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Interim Report (TRC Canada)/Review of Past Reports

 

Review of Past Reports

The Commission was established to reveal the truth about the residential school system, and to identify pathways to reconciliation for its survivors and for all Canadians. In order to understand the current context for reconciliation in Canada, the Commission is conducting research into previous reconciliation efforts, and will report on these in future reports.

The most ambitious attempt to reconcile the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada was the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). It was launched in response to the Oka crisis of 1990. That summer, a bitter land-claim dispute led to a military siege of the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, and galvanized many long-standing Aboriginal grievances across Canada.

Established in 1991, the Royal Commission was mandated to conduct hearings across the country and offer recommendations on how to improve Canada's relationships with its original peoples. Released in 1996, its five-volume Final Report included over 3500 pages and offered over 400 recommendations thematically organized into categories of renewed relationships, treaties, governance, lands and resources, economic development, family, health and healing, housing, education, arts, and heritage. The Commission also dedicated a volume of its Final Report to multiple Aboriginal perspectives: Women, Elders, Youth, Métis, as well as Northern and Urban. Most of RCAP's recommendations were directed to the federal government; many were aimed at other governments, whether Aboriginal, municipal, provincial, and territorial, as well as other elements of civil society including colleges and universities, industry, mass media, and labour unions. The following two sections review the RCAP recommendations that specifically address 1) residential schools, and 2) reconciliation.

Residential-School Recommendations

The Royal Commission made several recommendations regarding residential schools. The most substantive, Recommendation 1.10.1, called for a public inquiry that would:

  1. investigate and document the origin and effects of residential school policies and practices respecting all Aboriginal peoples, with particular attention to the nature and extent of effects on subsequent generations of individuals and families, and on communities and Aboriginal societies;
  2. conduct public hearings across the country with sufficient funding to enable the testimony of affected persons to be heard;
  3. commission research and analysis of the breadth of the effects of these policies and practices;
  4. investigate the record of residential schools with a view to the identification of abuse and what action, if any, is considered appropriate; and
  5. recommend remedial action by governments and the responsible churches deemed necessary by the inquiry to relieve conditions created by the residential school experience, including as appropriate,
    • apologies by those responsible;
    • compensation of communities to design and administer programs that help the healing process and rebuild their community life; and
    • funding for treatment of affected individuals and their families.[1]

Recommendation 1.10.3 called for the establishment of a "national repository of records and video collections related to residential schools." This national repository would:

  • facilitate access to documentation and electronic exchange of research on residential schools
  • provide financial assistance for the collection of testimony and continuing research
  • work with educators in the design of Aboriginal curriculum that explains the history and effects of residential schools
  • conduct public education programs on the history and effects of residential schools and remedies applied to relieve their negative effects.

Unfortunately, the majority of these recommendations were not adopted or even acknowledged by the federal government. In 1998 the Minister of Indian Affairs finally responded with a "Statement of Reconciliation" that specifically addressed the residential school system as part of her government's formal response to RCAP, entitled Gathering Strength—Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan.

The Government of Canada acknowledges the role it played in the development and administration of these schools. Particularly to those individuals who experienced the tragedy of physical and sexual abuse at residential schools, and who have carried this burden believing that in some way they must be responsible, we wish to emphasize that what you experienced was not your fault and should never have happened. To those of you who suffered this tragedy at residential schools, we are deeply sorry.[2]

It would take another decade of litigation and negotiation following the release of the RCAP report before the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was reached. In that agreement, Canada and the churches agreed to survivors' demands for individual compensation for all students, independent assessment process for victims of abuse, the establishment of a truth commission, and the creation of a national archive dealing with residential schools. This addressed, but did not fulfill, many of the elements in the RCAP residential school recommendations. In this respect, the TRC is a living testament to former students' perseverance in demanding an inquiry into the residential school system.


Reconciliation Recommendations

RCAP's Final Report is a particularly rich resource. It invites Canadians to participate in a national dialogue on possible pathways to reconciliation. It offered hundreds of relevant recommendations, too numerous to be reviewed here, but their main message was the need for a new relationship between Canada and Aboriginal peoples. Four guiding principles for the new relationship were proposed: mutual recognition, mutual respect, sharing, and mutual responsibility. Aboriginal nations would be recognized as the third order of government in Canada alongside the federal and provincial or territorial branches. Recognition of Aboriginal peoples' inherent right to self-determination would be the only pathway to Aboriginal reconciliation with Canada.

One of the most prominent recommendations was the issuing of what was termed a "New Royal Proclamation" to symbolize the beginning of a new era between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada. RCAP hoped that this gesture would "establish the infrastructure for the new relationship … [with] critical institutions for the shift to the nation as the basic unit of Aboriginal government and for structuring the negotiating process."[3] A New Royal Proclamation should contain:

  • acknowledgement of "the profoundly harmful elements of the past … as a means of reconciliation"
  • creation of a process to recognize Aboriginal nations in which would be vested the right of self-determination
  • establishment of a treaty process framework that commits the government to "respect and implement existing treaties in accord with their spirit and intent"
  • clarification regarding Aboriginal Title and the removal of any extinguishment requirements for land-claims settlements
  • recognition of Métis land rights and governance.[4]

The 1998 federal response to RCAP ignored the "Royal Proclamation" recommendation. It did include an expression of regret for past wrongs and a federal pledge to focus on four priority areas: renewing the partnership, strengthening Aboriginal governance, developing a new fiscal relationship, and supporting strong communities.

There have been several attempts to assess the implementation of the RCAP recommendations but their number and scope complicate such an assessment. While the Auditor General has produced periodic reviews of Aboriginal programs, the majority of these audits look at the performance of existing programs. They do not, however, assess the government's progress in implementing programs that the RCAP Final Report recommended in order to meet needs identified by the Commission.

Thus far, the federal government has made little effort to monitor its own progress in implementing RCAP's recommendations. For example, Canada committed to developing an "Aboriginal Report Card" in 2004 but this was never completed. Treasury Board did provide two Aboriginal-specific sections in its 2004 and 2005 "Canada's Performance" reports. These reports were discontinued in 2006.

In 2006 the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) issued a ten-year report card that looked at the RCAP Final Report's recommendations. This report card gave Canada a failing grade in over half (thirty-seven of sixty-five) the categories of recommendations.[5]

Academic as well as political assessments have been critical of Canada's failure to acknowledge, let alone implement, the majority of RCAP's recommendations. In his 2008 book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, political philosopher John Ralston Saul lamented the federal government's missed opportunity to "engage" with RCAP's recommendations as a "most foolish refusal."[6] However, he pointed hopefully to examples where Canadians have made progress in adopting RCAP's core principles, and he cites its Final Report directly: "This great document is slowly making its way because it is the most important statement we now have of our reality—one that embraces 'a relationship of mutual trust and loyalty' and deals with the real role of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada." He also notes that Aboriginal peoples have much to teach the rest of the country about reconciliation.

Non-Aboriginals appear to be moving ever so tentatively toward reconciliation, which would be a first step toward understanding the situation differently. As always in our history, the elegance and generosity when it is a matter of reconciliation comes largely from the indigenous side, from those who have been wronged. All around us there are a multitude of negotiations and complaints and concerns. As they are resolved in a pattern that increasingly gives Aboriginals room to manoeuvre and re-establish their role as players and leaders in their own worlds, so they also gain the room to play an important role in Canada as a whole.[7]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is of the opinion that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples identified the key issues to be addressed in righting the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Although RCAP did not identify a specific role for the churches in addressing a reconciliation process, such participation clearly is captured by the spirit of RCAP's recommendations. Furthermore, RCAP's guiding principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect, sharing, and mutual responsibility are critical to any reconciliation process.

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  1. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 1: Looking Forward, Looking Back (Ottawa, Canada: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996), 385–386.
  2. Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Gathering Strength—Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan (Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government, 1998), http://www.ahf.ca/downloads/gathering-strength.pdf.
  3. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 5: Renewal: A Twenty-Year Commitment (Ottawa, Canada: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996), 21.
  4. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volume 5: Renewal: A Twenty-Year Commitment (Ottawa, Canada: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1996), 5–8,
  5. Assembly of First Nations, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples at 10 Years: A Report Card (Ottawa: AFN, 2006), http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/aboriginals/pdf/afn_rcap.pdf.
  6. John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008), 25–26.
  7. John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008), 98–99.