The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established in 2008 under the terms of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The Commission was mandated to
reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools, in a manner that fully documents the individual and collective harms perpetrated against Aboriginal peoples, and honours the resilience and courage of former students, their families, and communities; and
guide and inspire a process of truth and healing, leading toward reconciliation within Aboriginal families, and between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal communities, churches, governments, and Canadians generally. The process was to work to renew relationships on a basis of inclusion, mutual understanding, and respect.
More specifically, the Commission was required to hold seven National Events; to gather documents and statements about residential schools and their legacy; to fund truth and reconciliation events at the community level; to recommend commemoration initiatives to the federal government for funding; to set up a research centre that will permanently house the Commission’s records and documents, which the parties were obligated to provide to the Commission, thereby establishing a living legacy of the Commission’s work; and to issue a report with recommendations.
Three Commissioners were appointed in 2008: the Honourable Justice Harry Laforme as Chair, and Jane Brewin-Morley and Claudette Dumont-Smith. They resigned shortly after being appointed and new Commissioners were appointed. The current Commissioners, the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair as Chair, and Chief Wilton Littlechild and Dr. Marie Wilson, were appointed to replace them in 2009 by the parties to the Settlement Agreement.
An Indian Residential School Survivor Committee (IRSSC) provided advice and support to the Commission. Its members included John Banksland, Inuvialuit from the Northwest Territories; John Morriseau, Métis from Grand Rapids, Manitoba; Eugene Arcand, Cree from Muskeg Lake First Nation, Saskatchewan; Madeleine Basile, a member of the Atikamekw Nation from Wemotaci, Québec; Lottie May Johnson, Mi’kmaq from Eskasoni, Nova Scotia; Rebekah Uqi Williams, Inuk from Nunavut; Doris Young, Cree from The Pas, Manitoba; Barney Williams Jr. (Taa-eee-sim-chilth), Nuu-chahnulth from the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations on Meares Island, British Columbia; Gordon Williams, from the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba, now residing in Ontario; and Kukdookaa Terri Brown, from the Tahltan Nation in British Columbia. Raymond Arcand, a former chief of the Alexander First Nation near Edmonton, Alberta, served on the Survivors Committee until his death in November 2009.
[IMAGE: The Indian Residential School Survivor Committee. Left to right, starting in the back: John Morrisseau, Terri Brown, Eugene Arcand, Doris Young, Lottie May Johnson, John Banksland. Seated: Rebekah Uqi Williams, Barney Williams, Gordon Williams, Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild, Madeleine Basile.]
The Commission received continuing support throughout its mandate from the parties to the Settlement Agreement. Regular All Parties Meetings were held to discuss opportunities and challenges that arose in fulfilling the Commission’s goals. The Commission worked with the parties to address topics such as document collection, communications, public education, and Survivor travel support for completion of the Commission’s work. Representatives of the parties also took part in working groups at the national and local levels to support the Commission in planning and implementing its National and Regional Events.
The Commission established its head office in Winnipeg, Manitoba, retained a small Ottawa office, and opened satellite offices in Vancouver, British Columbia; Hobbema, Alberta; and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
In recognition of the unique cultures of the Inuit, and of their experiences and the impacts of residential schools on them, the Commission also established an Inuit Sub-Commission. Seven regional liaison officers were hired with advice from the IRSSC and were assigned responsibility to work in the following regions: Québec and Atlantic Canada, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and Yukon and the Northwest Territories.
During the six years of its operation, the Commission held events in all parts of the country. The largest and most visible of these were the National Events held in Winnipeg, Inuvik, Halifax, Saskatoon, Montreal, Vancouver, and Edmonton between June 2010 and March 2014. The Commission estimates there were as many as 155,000 visits to the seven National Events; over 9,000 residential school Survivors registered to attend them (while many others attended but did not register).1 To augment its statement-gathering activities and to help build public interest and participation in its National Events, the TRC organized Regional Events in Victoria and Whitehorse. It also held 238 days of local hearings in seventy-seven communities across the country.
The Commission also sponsored “town halls” on reconciliation at its Victoria Regional Event in April 2012 and at subsequent National Events as a means to draw a greater number of visitors into conversation with the TRC about healing and reconciliation. Members of the general public were invited to come forward at the town halls to share information about what they are already doing to support reconciliation and to describe their ideas about what more needs to be done.
Until the Commission was established, the voices of those who were most directly affected by the residential school experience, particularly the former students, had largely been missing from the historical record. The Commission made a commitment to offer everyone involved with the residential school system the opportunity to speak about their experience. The Commission received over 6,750 statements from Survivors of residential schools, members of their families, and other individuals who wished to share their knowledge of the residential school system and its legacy.
[IMAGE: The Kuujjuaq community hearing, Nunavik, March 2011. Photo credit: Piita Irniq.]
Statements were gathered at public Sharing Panels and Sharing Circles at National, Regional, and Community Events and at Commission hearings. They were also collected through private conversations with statement gatherers. The Commission also gathered statements in correctional institutions in Kenora, Ontario, and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, recognizing the high rates of incarceration of Aboriginal peoples and how the experience of residential schools has contributed to the kinds of personal struggles that may lead to incarceration. Health-support workers, cultural support workers, and/or professional therapists were present everywhere the Commission gathered statements to provide support and counselling as needed.
In an effort to understand all aspects of the residential school experience, the Commission also made a concerted effort to gather statements from former staff of residential schools. With the assistance of the church parties to the Settlement Agreement, the Commission conducted ninety-six separate interviews with former staff and the children of former staff. In addition, the Commission received statements from former staff and their family members at its National and Regional Events and Community Hearings. The statements gathered will form part of a permanent collection of documents relating to residential schools.
Under the terms of the Settlement Agreement, the federal government and the churches were obliged to turn over relevant documents in their possession to the Commission. The Commission has had to overcome some significant challenges to completing this task, and has had to seek court direction to resolve disputes with the parties about the handing over of documents. Once the Commission’s document-collection processes began, it became iNCReasingly apparent that Canada would not produce numerous documents that appeared to be relevant to the Commission’s work.2
First, the federal government declined to produce all relevant documents held in its national archives, Library and Archives Canada. Library and Archives Canada took a position that it was not required to organize and produce to the Commission up to five million documents in its possession that were directly relevant to residential schools. Library and Archives Canada maintained that the Settlement Agreement required it to provide the Commission only with access to its archives. A lengthy process, which included the filing of written arguments, affidavit evidence, and court-ordered mediation between Canada and the Commission, culminated in a hearing before the Honourable Justice Stephen Goudge of the Ontario Court of Appeal (sitting as an Ontario Superior Court Justice) on December 20 and 21, 2012. By judgment dated January 30, 2013, Justice Goudge ruled in favour of the Commission’s position, that the terms of the Settlement Agreement provided that all relevant documents held by the Government of Canada, wherever they may be held, must be produced to the Commission.3 Following the ruling, the Government of Canada began producing documents from Library and Archives Canada to the Commission.
Less than a year later, the Commission once again was required to go to court for judicial guidance respecting Canada’s document-production obligations. At issue were records in the possession of the Government of Canada from the investigation of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) into abuse at the Fort Albany, Ontario, residential school in Ontario (also known as the St. Anne’s school). The Commission had attempted to obtain the OPP documents from both the opp and the federal government. Although the opp did not respond to the Commission’s overtures, it later took the position that it required judicial authorization to produce the records to the Commission, but it did not oppose disclosure. The Government of Canada, however, opposed production of the documents to both the Commission and to the lawyers for residential school Survivors. The government took the position that it was barred from producing the documents because they obtained the documents from the opp subject to an undertaking that it would not, in turn, disclose the documents to any third party.4 The Government of Canada further argued that it was not obliged to seek documents from third parties for disclosure to the Commission and that any disclosure to the Commission of the St. Anne’s records would amount to burdening the Government of Canada with this obligation.5
On October 18, 2013, the Commission filed a Request for Directions as to whether the Government of Canada was obliged to disclose the records of the opp investigation of St. Anne’s. After argument before the Honourable Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on December 17 and 18, 2013, the court ordered Canada to produce its documents to the Commission.6 Recognizing that Canada had only a subset of the opp investigation documents, the court went one step further and ordered that the opp produce all the investigation records in its possession to the Commission.7
Less than a year after Justice Perell rendered his decision in the St. Anne’s case, the Commission was faced with yet another document-collection issue that called for court guidance. The documents at issue were records from the Independent Assessment Process (IAP). The IAP is one of the components of the Settlement Agreement. The IAP is an adjudicative process for financial compensation to residential school Survivors who suffered serious abuse at residential schools. Consequently, the body that administers the IAP process, the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat (IRSAS), is in possession of a wealth of documents relevant to the legacy of Indian residential schools.
The Residential Schools Settlement Agreement provides that Survivors who go through the IAP can give their consent to have their statements and testimony archived with the archive created by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation for future research. The intention was apparently to eliminate the need for a Survivor to have to testify before an IAP adjudicator, and then have to repeat the same story to the TRC. From mid-2010 to early 2012, the Commission engaged in negotiations with irsas to archive and preserve those documents. The parties’ discussions focused on the development of a consent form for IAP claimants to sign during the IAP process. The consent form would explain to IAP Survivors how their information would be shared with the Commission and it would allow them to provide written consent to the sharing of their stories. The Commission had discovered that the IAP staff and adjudicators had repeatedly failed to inform Survivors of their right to have their statements delivered to the TRC’s archive, and, instead, had required an undertaking of strict confidentiality of all parties to the IAP hearings, including the Survivors themselves. In June 2014, the chief adjudicator of IAP publicly announced that he supported the immediate destruction of all documents related to the adjudication of claims by residential school Survivors.
The Commission emphasized that the requirement of strict confidentiality imposed by irsas was incompatible with the terms of the Settlement Agreement. Furthermore, the Commission stated that the destruction of some IAP documents would constitute a major loss for future generations of Canadians. The Commission and irsas were unable to come to an agreement as to the mechanisms for allowing the Commission to access the documents, and the matter was brought before Justice Perell for direction.
In the hearing held from July 14 to 16, 2014, the Commission advanced the position that a notice program should be ordered by the court, which would allow IAP claimants to be notified that they may share their IAP testimony with the Commission should they so desire. The Commission narrowed the categories of documents it sought to preserve in recognition of the legitimate privacy interests of IAP Survivors. The Commission argued that it sought only to archive the IAP applications, transcripts, and audio recordings from IAP hearings and IAP adjudicator decisions.
On August 6, 2014, Justice Perell delivered reasons in which he held that the IAP documents would be subject to a fifteen-year retention period, during which a notice program to Survivors would be administered by the Commission or the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.8 The precise parameters of the notice program would be decided by the court in a subsequent hearing. Importantly, Justice Perell ruled that every copy of the IAP documents, no matter who possesses them, must be destroyed after the conclusion of the retention period if the IAP claimants do not consent to having the documents archived.
Justice Perell also directed that the Commission commence a further Request for Direction and return to court for a determination of the issue of the parameters of a notice program to inform Survivors about their option to archive their IAP applications, the transcripts and audio recordings of their hearings, and the decisions with the Commission. The Commission (along with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation) has been entrusted to commence further proceedings to determine how to engage claimants in the exercise of ensuring informed consent on the issue of the fate of their records.
Justice Perell’s ruling is the subject of appeal.9 The Commission feels strongly that any steps taken to ensure that the informed consent of Survivors is obtained must be robust, culturally appropriate, and sensitive to the challenges of contacting Survivors, some of whom cannot read, have problems speaking English or French, and reside in remote locations. The Commission believes that it is not enough that a notice simply be mailed to the last known address of Survivors. A multi-faceted and personal approach that actively engages Survivors is required.
The Commission strongly believes that Survivors’ stories must be preserved. The loss of these documents would be a blow to Canada’s national memory of a significant historic injustice, could contribute to the possibility that future generations would never know of the abuses in residential schools, and could contribute to the argument of those who would assert that this never happened. The Commission intends to vigorously advance a position to prevent the destruction of the IAP documents without the informed consent of individual Survivors.
[IMAGE: Concert showcasing local Aboriginal talent, Atlantic National Event, Halifax, 2011.]
The four-day National Events served as important milestones over the course of the Commission’s six-year mandate. As well as offering a forum for Survivors and their families, the National Events raised public awareness of the history and legacy of residential schools. They also built momentum for the collective journey towards national healing and reconciliation—a journey that will need to continue well beyond the Commission’s closing ceremony.
Traditional knowledge and practice guided much of the Commission’s work. The Seven Sacred Teachings of the Anishinaabe—Respect, Courage, Love, Truth, Humility, Honesty, and Wisdom—served as the themes for the seven National Events, and ceremony and traditional observance played an important part in the National Events. Sacred fires were lit at the beginning of each National Event and every day’s proceedings began with ceremony. As much as possible, the observances followed the cultural protocols, customs, and traditions of the Aboriginal peoples in whose territories the Commission was a guest. Similar ceremonies were held at Regional and Community Events.
Education was a key part of the Commission’s mandate. Although students were involved in all the National Events, beginning at the third National Event in Halifax, and at all subsequent National Events, local schools were invited to send students to take part in a day of learning. These Education Days were also part of Regional Events on Vancouver Island and in Yukon, and a stand-alone event was organized in Toronto for students from the surrounding area. In all, more than 15,000 students participated by attending presentations and cultural performances, observing and taking part in panel discussions and workshops, and visiting displays in the Learning Places.
[IMAGE: Her Excellency, the Honorable Michaëlle Jean at the Winnipeg National Event, June 2010.]
The Commission organized activities to help teachers prepare their students for the National Event Education Days and consider follow-up activities in the classroom. In addition, the Commission worked with universities, educators, and Traditional Knowledge Keepers to hold academic conferences and panel discussions at its National Events on a number of topics related to the legacy of colonialism and residential schools, and on healing and reconciliation.
Cultural performances were also key elements of each National Event. Through concerts and talent shows, thousands of people experienced some of the richness of Aboriginal culture, language, and artistic expression—cultural forms that residential schools sought to destroy.
The Commission was able to share its work with Canadians everywhere, and with a worldwide audience, through live streaming of the National Events on the internet and additional postings on the Commission’s website and social-media platforms. There were over 93,350 views of its webcast during the National Events from at least sixty-two different countries.
One of the goals of the Commission’s public outreach activities was to encourage Canadians from all backgrounds to learn more about the legacy of residential schools and take part in the work of reconciliation by witnessing Commission events.
Inviting respected guests to represent all witnesses at an event or the conduct of business gives the event import and legitimacy and is in keeping with the traditions of many Aboriginal cultures. To this end, the Commission appointed Honorary Witnesses to be present at its major events. Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, who served as governor general of Canada at the start of the Commission’s mandate, agreed to be the Commission’s first Honorary Witness. She began her role as a witness by hosting a special event called Witnessing the Future at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on October 15, 2009. In the following years, the current governor general of Canada, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston; two former prime ministers, the Right Honourable Joe Clark and the Right Honourable Paul Martin; two former national Aboriginal leaders, Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations and former Ambassador Mary Simon, Past President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami; and a host of other distinguished individuals have all agreed to serve as Honorary Witnesses.
The Commission also invited Canadians to make expressions of reconciliation at its National and Regional Events. The Commission received more than 180 expressions from individuals, organizations, and the parties to the Settlement Agreement who wished to publicly state their commitment to the journey of healing and reconciliation and speak to the ways in which they are contributing to that journey. Documents and items related to each expression of reconciliation were placed in ceremony in the beautiful Bentwood Box created by Coast Salish carver Luke Marston. The box will become part of the permanent legacy of the TRC housed in the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Commission worked throughout its mandate to educate the public about the legacy of residential schools and to invite and encourage public participation in its events and activities. The Commission took part in nearly 900 separate events. These included a number of special events that the TRC organized with various partners to engage with Survivors’ organizations and other Aboriginal groups, youth, women, faith communities, the philanthropic community, and new Canadians. The Commission also accepted invitations to share information about its work internationally through the United Nations, the International Centre for Transitional Justice, and a number of university law faculties.10
In the final year of its mandate, the Commission organized two events to gather additional information for its report. It held a Traditional Knowledge Keepers Forum to learn how traditional Aboriginal knowledge can contribute to reconciliation. It also organized, with the support of Égale Canada Human Rights Trust, a forum with members of the Two Spirit community to discuss the impacts of residential schools and what needs to be done to support reconciliation and healing in that community.
The Settlement Agreement allocated $20 million for commemoration initiatives. These were defined as initiatives that would honour, educate, remember, memorialize, and pay tribute to former residential school students, their families, and their communities. The Commission issued two separate calls for commemoration project proposals. The maximum funding award for a project advanced by a single group was $50,000. Up to ten communities could collaborate on a submission for a maximum contribution of $500,000, and a commemoration project of national scope was eligible for a contribution of up to $2 million. The Commission recommended 152 projects to the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development for funding, and 143 projects were approved.11
It is important to note that the Commission’s work inspired others to undertake commemorative projects using their own resources. One example is the Government of Canada’s decision to memorialize the legacy of Indian residential schools through the permanent installation of a stained-glass window in the Centre Block of Parliament Hill. The design selected for the window was created by Aboriginal artist Christi Belcourt and is entitled Giniigaaniimenaaning or Looking Ahead.
The Commission issued a separate call for proposals for community events and allocated funding to approved projects up to a maximum of $15,000 per event. The TRC supported seventy-five community events, which were designed to promote healing and reconciliation by developing collective community narratives about the impact of the residential school system on former students, families, and communities.
In February 2012, as part of its mandate, the Commission issued an Interim Report with findings and recommendations, along with a short history of residential schools, entitled They Came for the Children. Because recommendations in the Interim Report dealt with gaps in school curricula, the Commission made it a priority to meet with provincial and territorial education ministers to advocate for the development of curriculum on the legacy of residential schools and the mandatory adoption of that curriculum in all jurisdictions.
[IMAGE: Tens of thousands participate in the Walk for Reconciliation through downtown Vancouver, September 2013.]
The Commission was mandated to create a national research centre, which would hold all the material created and received as part of its work. The centre is intended to be accessible to Survivors, their families, and communities, as well as to the general public. The Commission held a forum in March 2011 to consult with national and international experts on establishing such a centre. This informed the Commission’s subsequent call for proposals to house the centre.
The Commission reviewed a number of proposals for housing the research centre and, in June 2013, announced that the University of Manitoba had been selected to become the permanent host of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR). The NCTR is governed by a Trust Deed and Administrative Agreement signed by the Commission and the university. A Governing Circle and Survivors Circle play important roles in ensuring the promises undertaken to Survivors are honoured.
The NCTR also works in direct partnership with a growing number of universities, colleges, and other organizations across the country, including: the University of British Columbia, the University of Winnipeg, l’Université de St. Boniface, Carleton University, the University of Regina, Lakehead University, University College of the North, Algoma University, Red River College, the Archives of Manitoba, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the National Association of Friendship Centres, the Legacy of Hope Foundation, and le Centre du patrimoine. The goal is to create the broadest possible network from coast to coast to coast.
Officially opening in the summer of 2015, the NCTR will be the permanent home for all statements, documents, and other materials gathered by the Commission. In future, it will house other Indigenous collections. The NCTR will encourage and engage in respectful dialogue on many issues that hinder or foster reconciliation. It will ensure that:
Survivors and their families have access to their own history;
educators can share the residential school history with new generations of students;
researchers can delve more deeply into the residential school experience and legacy;
the public can access historical records and other materials to help foster reconciliation and healing; and
the history and legacy of the residential school system are never forgotten.
The search to understand the truth about Indian residential schools has taken the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to all parts of Canada. The Commission has listened to thousands of Survivors give their accounts of the residential school experience and how that experience has shaped their lives. The Commission has explored what the legacy of the residential school system has meant to Aboriginal people in particular and to Canada as a whole. This journey led the Commission to chart some of the pathways described in this report that may lead eventually to reconciliation within this country.