The six-year mandate of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) ended December 15 with the release of a multi-volume report, which the commissioners said ushers in a “new era of reconciliation for Canada.”
“The journey to reconciliation has already begun, and it is ours to achieve,” Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, told hundreds gathered in Ottawa for the release of the final report, among them Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet. “We owe it to each other to build a Canada based on our shared future, a future of healing and trust.”
The report includes new details about missing and unmarked burials, the Métis experience in residential schools and the path to reconciliation. The TRC identified 3,200 deaths at Indian residential schools, but Sinclair believes the toll may be as high as 6,000 because the government stopped recording the deaths around 1920.
The report noted that, in many instances, the government and the schools did not record the names, gender and cause of death of the Indigenous students. It noted that, “Aboriginal children in residential schools died at a far higher rate than school-aged children in the general population.” The practice was to not send the bodies of students who died at the schools back to their home communities, and they were buried in cemeteries that today are either “abandoned, disused [or] vulnerable to accidental disturbance,” the report said.
“Much work lies ahead on the path to reconciliation, including the reclamation of your names and the reconsecration of your resting places,” said TRC commissioner Marie Wilson in her remarks at the closing event.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended the 139 schools. The last one was closed in 1996.
During its mandate, the TRC heard from about 7,000 residential school survivors. Some-who were present for the release of the report-shed tears, especially as they listened to the three commissioners, Sinclair, Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild, recall their experiences of attempting to identify and commemorate who died at the schools. Beside the podium on the stage were two empty chairs in remembrance of the children.
In her comments, Wilson said former prime minister Stephen Harper had no direct involvement in any of the TRC hearings or national events. The crowd cheered as she added, “Today will mark the first time that we hear an official response to our work from the prime minister of Canada on behalf of all the people of Canada.”
A visibly moved Trudeau, who was seated in the front row, was seen wiping away tears.
In his remarks, Trudeau thanked the commission for its work and said, “The Indian residential school system, one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history, has had a profoundly lasting and damaging impact on Indigenous culture, heritage and language. As a father and a former teacher, I am overwhelmingly moved by these events.”
Seven years earlier, Harper issued an apology on behalf of the Canadian government, Trudeau noted. “The apology is no less true, and no less timely, today,” he said. “The Government of Canada ‘sincerely apologizes and asks forgiveness of the Aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.’ ”
Of the report, Trudeau said it is his “deepest hope” that its findings will help heal some of the pain caused by the Indian residential school system and begin to restore the trust lost so long ago. He also restated his commitment to renew the federal government’s relationship with Canada’s Indigenous people. Drawing loud applause and cheers, Trudeau added, “I give you my word that we will renew and respect that relationship.”
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould accompanied Trudeau to the event.
Copies of the TRC’s final report were presented to Trudeau and to representatives from all parties to the Indian Residential Settlement Agreement, including the four churches (Anglican, United, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian) that operated the schools, funded by the Canadian government.
The primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, represented the Anglican Church of Canada, which administered 30% of the schools. He thanked the TRC “for helping me and for helping all Canadians to listen, wake up and learn about this sad chapter in our history as a country.”
Hiltz also thanked the TRC for calling the government and the churches to account for their participation in “an arrogant and flawed policy of assimilation to address the so-called ‘Indian problem’ and for every form of abuse experienced by survivors from those schools.”
The primate said he was pleased that the prime minister was present for the event. “What a delight to hear of his personal resolve in a renewed relation with Indigenous people in this country,” he said. “What a delight to hear him making the Calls to Action a priority for the government of Canada. The 94 Calls to Action were made public by the TRC in June.
The TRC was created out of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which also established a Common Experience Payment (CEP) for all eligible former students of the residential schools, and an Independent Assessment Process (IAP) for claims of sexual or serious abuse.
Art Babych is the former editor of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Ottawa