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Review

The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volumes 1-6

By Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada

April 10, 2016

Review By J.R. Miller

A portion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) mandate laid out in Schedule N to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement [IRSSA] of 2006 said that the Commission was to “Produce and submit to the Parties of the Agreement a report including recommendations to the Government of Canada concerning the IRS system and experience including: the history, purpose, operation and supervision of the IRS system, the effect and consequences of IRS  (including system harms, intergenerational consequences and the impact on human dignity) and the ongoing legacy of the residential schools.” The TRC’s terms of reference also said that the Commission was to produce its “report on historic findings, within two years of the launch of the Commission.” In part because of the abortive start of the Commission in 2008, when the original trio of commissioners imploded and had to be replaced, the TRC was not able to keep to the schedule outlined in its mandate. It produced a short interim report late in 2011, a summary final report in June 2015, six years after the second Commission had commenced work, and a mammoth final report in six volumes in December 2015.

Even before it experienced internal problems in its early months, the TRC was a ground-breaking body. As the Commission itself noted, it “was not established because of any widespread public outcry demanding justice for residential school survivors” (Volume 6, 86). The genesis of the inquiry in a negotiated settlement of a class action would shape, and sometimes limit, the commission’s efforts to discharge its complex mandate. And, as Chief Commissioner (now Senator) Murray Sinclair often pointed out, it was the only public inquiry that was created to investigate the treatment and fate of children. Those origins were constantly before the commissioners as they consistently gave primacy to residential school survivors — those children — in their labours.

The various reports of the TRC showed variety and increasing maturity of analysis over the Commission’s life. The first, or interim, report, titled They Came for the Children: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples, and Residential Schools, was “based largely on published material” because in 2011 the TRC was still experiencing difficulty extracting “all relevant documents” that the Settlement Agreement had promised it from government and denominational archives.[1]  Although the interim report had been confident in 2011 that the Commission would have the documents it needed to support its final report, when it issued a summary final report in June 2015, the TRC had to note that it had been to court three times on three issues of access to documents.[2] Accordingly, the summary final report rested to a great extent on former students’ testimony collected in TRC National Event sharing circles and TRC statement-gathering operations. Although the documents issue was not fully resolved by December 2015 when the Commission issued its massive final report, there were enough records in hand to produce a report that relied on both documentary and oral evidence. The different evidence bases of the three reports led to different emphases. The interim report of 2012 was a fairly even-handed account of residential school life, the summary final report of June 2015 was much harsher in its depiction of students’ experience, and the large final six-volume report of December 2015, reviewed here, once more provided a balanced treatment of what it was like to attend a residential school. The accounts in all three reports were, appropriately, negative in tone, but the summary final report stood out for its less balanced depiction of residential schooling.

What did not change through the successive Commission reports was the commissioners’ insistence on the primacy of history in understanding what residential schools had represented and in finding a way forward towards reconciliation. Fully 2,382 of the final report’s 3,232 pages were devoted to history. This total included volume one, part one, The History: Origins to 1939 (962 pages) and volume one, part two, The History: 1939 to 2000 (813 pages); volume two The Inuit and Northern Experience (260 pages); volume three, The Métis Experience (an inadequate eighty-one pages); and volume four, Missing Children and Unmarked Burials (266 pages). The other two volumes of the final report focused on The Legacy (volume five) and Reconciliation (volume six). Beyond the page count, the final report, like the two before it, hammered away at the centrality of history in understanding residential schools and promoting reconciliation. “Too many Canadians know little or nothing about the deep historical roots of these conflicts” over schools and the “Sixties Scoop” (Volume 6, 4). “Schools must teach history in ways that foster mutual respect, empathy, and engagement. All Canadian children and youth deserve to know Canada’s honest history, including what happened in the residential schools…” (Volume 6, 17). “History plays an important role in reconciliation; to build for the future, Canadians must look to, and learn from the past” (Volume 6, 4).

Although the commissioners’ understanding of what constitutes reconciliation is simple, the implications and consequences of their definition are enormous. “As Commissioners, we believe that reconciliation is about respect. This includes both self-respect for Aboriginal people and mutual respect among all Canadians. All young people need to know who they are and from where they come” (Volume 6, 21). Moreover, they defined reconciliation “as an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships” (Volume 6, 11). The commissioners insisted that it was imperative that Canada begin to take the steps necessary to ensure that a new regime of “mutual respect” would be established quickly. “The urgent need for reconciliation runs deep in Canada. Expanding public dialogue and actions on reconciliation beyond residential schools will be critical in the coming years” (Volume 6, 4).

To pursue the restoration of conditions of mutual respect, the TRC laid out ninety-four “Calls to Action” or recommendations, fully fifty-two of which are found in the Reconciliation volume (Volume 6). Not surprisingly given the Commission’s insistence on the centrality of history in understanding the residential school story and promoting relations of mutual respect, the TRC’s recommendations had a lot to say about how the teaching of history should be improved. Law schools across the country should ensure that their graduates “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 Aboriginal rights, Indigenous law, and Aboriginal Crown-relations” (Call to Action [CA] Volume 6, 27). Recommendation 62 called on governments at all three levels, “in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to: 1. Make age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties and Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students.” Calls to Action 67 through 70 pushed the federal government, museums, and Library and Archives Canada to improve the way in which the history of Aboriginal peoples is depicted. Two recommendations (CA Volume 6, 77 and 78) urged governments to support the work of the National Centre for Truth and Recollection which houses the records collected and generated by the TRC, and to facilitate efforts by “communities to research and produce histories of their own residential school experience…” The federal Historic Sites and Monuments Board, whose work was roundly criticized in the Reconciliation volume, was told to pull up its socks and give less attention to celebratory history and “integrate Indigenous history, heritage values and memory practices into Canada’s national heritage and history” (CA, Volume 6, 79).

Other Calls to Action urged government to redress the deficits in service to Indigenous peoples that the TRC’s final report did so much to expose. Governments at all levels should work to improve the health outcomes of Aboriginal populations (CA, Volume 6, 18-24), tackle the running sore that the justice system represents for Indigenous populations (CA, Volume 6, 25-42), and create structures that would institutionalize the pursuit of reconciliation. So, for example, the federal government should develop with Aboriginal peoples “a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown” modelled on the historic Royal Proclamation of 1763 that had proven such a useful tool in efforts to protect Indigenous lands in the courts (CA, Volume 6, 45). Parliament should also establish a National Council for Reconciliation to “Monitor, evaluate, and report annually to Parliament and the people of Canada” the government’s efforts to promote reconciliation, including the pace of implementation of the TRC’s Calls to Action (CA, Volume 6, 53). For their part, the churches that had operated the residential schools and were parties to the Settlement Agreement were called to support reconciliation. Roman Catholics should get “the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities… within one year of the issuing of this report … to be delivered by the Pope in Canada” (CA, Volume 6, 58). All the churches were expected to “develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization,” develop curricula for theological schools and seminaries that would “respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right,” and teach “the history and legacy of residential schools and the roles of the church parties in that system” (CA, Volume 6, 60). And the churches should “establish permanent funding to Aboriginal people for… Community-controlled healing and reconciliation projects” and other programs to support “reconciliation projects,” “language revitalization projects,” and “Community-controlled education and relationship-building projects” (CA, Volume 6, 61).

The daunting scope of the Calls to Action signalled clearly that the Commission was writing for the ages, not just for decision-makers in 2015 or 2016. The call on the federal government to adopt fully the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, something from which the government of Stephen Harper had recoiled, as well as a recommendation that Ottawa “restore and increase funding to the CBC/Radio-Canada to enable Canada’s national public broadcaster to support reconciliation” (CA, Volume 6, 84) showed that the Commission, as Murray Sinclair said publicly in 2015, was looking beyond the government that it had jousted with over access to documents and that was in office when it reported for implementation of its recommendations. The fact that the new Liberal government lifted the “cap” on increases to the Department of Indigenous Affairs in its first budget in March 2016 suggests that the Commission’s strategy or expectation was not without merit.

What the TRC did not do was highly significant, too. In marked contrast to some of the inquiries that have profoundly influenced policy in Canada, it did not have a research program that resulted in influential published studies. The Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations (Rowell-Sirois) not only released a report that helped to shape federal-provincial relations in the 1940s and beyond, but also sponsored research on topics related to its mandate by established scholars. Donald Creighton, for example, was funded to produce British North America at Confederation (King’s Printer, 1939), and economist W.A. Mackintosh’s research for the Commission yielded Economic Background of Dominion-Provincial Relations (King’s Printer, 1940). Similarly, half a century later the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples [RCAP] was the source of important research and publications. Although the final report and recommendations of RCAP proved abortive because the federal government refused to engage with most of it, some of the research it sponsored has proved enduringly influential. Psychologist Roland Chrisjohn, for example, released The Circle Game: Shadow and Substance in The Indian Residential School Experience in Canada (Theytus Books, 1997), and historian John Milloy’s work for RCAP led to publication of A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986  (University of Manitoba Press, 1999). Chrisjohn and Milloy, the latter especially, have arguably been more influential in shaping some Canadians’ understanding of residential schooling than the royal commission that sponsored their work.

The TRC began its work in a manner that suggested it would emulate inquiries such as Rowell-Sirois and RCAP, and in December 2009 it convened a research symposium at the University of Toronto Law School to discuss the commission’s research directions. Several dozen researchers with expertise in various aspects of residential school history and reconciliation met with the three commissioners and TRC staff for intensive discussions, and the researchers were urged to submit reports to the Commission that outlined what research they thought the TRC should conduct. Although at least some of those attending the 2009 research symposium did provide the commission with written suggestions, there is no evidence that the TRC followed up their recommendations by commissioning independent research studies. Part of the problem undoubtedly was that the Commission lost its Director of Research, John Milloy, in 2010. Thereafter, research was always something of an orphan within the Commission, with no one overseeing work by outside experts for any length of time. Another problem, probably, was that money that would have supported research related to the Commission’s mandate was allocated instead to supporting the TRC’s seven National Events and statement-gathering. The increasing emphasis the commissioners gave these two areas of their work, both of which related and responded to the views of residential school survivors, of course, reflected the survivors-first approach that they had taken from the beginning of their work.

The result of orphaned research, however, is that some aspects of the TRC’s work ended up falling short of what was hoped for or needed. Two such topics were missing children and the staff experience. Investigation of the heart-wrenching story of thousands of residential school students who disappeared, their fates often unknown to their families, was agreed to very early in the TRC’s work. In fact, it was during the summer and autumn of 2008, when the first trio of commissioners was falling apart, that the decision was made to pursue such an investigation. As the research evolved, the lead was an archaeologist who focused mainly on identifying cemeteries that likely would have held the remains of students who died at the schools. The provenance of a study of staff experience was somewhat different. In large part the Commission found it necessary to put special effort into locating and interviewing former residential school workers because relatively few such staff came forward to testify at National Events or be interviewed by the TRC’s statement-gathering team. Eventually, one of the most experienced of the Commission’s staff was assigned the task of working up a report on the staff experience. Serious difficulties arose, however, in the spring of 2012, when the Commissioners found it necessary, presumably for financial reasons, to give notice of termination to the two women who were the leads on missing children and staff experience. Under the public service commission regulations that governed the TRC, terminated staff had to be given a year’s notice, time that they could work out on the job if they wished. One of the two research leads in question chose to do so and filed a report, but the other departed before the year was out, leaving her work incomplete.         

The Commission had to scramble to patch together material on these two topics for its final report. The result, though, was that the material on missing children and staff experience in the final report fell well short of what was expected. Moreover, the TRC will not leave behind stand-alone studies of the quality of the work that Creighton, Mackintosh, Milloy, and Chrisjohn did for earlier inquiries. Some people might associate Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (UBC Press, 2010) by Paulette Regan, at one point briefly the director of research for the Commission and a long-serving staff member, with the TRC. In fact, though, the direct observation that informs that important volume came from Regan’s work between 2002 and 2004 as a residential schools claims manager for government, rather than her valuable contribution to the labour of the TRC (Regan, Unsettling, 12-13).

The problems created by deficient research were not confined to the absence of separate research reports, however. The final report contains far too many errors, some of them serious. Sometimes the problem seems to be simply sloppy interpretation of data. In the History volume, for example, the writer does a good job of explaining how officials in the late nineteenth century considered making attendance of First Nations children at some type of school mandatory before concluding that the question being debated “was when – not if – parents would be compelled to send their children to residential schools.” (Volume 1: I, 251; see ibid. 255) At no time in the history of residential schooling in Canada were parents “compelled to send their children to residential schools.” Sometimes the error is comparatively minor, as with a statement that “By the end of the 1820s, Treaties also began to include provisions for the establishment of reserves for First Nations” (Volume 1: I, 57). In fact, treaty-making that included provision of reserves began only with the Robinson Treaties in Ontario in 1850. The Legacy volume perpetuates another significant error about the Indian Act that is all too prevalent in historical and other writing in this country. Based on the original Indian Act of 1876, it notes that the Crown “had the right to strip First Nations individuals of their Indian Act status if they were” holders of a university degree or members of liberal professions such as law or holy religious orders. The Legacy volume suggests that this provision was in force for a long time (Volume 5, 86). The Indian Act did, indeed, contain such a provision — from 1876 till 1880. An amendment of the Indian Act in 1880 modified the provision to say that that a First Nations male “may upon petition to the Superintendent-General ipso facto become and be enfranchised…” without the examination and probationary period that were normally part of the enfranchisement procedure. In fact, involuntary enfranchisement for First Nations males was part of the Indian Act only in 1920-22 and, with significant modifications, again in 1933-51. No evidence has yet been uncovered that the provisions introduced in 1920 and later were ever invoked to enfranchise a First Nations male against his wishes. That is not the impression the TRC report gives.

In a report of more than three thousand pages some slips are bound to occur. The TRC report, however, does seem to have more than its fair share. Moreover, the errors usually tend to strengthen the image of Indian Affairs as an interfering and coercive agency that blighted the lives of First Nations. Enough historical research and publication has been produced over the last thirty or so years to condemn the Department of Indian Affairs and its policies from the government’s own documents. There is really no need to invent more.

In 2008, as the appointment of the first set of commissioners was awaited, the small commission staff based in Ottawa carried out consultations with former residential school students and other interested parties concerning what they hoped for from the TRC. Many survivors emphasized that they wanted an accessible report, one in which they could see themselves. It was obvious late in 2015 that the final report of the TRC would not be what those people had hoped for. The report that was issued in December 2015 was mammoth in scope and largely scholarly in tone and approach. It was also extremely ambitious, with ninety-four recommendations that covered a vast area — even to the Vatican and the headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It stressed the importance of history in understanding the residential school phenomenon and in promoting reconciliation between Indigenous and immigrant peoples in Canada. At the end of the Commission’s labours no one could dispute that the second set of commissioners had worked long and hard to fulfil the mandate spelled out in Schedule N of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. But, ironically, only history in the form of an indeterminate future will tell if Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission accomplished the goals that its creators and supporters had for it.

 


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, They Came for the Children: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples, and Residential Schools (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2012, 85.

[2] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One: Summary. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (Winnipeg and Toronto: Truth and Reconciliation Commission and James Lorimer & Company, 2015), 27-29.

The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada​. Volumes 1-6
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Montreal and Kingston: Truth and Reconciliation Commission and McGill-Queen’s University 2015.