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Residential Schools are our Story

This Tuesday, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its much anticipated findings, after six years of work collecting stories of residential schools through community-based and national events. This was a momentous occasion in Canadian history, and an important moment in the path towards reconciliation in Canada.

What the TRC found was that Canada had taken part in active processes of cultural genocide, which the commission defined as “the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group.” Generally speaking, this destruction takes place through the active and intentional destruction of political and social institutions, the seizure of land, forced relocation, attempts to eliminate language, the persecution of spiritual leaders and attempts to eliminate spiritual practices, and familial disruption. In Canada, all of these processes took place. The residential school system was a central feature in this process. This is now on record.

The TRC documented the history of residential schools, telling the history of the system’s development, and giving Survivors an opportunity to tell the truth of their experiences. Survivors told their stories of separation from families, as well as emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse that they endured at the schools. The final report showed in stark terms the colonizing logic that allowed the schools to exist, the longevity of the system, and the ways of thinking that supported it. While the schools were first built in the 1830s, they were the product of an imperial mindset that traces its origins to the fifteenth century, and indeed even earlier, when the church created a framework for colonization through the Christian Doctrine of Discovery. These same attitudes were expressed and documented well into the twentieth century.

The TRC has also documented many stories of private and collective harm that took place in the schools. It documented stories of arranged marriages, whereby school administrators forced students to marry each other to prevent “Christian” pupils from marrying “pagan” partners. It told stories of starvation within the system. It told the stories of over 6,000 children who never came home from the schools, and of whom many now lay in unmarked graves. It told stories of deplorable sanitation conditions that created epidemics of tuberculosis. It told stories of sexual abuse, and the protection of the perpetrators by governments, school officials, and churches. The list of abuses goes on.

This history does not come as a surprise to anybody who has paid attention to the history of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, but the TRC final report is still important for many reasons. The most important reason is that the experiences of the residential school system is now part of the public record. We can no longer plead ignorance. Using the words of Thomas King, “Take [this] story….It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to your friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” (Tom King, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, p. 29).

This leads to what Justice Murray Sinclair has identified as the most common question he heard at TRC events: What can I do? To put that in different terms, what can our church community do to promote reconciliation? The TRC has gifted us with concrete steps that can make that possible, which are accessible in the 94 recommendations presented at the final national event in Ottawa. The TRC defined reconciliation as “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country.” To do this we first need awareness of our shared history, recognition of the harm done, atonement for our sins, and commitment to change in the future. We need to show the government that reconciliation matters to us. We can do this by reaching out to our elected officials at every level of government to tell them that we as a church need to reconcile. That we as a country must reconcile.

There are specific recommendations that are especially pertinent to the church. Recommendation 59 reads: “We call upon church parties … to develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary.” But the church can also work towards all of these important goals. If there is to be justice in Canada, the recommendations of the TRC must be honoured. We need a commission on missing and murdered indigenous women. We need reform of the child welfare system. We need reconciliation in education. Aboriginal culture must be taught to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students, including the preservation of Aboriginal languages.

It is urgent that we makes good on this opportunity for reconciliation because these opportunities are fleeting. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its final report, which made many of the same recommendations that we see this week from the TRC. The Royal Commission’s recommendations went largely ignored, and 19 years later the same problems are again articulated by the TRC. The political will to enact changes that will lead to processes of reconciliation must exist, and that is only possible through fruitful dialogue. In 1996 we failed as communities of faith and as a society broadly to foster that community will through public dialogue. We cannot allow that to happen again.

The Christian Reformed Church has begun the process of reconciliation. The Centre for Public Dialogue continues advocating for reconciliation in education. The CRC is undergoing a study of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery in order to understand the impact that the doctrine has had on the church, and in so doing recognizing our place within this history. The Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee and the three urban Aboriginal ministries have taken important steps in the process of healing and reconciliation. 

But reconciliation cannot be delegated to others. All Canadians must take part in this process, which means that congregations need to work towards reconciling with our Aboriginal neighbours. The final report said, “The urgent need for reconciliation runs deep in Canada. Expanding public dialogue and action on reconciliation beyond residential schools will be critical in the coming years.” The CRC has worked towards this dialogue, and these efforts need to be affirmed. To develop this dialogue, we as a church need to learn this past, and understand our position within it as Canadians.

This history dates back to the notion of ‘terra nullius’ and the Christian Doctrine of Discovery in the fifteenth century. This history is part of our recent past—the last school closed in 1996. This history is part of the present, both in the attitudes and prejudices that continue to exist and in inequalities in Indigenous education, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and unequal representation within the justice system and child welfare systems. We as a church community need to recognize that this history is our history. It shapes who we were, who we are, and who we will become. Let us take this opportunity to shape our future for the good.

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