Indigenous leaders issue call to action: here’s what Canada must do to make amends for residential schools tragedy

Senator Murray Sinclair, Dr. Dawn Lavell-Harvard and Phil Fontaine map out path to reconciliation on dark chapter in Canada's history


They came in trucks. In remote communities, Indian agents, church missionaries and RCMP officers arrived in planes to take Indigenous children away to residential schools. More than 150,000 would pass through the system, and at least 6,000 would die. On March 20, more than a year after the Indigenous Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission tabled its report on this dark chapter in Canada’s history, Senator Murray Sinclair, Dr. Dawn Lavell-Harvard and Phil Fontaine mapped the path forward in a live conversation sponsored by the Mosaic Institute and CBC. Here are edited excerpts from their presentations. A timeline on Canada’s residential schools history follows.


It matters what you do, Canada

Senator Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is the first Aboriginal judge appointed in Manitoba.

When we were asked to take over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009, we had a huge credibility issue with the [residential school] survivors because of the fact that the commission had started off like gangbusters and then faltered badly. As commissioners, we knew we had to overcome that credibility issue, so we spent the first year just travelling around talking about our plans and making assurances to the survivors – and to former staff of residential schools as well – that we wanted to hear from all of them.

By the time we organized the first national event in Winnipeg in June of 2010, it far exceeded our expectations. We had 40,000 people traversing the grounds [over four days], many of them survivors. We had protesters, too, people who still didn’t believe in us, but they were far outnumbered by those who wanted to believe. 

From that we resolved to get to survivors wherever we could to listen to them. Altogether, over the course of our work, we recorded the statements of 6,700 survivors, as well as their children and grandchildren. We also recorded statements from 220 former staff at residential schools. Many of them told us that they regretted their experience because they were now beginning to learn what the schools were all about. 

We heard from teachers about how they tried to protect children in the dormitories [and] how they tried to save children who had been damaged by taking them into their own homes on weekends. One teacher who taught at Brandon residential school took almost 20 girls to her parents’ place at a nearby farm to protect them from being abused on weekends, when abusers had greater access to children.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t just about recording their stories. We needed to have a vision of reconciliation… to look at how we could develop a relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this country based on mutual respect.

We knew we needed to address the immediate issues faced by Indigenous people, such as high child welfare rates, high incarceration rates, inadequate health care and housing and basic life challenges – far more Indigenous people face these issues in more significant ways than the rest of the Canadian population, largely because of the history of colonialism.

We also knew we had a challenge to get Canada to understand that this [the residential schools tragedy] is not an Indigenous problem, but a Canadian problem. 

Indigenous people were taken from their families and placed in these institutions without regard to their relationships to their fathers, their mothers, their grandfathers, their grandmothers, with the deliberate purpose of separating them from their culture, identity and language. It was common public policy. And that policy was reflected in the educational curriculum.

In schools, Indigenous students were taught that they were irrelevant, that they had to find a way to be like the little white kids who lived down the road. And if they weren’t able to do that willingly, then it would be done forcibly. 

The message of inferiority was not just taught to Indigenous students. In the history books of this country, we teach our kids that nothing that happened before contact [between First Nations peoples and Europeans] was worth talking about – except that Europeans overcame the resistance of Indigenous peoples because of European superiority and because European people were more civilized. The British Empire was the model for everyone to follow.

So, it wasn’t just what residential schools have done to us that we need to think about. It’s also what public schools have done to us. That’s why it’s a Canadian problem.

It doesn’t matter what the government does. But it matters what you do, Canada, now that you know there is a lot here for all of us to do. 

We need to think of each other in a different way. We need to treat each other better than we do now. And we need to address racism. We need to do it in a way that’s forceful to say this is not a country that’s going to continue that past any more. 

We will not achieve reconciliation in my lifetime. We will probably not achieve reconciliation in the lifetime of my children. It took us 150 years of colonialism and residential schools, seven generations of people to get to this state. It may take us seven generations to fix it. 

But we must understand that those who have come through the residential school system are resilient people who deserve our respect, our love and our support. 

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Cheol Joon Baek

Dawn Lavell-Harvard


We should establish a national centre for reconciliation

Dawn Lavell-Harvard, director, First Peoples House of Learning, Trent University, is former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Where are we with reconciliation? The real answer is that right now it’s very hit-and-miss: there is no strategy there is no action plan. And because of jurisdictional wrangling and debates, there’s a lot of finger-pointing about who should be responsible for what. 

Some provinces, like Ontario, have made a commitment to reconciliation. Then we have other areas where there is no attention.

The recent comments by Senator Lynn Beyak [that a lot of good came out of “well-intentioned” residential schools] identify very clearly what’s at stake here.

This is why reconciliation is so important. This isn’t just about Indigenous people having a right to reclaim our history [and] our identities. It’s about rebuilding that relationship across the country.

Talking about genocide cannot be easy. But that is the “truth” aspect of truth and reconciliation. We have to have the courage to call it what it was. It was a crime. It was genocide. 

We know now that Canadian soldiers had a better chance of surviving the Second World War than Indigenous children did residential schools.

That some students found some spark of hope, a friend perhaps, is not a testament to the benefit of the schools, but a testament to the human spirit and strength of our people in the face of incredible inhumanity.

As much as education was used as a tool of destruction, it can now be used as a tool for empowerment. It will require significant investments in health and education, [because] we know now that First Nations children are more likely to end up in jail than they are to graduate high school.

We have to be realistic about the fact that it now costs over $100,000 a year to house an Indigenous person in jail. Not to mention the costs of foster care when Indigenous women with children go to jail. 

These consequences don’t begin to address the human costs in failed potential. And that is why we need Indigenization of the education system. 

As hard as it is for us to think about this dark chapter, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is just the beginning. 

It’s not like those Foster Parent Plan commercials where it’s sad and we can all just change the channel. We should establish a national centre for reconciliation where we can co-ordinate action plans and monitor progress.

The TRC’s report has just scratched the surface of the impact on the many things we don’t recognize as outcomes of the residential schools, such as the fact that over 50 per cent of the human trafficking in Canada is happening to Indigenous girls. We’re continuing to live the with consequences on a day-to-day basis.

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Cheol Joon Baek

Phil Fontaine


There were three founding peoples of Canada

Phil Fontaine, residential school survivor, is former chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Reconciliation is not an easy topic to talk about. In order to achieve true reconciliation in Canada we’re going to have to take some bold steps.

Confederation is held up as a monumental achievement that formed our Canadian identity and provided the foundation of the free and democratic nation we believe ourselves to be.

But what’s missing from this story? Canada would not have been formed in 1867 had the Indigenous peoples not made possible the fur trade that ensured a strong economy.

But by far the most important contribution to the formation of our nation were treaties that resulted in the take-up of the most valuable land for settlement and resource development. The treaty relationship underscored the idea of peaceful coexistence as a central theme of relations between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

[But] in 1876, shortly after Confederation, Parliament passed the Indian Act, which not only ignored our contributions but subjugated us as wards of the state. It essentially made us non-citizens in our own country.

Ever since then, we have been on the outside looking in, not really a part of Confederation, not really full citizens. We have no protection of our languages, no protection of our laws, no protection of our cultures. 

How do we tell the true origin story of Canada? It can only be told if Parliament, formally through legislation, recognizes that there are three founding peoples of Canada: the British, the French and Indigenous peoples.

What would this accomplish? It would set the record straight. It would make Canada whole. The correct and powerful narrative of Canada’s origins would become part of the shared story of every Canadian for generations to come. It would open up possibilities for genuine and lasting reconciliation, not the lie that’s been imposed on all Canadians.

And it’s important that we do it now. 

In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples wrote, “A country cannot be built on a living lie.” We should celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary by officially telling the truth about Canada’s history.

Recognition and reconciliation go hand in hand. For the Parliament of Canada to recognize Indigenous peoples as equal partners in the nation would be a profound gesture of reconciliation. It would be a moment for all Canadians to celebrate.


Students and staff working in the kitchen in the Edmonton, Alberta, school. The United Church of Canada Archives, 93.049P885N. .png

Students and staff working in the kitchen in Edmonton, Alberta residential school. The United Church of Canada Archives.


Canada’s residential schools history: a timeline

1883 Federal government formalizes relationship with Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries, who were already operating a small number of Aboriginal boarding schools throughout the west, to establish three large residential schools in western Canada.

80 Residential schools were in operation across the country by 1930.

150,000 Total number of First Nation, Métis and Inuit children who attended residential schools. At least 6,000 of those children died.

“Christianization” policy Efforts to de-Indigenize children began from the moment they entered school. Braided hair, which often had spiritual significance, was cut school uniforms replaced traditional clothing. And each child got a Euro-Canadian name and a number. English (French in Quebec) was the mandated language of instruction. In many schools, children were not allowed to use their mother tongue at any time.

Dangerous facilities Hastily and cheaply built schools often had poor sanitation or none at all. Epidemics could spread quickly, often with deadly results. 

“Vocational” training Students spent half their time in the classroom and the other half in “vocational” training, mostly farming for boys and domestic work for girls. In reality, this was more child labour than training.

Boys cutting wood at the Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, school. Canada, Department of Interior, Library and Archives Canada, PA-048021..png

Boys cutting wood at the Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, residential school. Canada, Department of Interior, Library and Archives Canada.


Discipline There was no clear policy around punishment. Students were often beaten with a leather strap, humiliated, handcuffed or locked in cellars (and other makeshift jails) for their perceived transgressions. Although it was largely unreported, sexual abuse was a serious problem.

Generational effect Aboriginal children who returned to their communities after graduation often felt alienated from their families and culture – having lost their language and lacking the skills to follow traditional economic pursuits – and from the Euro-Canadian world. 

1940s Federal officials conclude that the residential school system is too expensive to operate and begin to substantially increase the number of on-reserve schools. In the remote North, however, the system was actually expanded. By the 1950s, almost half of the more than 10,000 children in residential schools were either orphans or from broken homes.

The Roman Catholic mission and residential school in Beauval, Saskatchewan. Deschâtelets Archives..png

The Roman Catholic mission and residential school in Beauval, Saskatchewan. Deschâtelets Archives.


1969 The federal government’s partnership with the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches officially ends. 

1980s Most residential schools had closed, but some remained in operation until the late 1990s.

2006 Class-action lawsuits launched by residential school survivors alleging physical, psychological and sexual abuse and neglect are eventually settled in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history.

2008 Truth and Reconciliation Commission is established as part of the settlement agreement. The commission released its final report in December 2015. Some 31,970 sexual assault cases have been resolved by an independent assessment process, and another 5,995 claims are still in progress.

Tragic legacy By 2011, 3.6 per cent of all First Nations children under the age of 14 were in foster care, compared to 0.3 per cent for non-Indigenous children.

Source: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

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