A Humanist Response to the Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Humanist Canada welcomes the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. We agree that Canada’s Indian Residential Schools represented a shameful chapter in the country’s history that included forced religious proselytization; and we call on our government to join with the majority of the world’s nations in meaningfully signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We believe that the Truth and Reconciliation paid insufficient attention to the culpability of Canada’s churches in this failed and flawed endeavor. The churches viewed residential schools to be part of their missionary activity and viewed any federal funding to be a windfall in aiding them in doing what they considered their sacred duty. Their plan to pay for their negotiated share of the costs through the labour of the students using an English industrial student model proved to be an economic disaster. Students often paid for this shortfall with poor health flowing from insufficient rations and inadequate health care.

In 1907 the Bryce Report documented cruel conditions in the schools including overcrowding, inadequately trained personnel, poor ventilation, a lack of proper nutrition, contaminated water, and generally terrible sanitation.  But in response to an internal cabinet document recommending their closure, the churches in western Canada mounted a successful campaign (supported by some chiefs and band councils) to keep them open. The federal cabinet yielded to the political pressure and kept the Indian Residential Schools open albeit with increased funding.  

Given that the churches were presenting themselves as diviners of ethical and moral standards, it is possible to understand that the Canadian authorities were reluctant to believe the extent of the sexual and physical abuse of students occurring in these schools. Humanist Canada does not accept that religions are carriers of superior moral standards and consistent with the closure of Indian Residential Schools, we call on governments to withhold funding from all existing church-run schools. We believe that students who have been victimized in these schools should receive compensation from those responsible for keeping the institutions safe. Read more...

* 1. “Indian Residential Schools represented a shameful chapter in the country’s history”

Complaints with respect to Indian Residential Schools fall into two broad categories: loss of culture and physical or sexual abuse. Following the 1990s Royal Commission into Indian Residential Schools, then Prime Minister Jean Chretien issued a historic apology and those who attended the schools given compensation of $10,000 plus $3,000 for every year of attendance. Further, students who had suffered physical or sexual abuse were awarded major additional compensation in an extra-judicial process.

Do you believe this compensation is sufficient? If not, what additional compensation should be required?

* 2. “Canada should join with the majority of the world’s nations in meaningfully signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”

In 2014 Canada became the only country in the world to reject a United Nations document on the protection of indigenous rights over a clause that would require member states to consult with aboriginal people with regard to in developments involving traditional lands.

Do you agree with the notion that aboriginal people should be consulted about economic development involving their lands? More generally, do you agree with the notion of self-government for indigenous peoples within the Canadian context? What principles guide your opinion?

* 3. “The Truth and Reconciliation paid insufficient attention to the culpability of Canada’s churches”

While the federal government must bear the ultimate responsibility for aboriginal education, the churches’ played a pivotal role in both setting and implementing government policies related to cultural assimilation.

Do you agree that more attention should be paid to the culpability of the churches in the Indian Residential School system, and, more generally, the role of churches in Canadian society?

* 4. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to report on aboriginal people who had good residential school experiences”

Parents in some areas continued to send their children to Indian Residential Schools when alternative schools were available. The chiefs in one province successfully opposed federal policies that would have closed their schools.

Is it important to try to understand these exceptions to the general narrative? Why or why not?

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