By Robyn Rowe
Indigenous Data Team Lead, HDRN Canada; Staff Scientist, ICES
September 30th marks the first annual federal statutory National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) in Canada. In 2015 when the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was released, it listed 94 Calls to Action to various levels of government, Churches, and other stakeholders to address the impacts that resulted from centuries worth of attempted assimilation and ethnocide that led to the implementation of the residential school system. Call to Action 80 calls on a “statutory holiday...to honour Survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process” (TRC, 2015, p.291).
First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples in Canada share a common colonial and assimilatory history with one another. The sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples in Canada is reaffirmed within the TRC and supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In recognition of this new official holiday, the Government of Canada website describes September 30th as “an opportunity for each public servant to recognize and commemorate the legacy of residential school” (2021, para. 2). I take some issue with the language within this sentence. More than that though, there is a sick irony in the fact that this was announced as a federal statutory holiday granted as a paid day off for Government of Canada employees or “those in the federal public service” (Government of Canada, 2021, para. 2). Meanwhile, many of us who are not in such positions and may even have a lived and/or family history of residential school attendance will not receive the day off paid.
My maternal grandmother was born and raised in our Traditional Family Territory and was sent to a residential school when she was a young girl. She shared pieces of her life’s story with me this last year as part of my PhD dissertation. My grandmother’s story shone a light on our family’s deep connection to our home territory and awoke in me a hurt that I cannot put into words.
The country we know as Canada was built on the destruction of traditional family values, cultures, languages, and ways of knowing and doing. I, like many of you, have known this for a long time. My grandmother’s story took this knowing off the history shelf inside my mind, dusted it off, and placed it into the section labelled present. Her words helped me to understand that this is about the now and the later.
Then came the news.
In May 2020, the remains of 215 Indigenous children as young as 3-years-old were discovered in unmarked graves at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. Suddenly, it felt as though the country was waking up and dusting off their own misplaced mental history books.
To be clear, the residential school system was designed specifically to remove First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children from the influences of their families and traditions to expedite assimilation. To quote Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald (1883) stated:
When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men. (1107–1108).
The residential school system began with a series of Acts and Policies aimed specifically at assimilating, enfranchising, and even making traditional cultural practices illegal (Gradual Civilization Act, 1857; Gradual Enfranchisement Act, 1869; Indian Act, 1985; 1880). In 1876, the consolidation of these policies formed the basis for the creation of the Indian Act. The Indian Act was amended in 1884 to mandate residential school attendance for all status Indians.1 The last residential school closed in 1996 (TRC, 2015).
The failures of Canada’s colonial policies have had devastating impacts on our people. While we have managed to maintain many of our customs, values, languages, and traditions- there are many things lost to time and assimilation that will never be fully restored. My grandmother, who has spent much of her life trying to reclaim our Traditional Family Territory, can share her stories with me and help me to understand the importance of them. But I will never know what it feels like to run barefoot through our territory with my siblings or my children. I will never know the taste of the first ripe berries that grow in the secret spaces that only our family knows about. I will never know the feeling of the sun hitting my face over the water as I sit on the front steps of my great-great grandmother’s home that was burned down by Indian agents. And I will never know the sound of our language coming naturally from my mom and aunties’ mouths while we laugh together, canning, and smoking fish to last the winter. I will never live the kind of life my family lived before our land was taken. Yet, the pain of our ancestors transcends generations, and I can feel the immense loss of all of it.
Every Child Matters
What began as 215 unmarked Indigenous children’s graves grew to over 3000 in only a few weeks, with more than a hundred residential school sites left to search in Canada alone. Hundreds more across Turtle Island (North America). As of today, I find it unsurprisingly difficult to find any news article, publication, or commentary that lists the total number of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children who have been found in unmarked graves across the country. People are beginning to place this news back into their mental history sections.
For the last year and a half of the global pandemic, life has been different. Too many losses, too much sadness, too much changed too quickly; but we see a light in the distance while things start to go back to how they once were. For more than 500 years, Indigenous Peoples have been resisting change. While the circumstances are vastly different, you can only imagine how challenging it would be to not only be told to stay indoors and avoid contact with others, but you were also relocated against your will, your children taken from you, and your entire way of life changed forever—legally.
No matter where you are on September 30th, I implore you to look around you. Imagine yourself raising your family off the meat of the land. Only taking from it what you need and always giving something back. Those sidewalks outside your home were once a forest floor, with trees as tall as skyscrapers and as old as time. Those paths you take on your weekend hike were once the berry route and hunting grounds to whole Indigenous tribes. And those rocks and mountains along the coastlines and even in your driveway, the oldest and wisest grandfathers who have always been here. Those grandfathers see that we are still dancing, still singing, and still beating our drums to the sound of our hearts.
Reconciliation requires a deep and meaningful understanding of the Truth
Today, the TRC is being used as a tool to support the dismantling of systems that extend beyond the failures of the residential school system. The meaning behind truth and reconciliation is different for different Peoples, Nations, organizations, and communities. For me, reconciliation is linked to Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty. This includes the rematriation of Traditional Family Territories, the reformation of our traditional tribes, the resurgence of our People’s languages, values, and customs, and the deep recognition that our family’s experiences are not history. Regardless of your position, one thing remains true, and that is that Indigenous Peoples must be leaders in decision making about matters that affect Indigenous Peoples. Advocates for Indigenous sovereignty also support the assertion of Indigenous data and research sovereignty. For many Indigenous Peoples in Canada, Nation rebuilding is the cornerstone of sovereignty efforts, and is being sought after through data and information governance.
Too many things are strategically missing from our mental bookshelves. Society needs to start noticing and taking action when things are happening or words are stated that are calculated and deliberately designed to look like one thing, while having different (maybe not so great) intentions. So, on September 30th, take the time to dust off that shelf in your own mind. Move the books around and expand your mental library with some culturally appropriate, culturally relevant, and culturally safe resources. The only way to create lasting change is to admit that there is something that needs changing. Centralizing and focusing research approaches that improve Indigenous lives through Indigenous-led advancements of Nation-born priorities is a critical step in Nations' capacity to rebuild, rematriate, and reconnect with the land. This means unlearning a lifetime of information that has been designed to make you believe the system was created to benefit all people equally. Five centuries worth of systemic inequalities will take more than one day to dismantle. Advancing truth and reconciliation is something that needs to be worked on every day, by everyone.
Resources to help expand your own mental library:
Carlson-Manathara, E., & Rowe, G. (2021). Living in Indigenous Sovereignty. Fernwood Publishing.
General Assembly resolution 61/295, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, A/RES/61/295 (13 September 2007), available from https://undocs.org/A/RES/61/295
Joseph, B. (2018). 21 things you may not know about the Indian Act. Helping Canadians make reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a reality. Indigenous Relations Press.
Milloy, J. S. (2017). A national crime: The Canadian government and the residential school system (Vol. 11). Univ. of Manitoba Press.
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (2019). Reclaiming power and place: The final report of the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/
Nelson, M. K. (Ed.). (2008). Original instructions: Indigenous teachings for a sustainable future. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company.
Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. UBC Press.
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1996). Report of the royal commission on Aboriginal peoples. Library and Archives Canada. https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/aboriginal-heritage/royal-commission-aboriginal-peoples/Pages/final-report.aspx.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the truth and reconciliation commission of Canada. http://www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Honouring_the_Truth_Reconciling_for_the_Future_July_23_2015.pdf.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Final report of the truth and reconciliation commission of Canada. Volume one: Summary. Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future. James Lorimer & Company Ltd. Publishers.
Government of Canada. (20 July 2021). Federal statutory holiday: National day for truth and reconciliation. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/maple-leaf/defence/2021/07/federal-statutory-holiday-national-day-for-truth-and-reconciliation.html
Gradual Civilization Act, CAP XXVI. (1857). http://www.caid.ca/GraCivAct1857.pdf
Gradual Enfranchisement Act. (1869). An Act for the gradual enfranchisement of Indians, the better management of Indian affairs, and to extend the provisions of the Act, CAP. VI (31), Victoria, Chapter 42.
Indian Act, (1985). Indian Act (RSC, 1985, c. 1-5). Government of Canada Justice Laws website (2021). https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/i-5/.
Indian Act (1880). An Act further to amend the Indian Act, Chapter 27. http://kopiwadan.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/1884-An-Act-further-to-amend-%C2%ABThe-Indian-Act-1880%C2%BB-1.pdf
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, Official report of the debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 9 May 1883, 1107–1108
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Final report of the truth and Reconciliation commission of Canada. Volume one: Summary. Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future. James Lorimer & Company Ltd. Publishers.