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What every Canadian should know about truth and reconciliation

Tuesday, November 10, 2015
A procession marches from the sacred Fire to the University of Manitoba Administration Building for the opening of the NCTR. Photo: University of Manitoba

I remember when I first learned the history of Indian residential schools in Canada. As a young boy growing up in Eastern Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, I was not taught about the legacy of residential schools. My teachers did not talk about it and my parents did not know about it. It was only when I went to university and took a course in Canadian history that I began to hear the truth - and I was shocked by what I learned.

Canada’s residential school system left a legacy of pain and trauma that continues today. The system carried on for well over one hundred years, with the last school closing in 1996. During this time, roughly 150,000 children were taken from their families. A central goal of the system was to assimilate Aboriginal peoples by destroying their cultures and their languages. In the infamous words of one official, the aim was to “kill the Indian in the child.” Many children suffered horrible abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to teach them and care for them. Thousands of children – we still do not know the exact number – died while attending the schools, often from disease and malnutrition. Those who survived frequently found themselves traumatized by their experiences. 

The story of Canada’s Indian residential schools is a story that every Canadian should know. That is why the launch of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) on November 3, 2015 was such an important milestone in Canadian history and a step forward on the road to reconciliation.

A man and a woman stand behind a podium and hug each other. Behind them a colourful tapestry hangs on the wall.
Phil Fontaine embraces his daughter Maya Fontaine after his acknowledgement speech at the opening of the NCTR on November 3, 2015. Photo: University of Manitoba

Created to preserve the memory of Canada’s residential school system and legacy, the NCTR is the permanent home for all statements, documents and other materials gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

The NCTR will assist residential school survivors and their families in having access to their own history. It will permit researchers to delve more deeply into the residential school experience and legacy. It will ensure the public can access historical records and other materials to help foster reconciliation and healing. It will also help educators share residential school history with new generations of students, so that hopefully one day no Canadian will grow up unaware of this tragic part of our history. 

In a Summary Report released in June of 2015, the TRC called on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to “….not simply tell one party’s version of the past.” They asked the Museum to represent “…the history of residential schools and Aboriginal peoples in ways that invite multiple, sometimes conflicting, perspectives, yet ultimately facilitate empathy, mutual respect and a desire for reconciliation that is rooted in justice.”

The Museum takes this responsibility very seriously. To help reconciliation take place, we need to be a place for education, reflection and respectful dialogue. This past August the Museum opened a new exhibit about the work of the TRC. It is one of several exhibits inside the Museum that deal directly with Indian residential schools, while many other Museum exhibits focus on other experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

In addition to its own work in support of reconciliation, the Museum has partnered with the NCTR to work on projects aimed at human rights education and promotion. We look forward to working with the NCTR to ensure the history and legacy of residential schools is never forgotten.

All Canadians need to be part of reconciliation. If you do not know the story of Canada’s residential schools, or you know there is more for you to learn, you can take action. Use the online resources provided by the NCTR on their website to learn the stories of survivors, as well the stories of those who did not survive. Visit the Museum and explore our exhibits about the TRC, residential schools and Indigenous rights. To me, reconciliation means that we all must work to strengthen relationships. Let us know what reconciliation means to you.