In the summer of 1990, the Mohawks of Kanesatake confronted the government about its failure to honour Indigenous land claims and recognize traditional Mohawk territory in Oka, Quebec. Referred to by media outlets as the Oka Crisis, the land dispute sparked a critical discussion about the Canadian government’s complacency regarding relations with Indigenous communities and responses to their concerns. The action prompted then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to underscore four government responsibilities: “resolving land claims; improving the economic and social conditions on reserves; defining a new relationship between aboriginal peoples and governments; and addressing the concerns of Canada’s aboriginal peoples in contemporary Canadian life.” The actions of the Mohawk community members led to, in part, along with objections from Indigenous leaders regarding the Meech Lake Accord, the creation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples to examine the status of Indigenous peoples in Canada. In 1996, the Royal Commission presented a final report which first included a vision for meaningful and action-based reconciliation.
In January 1998, the government made a “statement of reconciliation” – including an apology to those people who were sexually or physically abused while attending residential schools – and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF). The foundation was provided with $350 million to fund community-based healing projects addressing the legacy of physical and sexual abuse. In its 2005 budget, the Canadian government committed an additional $40 million to support the work of the AHF. Federal funding for the foundation was cut in 2010 by the Stephen Harper government, leaving 134 national healing-related initiatives without an operating budget. The AHF closed in 2014. Former AHF executive director Mike DeGagne has said that the loss of AHF support has created a gap in dealing with mental health crises such as suicides in the Attawapiskat First Nation.
In June 2001, the government established Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada as an independent government department to manage the residential school file. In 2003, the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process was launched as part of a larger National Resolution Framework which included health supports, a commemoration component and a strategy for litigation. As explained by the TRC, the ADR was designed as a “voluntary process for resolution of certain claims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and forcible confinement, without having to go through the civil litigation process”. It was created by the Canadian government without consultation with Indigenous communities or former residential school students. The ADR system also made it the responsibility of the former students to prove that the abuse occurred and was intentional, resulting in former students finding the system difficult to navigate, re-traumatizing, and discriminatory. Many survivor advocacy groups and Indigenous political organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) worked to have the ADR system dissolved. In 2004 the Assembly of First Nations released a report critical of the ADR underscoring, among other issues, the failure of survivors to automatically receive the full amount of compensation without subsequent ligation against the church and failure to compensate for lost family, language and culture. The Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development released its own report in April 2005 finding the ADR to be “an excessively costly and inappropriately applied failure, for which the Minister and her officials are unable to raise a convincing defence”. Within a month of the report’s release a Supreme Court of Canada decision granted school attendees the right to pursue class-action suits, which ultimately led to a government review of the compensation process.
On November 23, 2005, the Canadian government announced a $1.9-billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former students. National Chief of the AFN, Phil Fontaine, said the package was meant to cover “decades in time, innumerable events and countless injuries to First Nations individuals and communities”. Justice Minister Irwin Cotler applauded the compensation decision noting that the placement of children in the residential school system was “the single most harmful, disgraceful and racist act in our history”. At an Ottawa news conference, Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan said: “We have made good on our shared resolve to deliver what I firmly believe will be a fair and lasting resolution of the Indian school legacy.”
The compensation package led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), announced on May 8, 2006, and implemented in September 2007. At the time, there were about 86,000 living victims. The IRSSA included funding for the AHF, for commemoration, for health support, and for a Truth and Reconciliation program, as well as an individual Common Experience Payment (CEP). Any person who could be verified as having resided at a federally run Indian residential school in Canada was entitled to a CEP. The amount of compensation was based on the number of years a particular former student resided at the residential schools: $10,000 for the first year attended (from one night residing there to a full school year) plus $3,000 for every year thereafter.
The IRSSA also included the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), a case-by-case, out-of-court resolution process designed to provide compensation for sexual, physical and emotional abuse. The IAP process was built on the ADR program and all IAP claims from former students are examined by an adjudicator. The IAP became available to all former students of residential schools on September 19, 2007. Former students who experienced abuse and wished to pursue compensation had to apply by themselves or through a lawyer of their choice to receive consideration. The deadline to apply for the IAP was September 19, 2012. This gave former students of residential schools four years from the implementation date of the IRSSA to apply for the IAP. Claims involving physical and sexual abuse were compensated up to $275,000. By the end of January 2017, the IAP had resolved 36,538 claims and paid $3.1 billion in compensation.
The IRSSA also proposed an advance payment for former students alive and who were 65 years old and over as of May 30, 2005. The deadline for reception of the advance payment form by IRSRC was December 31, 2006. Following a legal process, including an examination of the IRSSA by the courts of the provinces and territories of Canada, an “opt-out” period occurred. During this time, the former students of residential schools could reject the agreement if they did not agree with its dispositions. This opt-out period ended on August 20, 2007, with about 350 former students opting out. The IRSSA was the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. By December 2012, a total of $1.62 billion was paid to 78,750 former students, 98 per cent of the 80,000 who were eligible. In 2014, the IRSSA funds left over from CEPs were offered for educational credits for survivors and their families.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Justice Murray Sinclair at the 2015 Shingwauk Gathering and Conference at Algoma University
In 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to travel across Canada collecting the testimonies of people affected by the residential school system. About 7,000 Indigenous people told their stories. The TRC concluded in 2015 with the publication of a six volume, 4,000-plus-page report detailing the testimonies of survivors and historical documents from the time. It focused on the importance of moving “from apology to action” to achieve true reconciliation and resulted in the establishment of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The executive summary of the TRC concluded that the assimilation amounted to cultural genocide. The ambiguity of the phrasing allowed for the interpretation that physical and biological genocide also occurred. The TRC was not authorized to conclude that physical and biological genocide occurred, as such a finding would imply a legal responsibility of the Canadian government that would be difficult to prove. As a result, the debate about whether the Canadian government also committed physical and biological genocide against Indigenous populations remains open.
Among the 94 Calls to Action that accompanied the conclusion of the TRC were recommendations to ensure that all Canadians are educated and made aware of the residential school system. Justice Murray Sinclair explained that the recommendations were not aimed solely at prompting government action, but instead a collective move toward reconciliation in which all Canadians have a role to play: “Many of our elements, many of our recommendations and many of the Calls to Action are actually aimed at Canadian society.”
Preservation of documentation of the legacy of residential schools was also highlighted as part of the TRC’s Calls to Action. Community groups and other stakeholders have variously argued for documenting or destroying evidence and testimony of residential school abuses. On April 4, 2016, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that documents pertaining to IAP settlements will be destroyed in 15 years if individual claimants do not request to have their documents archived. This decision was fought by the TRC as well as the federal government, but argued for by religious representatives.
In March 2017, Lynn Beyak, a Conservative member of the Senate Standing Committee of Aboriginal Peoples, voiced disapproval of the final TRC report, saying that it had omitted an “abundance of good” that was present in the schools. Although Beyak’s right to free speech was defended by some Conservative senators, her comments were widely criticized by members of the opposition, among them Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett, and leader of the New Democratic Party, Tom Mulcair. The Anglican Church also raised concerns stating in a release co-signed by bishops Fred Hiltz and Mark MacDonald: “There was nothing good about children going missing and no report being filed. There was nothing good about burying children in unmarked graves far from their ancestral homes.” In response, the Conservative Party leadership removed Beyak from the Senate committee underscoring that her comments did not align with the views of the party.
The four churches of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement – the United, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches – agreed to participate in the reconciliation process between Indigenous and settler Canadians. They have been involved in funding various projects and services that assist former residential school students and their families in healing from the trauma caused by the schools. The Anglican Church of Canada set up the Anglican Healing Fund in the 1990s to respond to the ongoing need for healing related to residential schools. In the 2000s the United Church established the Justice and Reconciliation Fund to support healing initiatives and the Presbyterian Church has established a Healing & Reconciliation Program.
The churches have also engaged in reconciliation initiatives such as the Returning to Spirit: Residential School Healing and Reconciliation Program, a workshop that aims to unite Indigenous and non-Indigenous people through discussing the legacy of residential schools and fostering an environment for them to communicate and develop mutual understanding. In 2014, the federal government ceased to contribute funds to Indigenous health organizations such as the AHF and the National Aboriginal Health Organization. Since then, more pressure has been placed on churches to sustain their active participation in these healing efforts.
For many communities the existence of buildings that formerly housed residential schools is a traumatic reminder of the system’s legacy, and there has been much discussion about demolition, heritage status and how the possibility of incorporating sites into the healing process. In July 2016, it was announced that the building of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School would be converted into an educational centre with exhibits on the legacy of residential schools. Ontario’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, David Zimmer, noted: “Its presence will always be a reminder of colonization and the racism of the residential school system; one of the darkest chapters of Canadian history.”
Reconciliation efforts have also been undertaken by several Canadian universities. In 2015 Lakehead University and the University of Winnipeg introduced a mandatory course requirement for all undergraduate students focused on Indigenous culture and history. The same year the University of Saskatchewan hosted a two-day national forum at which Canadian university administrators, scholars and members of Indigenous communities discussed how Canadian universities can and should respond to the TRC’s Calls to Action.
Raising of the Reconciliation Pole on UBC Vancouver campus
On April 1, 2017, a 17-metre (56 ft) pole, titled Reconciliation Pole, was raised on the grounds of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Vancouver campus, which sits on the unceded territory of the Musqueam people. Carved by Haida master carver and hereditary chief, 7idansuu (Edenshaw), James Hart, the pole tells the story of the residential school system prior to, during and after its operation. It features thousands of copper nails, used to represent the children who died in Canadian residential schools, and depictions of residential school survivors carved by artists from multiple Indigenous communities. Included among them are Canadian Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk, Maliseet artist Shane Perley-Dutcher, and Muqueam Coast Salish artist Susan Point.
In October 2016, Canadian singer-songwriter Gord Downie released Secret Path, a concept album about Chanie Wenjack’s escape and death. It was accompanied by a graphic novel and animated film, aired on CBC Television. All proceeds go to the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Following his death in October 2017, Downie’s brother Mike said he was aware of 40,000 teachers who had used the material in their classrooms, and hoped to continue this. In December 2017, Downie was posthumously named Canadian Newsmaker of the Year by the Canadian Press, in part because of his work with reconciliation efforts for survivors of residential schools.