. Paul’s Province of Oblates; Royal British Columbia Museum; Archives of Sister St. Ann; Archivesof Yukon; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; and Algoma University College, Sault Ste. Marie.

Produced: April 2001, Kathy Kettler, Aboriginal Healing Foundation.



1. Indian is a government legislated designation that collectively describes all the First Nations people in North America who are not Inuit or Métis. Indian peoples are one of three peoples recognized as Aboriginal in the Constitution Act, 1982 along with Inuit and Métis. This term continues to be primarily used in the USA and by previous generations of First Nations people in Canada. Its use is now considered offensive in Canada.



Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (January 2002). Indian Act R. S., 1985, c. I-5 (Office Consolidation). Ottawa, ON: Author.

Titley, E. B. (1986). A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs Canada. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015a). Canada’s Residential Schools: The Inuit and Northern Experience : The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 2. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queens University Press.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015b). Canada’s Residential Schools: The Métis Experience. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 3. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queens University Press.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015c). Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.  Ottawa, ON: Author.


Sandra Styres

Adjunct Professor

Department of Child and Youth Studies, Brock University

Assistant Professor of Language,

Literacy and Curriculum in Aboriginal Education

Department of Curriculum, Teaching & Learning, OISE/University of Toronto

Dawn Zinga

Associate Professor and Chair

Department of Child and Youth Studies, Brock University


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