Truth and Reconciliation

The aboriginal peoples of Canada have experienced great injustice at the hand of the Government of Canada and many other institutions, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission serves to amend wrongs, restore relationships, and equip for the future. The Truth and Reconciliation is a series of reports and documents compiled in six volumes, created out of research and evidence gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The Commission carried out investigations and collected stories for over six years, and the final reports were published in 2015. The purpose of Truth and Reconciliation is to educate all the peoples of Canada about the Indian Residential Schools and the abuse inflicted on the First Nations, Metis and Inuit children. The reports contain numerous recommendations to implement positive change in the aboriginal communities and reconcile relationships through healing, support, respect, renewed cultural activities, and education concerning relevant issues. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission concerns every person living in Canada, and not just because the Residential Schools are such an important part of Canadian history. Canada is one country, and its people should be united in concerns of justice. The First Nations, Metis, and Inuit are not the only people living in the aftermath of atrocious cruelty; most Canadians, whether they are new arrivals or have lived here for generations, understand what it is to endure discrimination, oppression, and inequality. If there is a way to make things right, everyone should be involved. The Commission calls on all Canadians to stop ignoring injustice, to become educated about what has happened and what is happening, and to begin to amend the wrongs done.1

While often overlooked, the Residential schools are a part of the very core of Canadian history, as the idea for them began almost as soon as the country itself was born in 1867.  The government started officially taking aboriginal children away from their parents in 1880 in an attempt to ‘educate’ them and integrate them into Canadian culture.2 The children experienced cruel separation from family and friends, brutal punishment for any expression of traditional culture or language, and endured mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse. The last residential schools closed in in 1996, marking the end of a period of more than 100 years where over 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Metis children were often savagely forced to suppress their culture.3 Though the schools have been shut down for 20 years now, many First Nations, Inuit, and Metis continue to live in fear, shame, and anger, escaping their past through addictions and crime. Ramifications of the Residential Schools will continue to be felt for generations to come. This is why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is so important, as it addresses the truth of what happened (the history of the Residential Schools), explores methods for repairing damage done in the past, and ways improve the future.4


The article “Canada’s residential schools a history of ‘institutionalized child neglect’” published by Metro News Canada,5 examines how the Residential Schools warped aboriginal identity, focusing on the symbolic interactionism perspective. The article begins by describing some of the methods that the Residential Schools used to forcefully repress aboriginal culture, as documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then it speaks of how, for so many years, Canadians ignored the issue, disregarding reality in preference for a more comfortable perspective. It goes on to encourage reconciliation to restore relationships and interactions between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians. The article, taking much of its evidence from the Truth and Reconciliation reports, focuses on the behaviours of and interactions between students, teachers, and government officials involved with the Residential Schools.

In 2015, the Globe and Mail published a conflict theory article by John Ralston Saul titled “Truth and Reconciliation is Canada’s last chance to get it right”6 which examines how the social inequality between the aboriginal peoples and other institutions in Canada has reached a critical place of decision. Recalling how the aboriginal peoples’ pleas for justice went ignored for many years, the article urges that Canadians need to start implementing change now. The inequality has gone on for too long, and action needs to be taken: “the problem is not what we are doing. It is what we are not doing.”7 The article looks at some of the ways the power imbalance is revealed today, including in language programs, the criminal-justice system, the education system, and other governmental programs. The article ends with a call to restore the balance, and to make sure that the aboriginal peoples’ needs are met.

The articles are similar in that they both recognize that the aboriginal peoples have been protesting the Residential Schools for many years, and nothing had been done. The Metro News article describes how the situation, “despite its rippling effects, has been repeatedly dismissed or ignored.”8 In the contrasting conflict theory article, John Ralston Saul says, “there have been thousands of speeches, addresses and court cases over the last 150 years in which indigenous leaders have laid out the situation… We have done nothing to earn the politeness and patience with which we have been treated.9 From a symbolic interactionist perspective, there is one main reason why Canadians have ignored the situation: the residents of Canada (largely of European descent) viewed the aboriginal peoples as being inferior and savage, and they disdained their way of life, including their language, clothing, celebrations, preferred housing, education system, and religious ceremonies. In the Residential Schools, the children were forced to abandon their culture. They were not allowed to speak their language or participate in cultural ceremonies, they had their hair cut, their clothing and moccasins (which often held personal or spiritual significance) taken away, they were deprived of traditional foods, had restricted contact with relatives, and, in truth, were subject to “cultural genocide.”10 Some Canadians did not understand the significance of these symbols and behaviours, nor did they take the time to learn about the meanings that the aboriginal peoples attached to these things. But many Canadians did understand, and they supported the Residential School system in its goal of cultural genocide. A conflict theorist would suggest that the reason why the children underwent such brutal punishments was because European culture was dominant in Canada; the First Nations, Metis and Inuit societies were less powerful than the European societies. European settlers of Canada controlled the Church, the government, and most other influential institutions in Canada. There was a major imbalance of power, and those wielding the power created a system “designed to destroy indigenous civilization”11 by assimilating the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children into Canadian culture (which was predominately a western European culture at that time). In truth though, this conflict between the powerful and less powerful was not only two sided. There were, and still are, many competing institutions within Canadian society, and it just happened that the aboriginal peoples were forced to the very bottom of the hierarchy, and thus were subject to manipulation from all sides. For example, there were some major conflicts between the Catholic Church and the Government of Canada concerning Residential Schools in the 1960s. The government wished to start shutting down the schools, admitting that they were ineffectual, but the Church believed that it was the best method of assimilation.12 Meanwhile, the aboriginal peoples continued to suffer, either being deprived of education as some schools shut down altogether, or they remained in abusive situations at the schools.

Shutting down the schools did not solve the problem though, as present day ramifications are still obvious. Language, traditions, ceremonies, and whole ways of life have been lost over the 100-plus years of Residential Schools, which is a major point in the symbolic interactionist article and a major problem for today’s aboriginal communities. The Metro News article describes the Residential Schools as the “shameful history”13 of Canada, and despite present regrets over the Residential Schools, the purpose of the schools was achieved to a certain extent, as aboriginal communities struggle to bring back cultural traditions that were smothered. Yet the very fact that memories, stories, and songs still exist and are passed down today is proof of the “courage and determination”14 of the aboriginal peoples of Canada. The conflict theory article by John Ralston Saul looks at how the consequences of the Residential School system remain very apparent in the balance of power. The fact that there are no residential schools today does not mean that balance has been restored, for “the legacy of residential schools continues, not only through the direct effect that generations of institutionalization and abuse has had on survivors and their families, but how it is manifested in racism, systemic discrimination and poverty, as well as dying indigenous languages.”15 In fact, the Residential Schools helped to widen the gap. John Ralston Saul urges action, to “rectifying educational underfunding”, to support traditional languages, and to reform the criminal-justice system. These things will help breach the gap and provide more power to the aboriginal communities so that they can effectively advocate for their rights.

The fact that there is a problem, and that it has to be solved, or at least resolved, is a given. However, how to approach the problem is another matter altogether. For many years, it was simply ignored, but now the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has presented solutions, and Canadians have the option to implement change. The cultural symbolist article ends with a quote from the Commission Summary, reasoning that “by establishing a new and respectful relationship, we restore what must be restored, repair what must be repaired, and return what must be returned.”16  In a typical symbolist manner, the article focuses on face-to-face interactions and relationships as the solution to the consequences of Residential Schools. They believe that to restore the cultural practices, the language, and engage together in healing processes, and the problem will begin to be fixed. Interestingly enough, John Ralston Saul’s article from the conflict theory perspective contains an unexpected answer to the question of how to fix this issue. The root of the problem, according to conflict theorists, is that the aboriginal people have less economic, social, and political power, and so the struggle originated when those with greater power (especially the Church and government) misused their advantage to harm the aboriginal peoples. According to this theory, the logical solution would be to balance out the power struggle: to give the aboriginal people a greater voice and opportunity for justice. The article takes it to another level, saying that the reason there is this inequality of power is because the average person has done nothing to stop it.17 It suggests that the power struggles result because “the Canadian people – you and I – [have] not taken the stand we need to take. We have not given that fundamental instruction – the instruction of the ethical, purposeful voting citizen,”18 and so the solution is to, by exercising whatever power each individual has, restore some balance and create equality.

Standing up for what is right in the moment, may be difficult enough, but the Truth and Reconciliation Commission challenges Canadians to undertake something that is potentially even more difficult: to accept the consequences of over 100 years of destructive behaviour, and to begin the long-term process of restoration. Everyone must be involved because “reconciliation must mean real change for all of our people in all the places we choose to live, change that addresses the wrongs in a way that brings all of us closer together.”19 There is no one simple fix to this issue, nor is there one right way to go about it. Both the symbolic interactionists’ method of restoring relationships and culture, as well as the conflict theorists’ solution of restoring the balance of power, provide practical and realistic solutions. The goal is that, “one hundred years from now, our children’s children and their children must know and still remember this history, because they will inherit from us the responsibility of ensuring that it never happens again.”20 In the meantime, the responsibility to empower change rests on the present generation. No solution will be quick or easy, and “achieving an apology is not an end point.”21 Instead, Canadians are called to begin to implement change with respect and kindness, acknowledging what is past and working together to create a better future.


19, 21- Curry, Bill. “What Is The Truth And Reconciliation Commission?.” The Globe and Mail. N.p., 2017. Web. 9 Oct. 2017.

“For Residential School Kids, A Legacy Of Sex Abuse | The Tyee.” The Tyee. N.p., 2017. Web. 9 Oct. 2017.

“Indian Residential School Truth And Reconciliation Commission Of Canada | Cultural Survival.” N.p., 2017. Web. 9 Oct. 2017.

“Indigenous Peoples Can Decide Fate Of Residential-School Settlement Records, Supreme Court Rules.” The Globe and Mail. N.p., 2017. Web. 7 Oct. 2017.

Jazeera, Al. “Canada’s Dark History Of Abuse At Residential Schools.” N.p., 2017. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.

2, 3, 12- Miller, J.R. “Residential Schools.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.p., 2017. Web. 7 Oct. 2017.

6, 7, 9, 11, 17, 18- Ralston Saul, John. “Truth And Reconciliation Is Canada’S Last Chance To Get It Right.” The Globe and Mail. N.p., 2017. Web. 9 Oct. 2017.

5, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20- Staff Torstar News Service. “Canada’s Residential Schools A History Of ‘Institutionalized Child Neglect’ | Metro News.” N.p., 2017. Web. 9 Oct. 2017.

“‘State Of Crisis’ In Northern Sask. Highlights Truth And Reconciliation Calls To Action.” CBC News. N.p., 2017. Web. 7 Oct. 2017.

“Student-On-Student Abuse In Residential Schools An ‘Unspoken Truth,’ Says Senator Murray Sinclair.” CBC News. N.p., 2017. Web. 9 Oct. 2017.

19, 21- The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring The Truth, Reconciling For The Future Summary. Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication, 2015. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.

“TRC.” N.p., 2017. Web. 7 Oct. 2017.

1, 4- “Truth And Reconciliation Commission Of Canada (TRC).” N.p., 2017. Web. 7 Oct. 2017.

“Truth And Reconciliation Commission Of Canada (TRC).” N.p., 2017. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.

15- Young, Leslie. “‘I Was Very Broken’: Newfoundland And Labrador Residential School Survivors Seek Compensation.” Global News. N.p., 2017. Web. 9 Oct. 2017.