The Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is essential reading.

TRC, 2015

TRC, 2015

As a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC’s “mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS).”

The report is intended “to document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience”, including “First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School students, their families, communities, the Churches, former school employees, Government and other Canadians”.

The summary document is available in full online (each part available in PDF here) or in a bound version. Volunteers have also organized to read the document aloud to ensure that those who cannot read the document have access.

It’s that important that these survivors’ accounts be witnessed. As one (non-aboriginal) listener describes it: “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story I can change.”

These are hard stories to hear. The definitions of the different kind of genocide are brought into focus immediately with even short excerpts from the survivors’ statements.

Like Victoria McIntosh’s description of  her experiences at the Fort Alexander, MB residential school, which taught her not to trust. “You learn not to cry anymore. You just get harder. And yeah, you learn to shut down.”

And the facts included are significant too, bringing another undeniable layer to the surface. For instance, in 1966, residential schools in Saskatchewan spent $694-$1193 per year and per student, whereas comparable child-welfare institutions in Canada spent $3300-$9855 per year and per child, and comparable residential care in the United States had a price-tag of $4500-$14059 per year and per child.

Many of these experiences have been recently explored in fiction and non-fiction, even graphic novels. From the well-known works of Richard Wagamese (particularly Indian Horse) and Joseph Boyden (Wenjack) to the classic tale Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree (a legacy story, with more direct commentary on the Sixty’s Scoop flavour of genocide than direct commentary on the IRS system) to the graphic novels by David Alexander Robertson.

Even so, there are important elements which are not explored substantially elsewhere, which this volume brings into the light. For instance, an extension of the residential school system’s mandate was its officials’ impact on many aboriginal people’s marriages even after students had managed to survive the system.

Because government officials believed that a marriage to someone outside residential school system would encourage a now “civilized” student to revert to “uncivilized” ways, they made marriage part of the process of leaving the residential school system to further support an assimilationist policy.

Such marriages were not only encouraged but arranged, well into into the 1930s, and officials made efforts to block “unsuitable” marriages as well.

(Elsewhere in the document, readers are reminded that it is important to make a distinction between the process of becoming civilized and the price paid for being colonized.)

This like many other facts could have been lost along the way. Between 1936 and 1944, there were at least 200,000 Indian Affairs files destroyed. This practice must have been common enough to have been preserved in the remaining records.

Another element which is not often represented in other works about the experiences of residential school survivors is the rebellion which occurred at the community level.

Apparently it was not uncommon for parents of an entire community or region to refuse to return their children to school when the abhorent conditions were shared with their elders (children who dared to speak, adults to dared to believe and to risk rebelling).

For example, there were 75 students from the Blood Reserve in Alberta who were held back by family members, kept at home, kept from returning to the school. In other instance, in the 1960s, a group of Edmonton students blocked entry to a school dormitory at night to protect the residents therein from abuse.

Also not often discussed were other voices of dissent, which included members of staff who dared to speak out against policies and procedures. Although originally (the IRS system began in the 19th century – there is a lengthy historical study included in the report) the staff was primarily religious and governmental in nature, as generations passed, many graduates chose to remain at the schools. By 1994, out of 360 staff members working in Saskatchewan schools, 220 were of aboriginal ancestry.

Even early on, however, there were members of the staff who did not engage in the abusive and exploitative practices typical of the system. Some members not only eschewed the operating principles, but they even spoke up for the rights of the aboriginals. For instance, Hugh McKay (superintendent of a Presbyterian missionary) criticized the federal government for not having implemented its Treaty promises and for failing to alleviate the hunger crisis on the Prairies. And William Duncan (an Anglican missionary in Metlakatla British Columbia) advised the Tsimshian how to advance their arguments in favour of aboriginal title.

These incidents appear uncommon; in contrast, one of the document’s appendices includes a list of the staff members who were charged with criminal offences for some of the actions they committed against students in the schools, with a summary of each sentencing.

Nonetheless, recognising and recording this kind of rebellious behaviour would not have served the purposes of the IRS system, so it seems possible that there may have been other instances of rebellion – both without and within the aboriginal communities – which have been lost to the purging of files.

This discovery process is important. Even a single reader can act as a witness. Curious? You can read it for yourself here.

Or, perhaps you’ve already read it? Or have it on your TBR?