Indigenous leaders greeted the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s summary report on residential schools with openness while urging all Canadians to embrace the findings and close the gap between aboriginals and those who came after.
“All Canadians are affected by the impacts of the Indian residential schools system and it is time to commit ourselves to reconciliation and action,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde in a statement after the June 2 release of the report, which took six years to compile and contains 94 recommendations for further action.
Although the last schools closed nearly 20 years ago, in a way the residential schools era is not over, he cautioned. The schools operated from the late 1800s through 1996, and many of the 150,000 students who were taken from their families are still scarred.
“The impacts of residential schools are still with us and are contributing to the gap in the quality of life between First Nations and Canadians,” Bellegarde said. “We must close that gap. The schools operated on the assumption that First Nations cultures and languages had to be eradicated and profoundly damaged the relationship between First Nations and Canada. We must repair that relationship. Action is long overdue, and I believe that the Government of Canada must formally commit to working with First Nations and engaging Canadians in implementing the Commission’s calls to action.”
Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy also called for a “fundamental restructuring” of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and non-Natives.
“Recognizing and respecting sovereignty of Indigenous Nations is the foundation for reconciliation, and all Canadians and levels of Canadian governments must do their part,” Beardy said in a statement from the Chiefs of Ontario. “Reconciliation can only begin when Canada recognizes its current and historical disregard for indigenous sovereignty, and when all Canadians call on the federal government move to work with us to restore a relationship based on mutual respect and recognition of our sovereignty.”
He lauded the 7,000 witnesses who had come forward to testify either publicly or in private at events held around the country and said that they cannot be abandoned in the wake of the report’s release.
“Thousands of survivors showed exemplary leadership and courage in coming forward with their stories,” Beardy said. “And with this truth, it is our responsibility as indigenous leadership to carry these stories with us as we work to reconcile the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous Nations. This responsibility extends beyond leadership, and perhaps most importantly rests with all Canadian citizens who have a have a role in keeping federal and provincial leadership accountable in the process of reconciliation, and ensuring these governments hold up to their commitments.”
Chief Gord Peters of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians (AIAI) said that education would pave the way toward healing.
“To this day, it amazes me how few Canadians know about residential schools or the fact that the last school wasn’t shut down until 1996,” he said in a statement. “We are not talking about a chapter of history that is generations behind us, but a practice that came to a close less than 20 years ago—the same year that brought us eBay.”
Inuit and Métis leaders wanted to see the concerns of their respective groups addressed more directly. Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), put his full support behind the report but said that there were some gaps when it came to his constituents.
“I call on the Government of Canada to uphold the honor of the Crown and take immediate action to recognize survivors of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Inuit region of Nunatsiavut,” Audla said in a statement from ITK. “I call on all parties to the Settlement Agreement to continue to pursue full recognition for these survivors until we have fulfilled our collective promise to them.”
Métis National Council President Clément Chartier, for his part, said the report had excluded the survivors of Métis residential schools, and in general had not addressed the concerns of this indigenous group of people descended from settlers and First Nations.
“Other than a few of the recommendations that include Métis in proposed actions, we are treated as an afterthought,” Chartier said in a statement. “Little thought was given or advice provided to deal with the exclusion of Métis residential schools from federal settlements agreements.”
All agreed, though, that the report marks the beginning of a way forward, but cautioned that it needed to spark action, not just sit on a shelf. Peters alluded to the 1996 Royal Commission, which held out a host of recommendations that never got implemented.
“Canada cannot allow these recommendations to collect dust as was seen with the 1996 commission,” Peters said. “This as a second chance to make things right, and Canada must seize it.”