Facts and the Plight of Indigenous Canadians: A Review of From Truth Comes Reconciliation

January 2022

Rodney A Clifton and Mark DeWolf, editors, From Truth Comes Reconciliation: Assessing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Winnipeg, Manitoba, March 2020 (Paperback: July 2021)

Canada’s Indigenous Peoples disproportionately suffer many serious problems. Clifton and DeWolf’s book notes that they have the highest rates of all Canadian groups on eighteen indicators ranging from criminality to unemployment, single motherhood, alcoholism and drug abuse (p. 152). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) identifies the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) system as a major source of these distressing problems. But Clifton and DeWolf show that, to advance this claim, the TRC’s Report selectively misuses the information the TRC collected. Given the claim’s current widespread uncritical acceptance—and especially given recent publicity about unmarked graves—Clifton and DeWolf’s book may encounter opprobrium, but it can contribute towards meaningful resolution of Indigenous Peoples’ serious problems.

The TRC was established in 2007 as part of a settlement reached between the Federal Government and the Assembly of First Nations following the latter’s 2005 class action lawsuit claiming harms imposed on IRS students. The Commission undertook research and, over 6 years, held hearings across Canada, at which a few former employees and over 6500 former IRS students testified. The settlement included payments to former students, with a minimum for all attendees and with scaled individual payments depending on the severity of the claimed abuse.

It is true that, at certain times and in certain places, IRS schools inflicted emotional and physical abuse, and were responsible for deaths caused by diseases and fires. Perhaps the most notorious are the tuberculosis deaths reported in 1906 by Department of Indian Affairs chief medical officer Peter Bryce: sleeping arrangements in certain hostels contributed to the spread at a time when there was no effective treatment. This book shows that these problems constitute only one aspect of a complicated truth involving many successes, so that the widely used terms genocide and cultural genocide are highly misleading. The IRS’s aim was to equip Canada’s Indigenous Peoples with knowledge and skills necessary to adapt to a rapidly developing modernity being imposed on them by settlers.

Both editors are familiar with residential schools. In 1966-7 Clifton worked at a residential hostel in Inuvik, and DeWolf was an IRS student, being the son of an Anglican priest who served as principal of an Alberta school. Following their introduction, the book has three parts. Part 1 contains two chapters. Chapter 1, by Joseph Quesnel, of Métis heritage, describes relevant historical and legal developments from King George III’s Royal Proclamation of 1763 to the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The editors’ Chapter 2 outlines what is known about both the IRS structure and issues such as evidence on malnourishment and abuse.

Part 2 contains seven critical analyses: two by political scientist Frances Widdowson; and one each by historian Gerry Bowler, anthropologist Hymie Rubenstein, retired Manitoba Justice Brian Giesbrecht, Mark DeWolf, and psychologist Masha Krylova. Giesbrecht is notable for his 1992 report on pervasive child abuse on Manitoba’s Indian reserves, exposing neglect by both native communities and provincial agencies.

Part 3 contains four personal reflections on their IRS experience: one by Lea Meadows, whose grandmother was indigenous; one each by Clifton and DeWolf, and one by Marshall Draper, a retired Hudson Bay Store manager. All four describe positive student and employee stories.

Quesnels’ history provides insightful background. For example, a series of numbered treaties signed between 1874 and 1921, which ceded land to Canada, included funding for schools and teachers: “Indigenous leaders recognized that receiving the ‘white man’s education’ would benefit their children” (p. 21). More recently, a survey described in the 1966 Hawthorn Report “revealed sobering poverty and very poor economic conditions, as well as lost educational opportunities for Indigenous children living on reserves” (p. 23). This report also introduced the idea that Aboriginals were to be considered Canadian citizens plus, having rights over and above those of the normal citizen.

In 1969, Pierre Trudeau’s Government issued a White Paper rejecting the citizens-plus proposal, advocating instead the solution of the problems identified in the Hawthorn Report through “complete integration of Indigenous people into the mainstream of Canadian society, with the gradual ending” of all prior special relationships (p. 25). But the Indian leadership vociferously condemned this proposal. According to political scientist Tom Flanagan, this “touched off a new era in native politics, the master themes of which were Aboriginal rights, land claims and self-government rather than the war on poverty...and emphasized their separateness from, rather than their integration into, the larger society” (p. 26).

The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recognized these claims, asserting that Indigenous peoples “have an inherent right to reserve-based governments, the education of Indigenous children, and the health and welfare of Indigenous peoples.... As a consequence the idea of integrating Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples into one unified country ended” (pp. 27-8). Also, “over the past 25 years the idea that Indigenous reserves are nations—First Nations—has indeed taken solid hold in Canada.” This includes asserting that they have sovereignty in international law (p. 28).

The TRC Report, issued in 2015, comprises about 3500 pages presented in six volumes together with 94 “Calls to Action.” The Summary volume was the first to be issued, and it was this volume which received significant attention by the press and the public, and even by academia.

I cannot summarize the wealth of information this book presents, so I select a few points, concluding with two comments. The first and the most disturbing point follows from Clifton and DeWolf’s analysis of the entire report. The editors spent five years examining the report, concluding that the Summary and Legacy volumes contain negative generalizations that “are not [sic!] supported by evidence presented in the other volumes.... Testimony that is favourable to the IRS system.... is provided in many volumes...but these testimonies and their significance are absent from the crucial Summary and Legacy volumes” (p. 4). In Chapter 8, DeWolf observes that the report describes “in detail some very positive aspects of the residential schools, and the beneficial aspects that some of the schools had on Aboriginal children and their communities.” Not reflecting that balance, “the consequent publicity that [the Summary] received ... has ensured that the totally negative account is the one the public considers the ‘truth’ that will lead to ‘reconciliation’ ” (p. 181).

Furthermore, the editors observe that “Only about one third of Indigenous children were ever enrolled in the IRS...and a great many Indigenous children received no education at all during the IRS period. However, the (TRC)’s claims that most, if not all, of the serious problems Indigenous people face today can be traced back to the residential school experiences of their ancestors look tenuous at best” (p. 64).

The TRC hearings were controversial. Attempting to replicate an Indigenous tradition in which “witnesses are called to be the keepers of history when an event of historic significance occurs,” prominent Canadians were invited to attend. These included—at various times—former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean and former Prime Minister Paul Martin. Giesbrecht castigates use of such witnesses: they “should never have been appointed if the Commission was serious about finding the ‘truth’ and convincing Canadians that it had done a good job. Associating these prominent individuals with the TRC [added] a spurious credibility to the claims that the Report made, implying that the honorary witnesses supported the most outrageous claims included in the report” (p. 157).

In the latter respect, Widdowson observes that “[The TRC’s] deference to … Aboriginal viewpoints meant that the Commission did not consider the fact that the recall of traumatic events in highly emotional settings often results in unreliable accounts.” Such testimony was accepted unchallenged; a bizarre example claims that “one person was tied up and hung out a window while being sodomized with a broom handle” (p. 107).

The “public hearings were ... organized and conducted as a form of therapy for the significant harm that was assumed to have occurred” (p. 101). Thus, when a Catholic priest declared that “his school provided a good education and a nurturing environment for the children whose parents sent them there, because this was the only option for children who lived in remote locations, the audience became incensed.... [The Chief Commissioner Murray Sinclair] called for ‘health supports’ [for] those who were crying and wailing...” (p. 105). As this incident illustrates, risking opprobrium, a few former IRS staff members and their children did testify. Their stories “often differed dramatically from the stories former students told.... [T]he TRC did not attempt to reconcile them with former students’ stories and did not mention [them] in the Summary and Legacy volumes” (p. 61). (During the Commission’s 5-year operation, McGill anthropologist Ronald Niezen interviewed over 30 nuns, priests and former students in northern Quebec and Manitoba: “Almost all the nuns and priests recalled the schools as places of love and learning...I was struck by the interviewees’ obliviousness or denial of survivors’ experiences. One priest who was accused years later was neither charged or exonerated.” Many of the former students, “having no stories or serious difficulties, felt that they had nothing to contribute.”)

The Report’s use of the term cultural genocide is criticized as seriously misleading. While the Canadian Government’s policy fostered integration, according to the editors, “claiming that [these] policies were designed to eliminate ‘religious and racial identities’ is going too far” (p. 4). In this respect, Widdowson’s analysis of political and economic developments from the 17th to the 20th century points out that Indigenous peoples were hunter-gathers with oral cultures and animistic beliefs; these were eminently unsuited to cultural and economic developments over which they had no control. For instance, as early as the 17th Century, the fur trade forced changes in their cultures.

Rubenstein observes that, prior to the arrival of Europeans, North American indigenous history is a “tale of migration, warfare, slavery, forced assimilation and genocide.” Yet, for political reasons, Canada’s Indigenous leaders claim that their cultures were exceptional, living “peacefully in harmony with each other and with the natural environment.” Somehow, this “idyllic” way of life was lost after Europeans’ arrival (p. 137). “As erroneous as it is, this view of Indigenous exceptionalism lies at the heart of the heritage that Indigenous people … now claim, and it is the focus of nearly all their current grievances” (p. 138). Rubenstein suggests that this stance inhibits asking serious questions, such as “Have the billions spent on Indigenous [Peoples] actually made them worse off than if they had been treated exactly like non-Indigenous citizens?” (p. 152).

Bowler acknowledges that the TRC researchers did “diligent and important work. The excavation of government and church records, especially the work done on missing children and unmarked graves, was a triumph of painstaking scholarship.” He agrees with many of the report’s conclusions, including: chronic under-funding, inferior education, many instances of child abuse, and leaving “parents, students, officials and staff in mutual cultural incomprehension” (p. 135).

Nevertheless, Bowler’s assessment of the TRC Report itself is scathing: “it fails at a fundamental level. No undergraduate student writing a history paper would be allowed to get away with making extraordinary claims without backing them up by reference to their sources...” (p. 134). “The conclusions were overtly determined before the investigation, testimonies were made in violation of the canons of oral history, many of the authors saw themselves as crusaders righting ancient wrongs, and fundamental questions were left unasked and unanswered” (p. 134). He excoriates the allusion to the Nazi Holocaust in the TRC’s use of the term Survivor to describe all IRS attendees, and particularly the absurdity Intergenerational Survivor to describe descendants of attendees (pp. 122-23).

Giesbrecht criticizes the TRC’s demand that, in order to fulfil the “First Nation” idea, Canada agree to accept the principles and jurisdiction of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As he points out, the drafters of this declaration envisaged single large groups unrecognized by a state, not the Canadian situation in which multiple minorities already have rights. Contrary to the TRC’s claims, “it will almost certainly drive Indigenous and non-Indigenous further apart” (p. 169).

I conclude making two observations. First, Widdowson describes the nature of Indigenous Knowledge as characterized by the 1996 Royal Commision: “Aboriginal historical conception ... accepted spiritual beliefs and hearsay as evidence [and] were not concerned with establishing objective truth.... [T]he teller of the story was as important as the story [being] told” (p. 76). Furthermore, according to the Royal Commission, acceptance of the Aboriginal view of history “was the only way for non Aboriginals to reconcile with Aboriginals” (p. 76). This is characteristic of the poetic mode of communication typical of oral cultures, and is opposed to modernity’s descriptive mode, the latter being necessary for resolution of the Indigenous Peoples’ problems. Since this view evidently pervaded the TRC’s proceedings, it was a prescription for the mutual incomprehension suggested by Bowler (p. 175), and for the long-term failure of the TRC exercise.

Second, the information presented in this book suggests to me that—Aboriginal leadership’s objections notwithstanding—the full integration recommended in the 1969 White Paper is the one most likely to succeed.

I hope that the book’s search for the truth helps Canadians both understand and improve Canada’s Indigenous People’s lives.