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Righting Canada's Wrongs: Residential Schools and Their Devastating Legacy for Indigenous Peoples

Righting Canada's Wrongs: Residential Schools and Their Devastating Legacy for Indigenous Peoples

For over a century, Canada's government and churches operated a system of residential schools that aimed to assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant culture. These schools were sites of abuse, neglect, and cultural genocide, where thousands of children died and many more suffered physical, emotional, and spiritual harm. The legacy of residential schools continues to affect the lives of Indigenous peoples and their communities today.

Righting Canada's Wrongs: Residential Schools: The Devastating Impact on Canada's Indigenous Peoples

In this article, we will explore the history of residential schools, the impact they had on Canada's Indigenous peoples, and the efforts to right the wrongs of this dark chapter in Canadian history. We will also look at the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which documented the experiences of survivors and issued calls for action to promote healing and justice.

The History of Residential Schools

The residential school system was based on the idea that Indigenous peoples were inferior and needed to be civilized by European values and Christianity. The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 and the Indian Act of 1876 gave the government authority to control the lives of Indigenous peoples, including their education, land, and identity.

In 1879, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald commissioned a report by Nicholas Flood Davin, who recommended the establishment of industrial schools for Indigenous children. These schools would be run by churches and funded by the government, and would separate children from their families and communities. The goal was to "kill the Indian in the child" and prepare them for manual labor or domestic service.

By 1931, there were 130 residential schools across Canada, attended by about 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children. The schools were often overcrowded, poorly maintained, and underfunded. The children were subjected to harsh discipline, malnutrition, disease, and abuse. They were forbidden to speak their native languages or practice their cultures. Many children ran away or died at the schools. The last federally funded residential school closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan.

The Impact of Residential Schools

The residential school system had a devastating impact on Canada's Indigenous peoples and their cultures. It disrupted their family bonds, community ties, and traditional ways of life. It eroded their self-esteem, identity, and spirituality. It inflicted trauma, pain, and suffering that lasted for generations.

Many survivors of residential schools struggled with mental health issues, substance abuse, violence, poverty, and homelessness. They faced discrimination, racism, and marginalization in Canadian society. They also had difficulty passing on their languages, values, and traditions to their children and grandchildren.

The residential school system also damaged the relationship between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians. It created mistrust, resentment, and hostility. It violated the human rights and dignity of Indigenous peoples. It undermined the principles of democracy, justice, and reconciliation.

The Efforts to Right the Wrongs

In response to the legacy of residential schools, various initiatives have been undertaken to right the wrongs of this period in Canadian history. These include:

  • The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), which was signed in 2006 by representatives of survivors, churches, and the government. It was the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, and it provided compensation, healing programs, commemoration projects, and education initiatives for survivors and their families.

  • The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 2008 as part of the IRSSA. It was mandated to collect and document the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of residential schools, to educate Canadians about this history, and to promote reconciliation among all Canadians. It held seven national events and hundreds of community hearings across Canada between 2009 and 2015. It also produced a six-volume report that included 94 calls for action on various issues related to residential schools.

  • The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), which was created in 2013 as a permanent archive for the records and materials collected by the TRC. It is located at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and it serves as a place of learning, research, and dialogue for all Canadians.

  • The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (NDTR), which was declared in 2021 as a federal statutory holiday on September 30th. It coincides with Orange Shirt Day, an annual campaign that honors the survivors of residential schools and raises awareness about their experiences. It is a day to remember the past, reflect on the present, and commit to a better future.


Righting Canada's wrongs: Residential Schools is not an easy or simple task. It requires acknowledging the truth about what happened at these schools and how they affected Canada's Indigenous peoples. It also requires taking action to address the ongoing impacts of this history and to foster healing and reconciliation among all Canadians.

As Canadians, we have a collective responsibility to learn from this history and to work together to create a more just and inclusive society. We can do this by listening to the voices of survivors and their descendants; by respecting their rights, cultures, and aspirations; by supporting their efforts to revitalize their communities; by honoring their contributions to Canada; by educating ourselves about this history; by engaging in dialogue; by building trust; by seeking forgiveness; by making amends; by celebrating diversity; by promoting equity; by fostering solidarity; by embracing hope.

The Role of Education in Reconciliation

One of the key aspects of reconciliation is education. Education can play a vital role in raising awareness, understanding, and respect for the history and cultures of Indigenous peoples. Education can also empower Indigenous peoples to reclaim their identities, languages, and traditions. Education can also foster dialogue, collaboration, and action among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to address the challenges and opportunities of reconciliation.

However, education in Canada has not always been respectful or inclusive of Indigenous peoples and their perspectives. For many years, the curriculum and textbooks in Canadian schools ignored or distorted the realities and contributions of Indigenous peoples. They also perpetuated stereotypes, myths, and prejudices about Indigenous peoples. They also failed to acknowledge the harms and injustices of residential schools and other colonial policies.

Therefore, there is a need for a transformation of education in Canada to reflect the principles and goals of reconciliation. This includes revising the curriculum and teaching materials to incorporate accurate and comprehensive information about Indigenous peoples and their histories, cultures, rights, and aspirations. This also includes providing more opportunities for Indigenous peoples to participate in the design, delivery, and evaluation of education programs and services. This also includes supporting the development and recognition of Indigenous-led education initiatives that promote Indigenous knowledge, values, and ways of learning.

The Examples of Reconciliation in Action

Despite the challenges and difficulties of reconciliation, there are many examples of reconciliation in action across Canada. These are initiatives that demonstrate the commitment and creativity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians to work together to heal the wounds of the past and build a better future. These are initiatives that celebrate the diversity and strength of Indigenous peoples and their cultures. These are initiatives that inspire hope and optimism for reconciliation.

Some examples of reconciliation in action are:

  • The Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, which was established by the late musician Gord Downie and the family of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died while running away from a residential school in 1966. The fund supports projects that foster understanding and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians through arts, culture, education, and awareness.

  • The Orange Shirt Society, which was founded by Phyllis Webstad, a survivor of residential schools who had her new orange shirt taken away on her first day at school. The society organizes Orange Shirt Day on September 30th every year to honor the survivors of residential schools and their families, and to educate Canadians about their experiences.

  • The Moose Hide Campaign, which was launched by Paul Lacerte and his daughter Raven Lacerte in 2011 after they witnessed a moose being hunted near Highway 16 in British Columbia, also known as the Highway of Tears because of the many missing and murdered Indigenous women along its route. The campaign distributes moose hide pins to men and boys who pledge to stand up against violence towards women and children, especially Indigenous women and girls.

  • The Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS), which is a commemorative art installation that honors the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people. The installation consists of over 1,800 pairs of moccasin vamps (tops) that were created by artists, families, and communities across Canada. The installation travels to different locations where it is displayed in a sacred manner with ceremonies and protocols.

The Voices of Survivors and Their Families

One of the most important aspects of reconciliation is listening to the voices of survivors and their families. Their stories are powerful and moving testimonies of the resilience and courage of Indigenous peoples who endured residential schools. Their stories are also sources of truth and healing for themselves and their communities. Their stories are also calls for justice and action for all Canadians.

Many survivors and their families have shared their stories through various platforms and forums, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, the Legacy of Hope Foundation, and the Orange Shirt Society. They have also shared their stories through books, films, podcasts, art, music, and poetry. They have also shared their stories in schools, universities, workplaces, churches, and public events.

Their stories are not easy to hear or to tell. They are often painful, traumatic, and heartbreaking. They are also often silenced, ignored, or denied by those who do not want to face the truth or to take responsibility. They are also often met with indifference, hostility, or backlash by those who do not care or who oppose reconciliation.

Therefore, there is a need for more respect and support for the survivors and their families who choose to share their stories. There is also a need for more awareness and education among Canadians about the history and impacts of residential schools. There is also a need for more empathy and compassion among Canadians for the experiences and emotions of survivors and their families.

The Recommendations for Reconciliation

Another key aspect of reconciliation is acting on the recommendations for reconciliation that have been made by various commissions, inquiries, reports, and organizations. These recommendations are based on extensive research, consultation, and evidence. These recommendations are aimed at addressing the root causes and consequences of residential schools and other forms of colonialism. These recommendations are also aimed at creating systemic and structural changes that will benefit Indigenous peoples and all Canadians.

Some of the main recommendations for reconciliation are:

  • The 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. These calls cover various areas such as child welfare, education, health, justice, language, culture, commemoration, media, sports, business, newcomers, churches, museums, archives, public servants, youth, and royal proclamation.

  • The 231 Calls for Justice issued by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in 2019. These calls cover various areas such as human rights, culture, health, security, justice, media, social work, education, extractive industries, transportation industries, police services, attorneys general, correctional services Canada.

  • The 10 Principles Respecting the Government of Canada's Relationship with Indigenous Peoples issued by the Department of Justice Canada in 2017. These principles cover various areas such as recognition of rights; self-government; treaties; honour of the Crown; reconciliation; fiduciary relationship; good faith; meaningful engagement; co-operation; non-adversarial approach.

However, implementing these recommendations for reconciliation is not an easy or simple task. It requires political will, financial resources, legal reforms, 4e3182286b


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