Governments must ensure Canadians gain a better understanding of aboriginal history, as the nation makes amends for treatment of aboriginals at residential schools that amounted to “cultural genocide,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says.

The commission, which was created as a result of the 2005 settlement of the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history, released 94 recommendations Tuesday as part of a summary of its final report. It is being released during four days of ceremony in Ottawa that includes marches and story-sharing circles involving former students and their families from across the country.

The commission concludes that:

  • The decades-long policy of taking aboriginal children from their communities and putting them into church-run residential schools to assimilate them into European practices represented a “cultural genocide.”
  • Governments should reform child-welfare programs, do more to increase aboriginal employment, and take steps to preserve aboriginal languages and culture.
  • The Pope should issue an apology in Canada for the role played by the Catholic Church in residential schools.

The summary report is nearly 400 pages and comes ahead of a final report that will be released later this year. It is based on six years of detailed research that included combing through government and church records and crossing the country to gather testimony from former students and school employees.

The report from Commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair includes a common theme of concern that its work should not be forgotten, but rather should lead to concrete steps to improve the lives of Canada’s aboriginals.

“Non-aboriginal-Canadians hear about the problems faced by aboriginal communities but they have almost no idea how those problems developed,” Justice Sinclair says in his report. “This has left most Canadians with the view that aboriginal people were and are to blame for the situations in which they find themselves as though there were no external cause.”

All Canadians – aboriginal and non-aboriginal – must learn that the history of this country did not begin with the arrival of Jacques Cartier in 1534, he writes. That means changing the educational curriculum in most provinces to incorporate teachings about residential schools, treaties and the contributions of aboriginal people to Canada, he says in the report.

In addition, says Justice Sinclair, the federal government must provide the resources necessary to collect more information about the residential-school experience, and to make that information available to the public through the new National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg as well as at museums and cultural institutions across Canada. He recommends a national holiday devoted to the concept of truth and reconciliation between Canada and indigenous people and monuments to serve as reminders of the residential-school experience in every provincial capital.

Included in the history that has yet to be told, says Justice Sinclair, is the full count of the number of children who died at the residential schools. Although the TRC created a National Residential School Death Register, that register is far from complete, says the report. Justice Sinclair urges all coroners and provincial vital-statistics agencies to provide records about the deaths at the schools to the national centre.

“Reconciliation is not possible without knowing the truth,” he says. And young Canadians “must be able to make informed decisions about what responsibility today’s society has to address historical injustices.”

The report says that when children died at the schools – including a large number who died from tuberculosis – it was generally deemed too costly to return the deceased to the parents. To further save costs, the Fort St. James school in British Columbia buried the dead from an 1918-1919 influenza pandemic in a common grave. At the Red Deer school, four students were buried two to a grave to save costs.

The report says even those graves that were marked were often only marked with an anonymous white cross. As a result, the report says the closing of the schools has led, “in many cases,” to the abandonment of these cemeteries.

The report also details what it describes as “rampant” abuse of children, including extreme corporal punishment and sexual abuse.

In addition, Justice Sinclair urges Canadians to make grand gestures of respect for indigenous people, starting with a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation, and to openly accept indigenous culture and traditions. For instance, the presence of a pipe beside the mace in Parliament is necessary for some First Nations to accept the formal process of reconciliation, he explained.

“For reconciliation to take root, Canada, as the party to the relationship that has breached that trust, has the primary obligation to do the work needed to regain the trust of aboriginal people,” writes Justice Sinclair in his report.

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • governments should reduce the number of aboriginal children in state care by providing adequate resources to child welfare programs, national standards and annual reporting on progress;
  • aboriginal groups should be involved in a plan to eliminate the educational and employment gaps between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, including new federal legislation and increased funding;
  • steps should be taken to preserve aboriginal languages and culture, including a new Aboriginal Languages Act and allowing former students and their families to reclaim names that had been changed by the residential-school system at no personal cost;
  • Ottawa should repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which currently protects punishments like spanking, by stating that teachers and parents are justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child provided the force is reasonable;
  • governments should increase funding for aboriginal heath and recognize the value of aboriginal healing practices;
  • governments should work to eliminate the over-representation of aboriginal people in custody and issue detailed annual progress reports;
  • Ottawa should work with aboriginal peoples on a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation that would be issued by the Crown. It would build on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and affirm the nation-to-nation relationship between aboriginals and the Crown;
  • there should be a National Council for Reconciliation that would monitor progress and promote public dialogue on reconciliation;
  • the Pope should issue an apology in Canada for the role played by the Catholic Church in residential schools;
  • Ottawa should restore and increase funding to CBC/Radio-Canada to “support reconciliation,” increase aboriginal programing and continue to provide dedicated news of interest to aboriginals;
  • Ottawa should replace the current Oath of Citizenship with one in which new citizens swear to faithfully observe the laws of Canada “including Treaties with Indigenous Peoples, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.”

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jun. 02 2015, 10:57 AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Jun. 02 2015, 11:09 AM EDT