Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has reacted with deafening silence to the release of the summary report and findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) on June 2, which called the Indian residential school system an act of “cultural genocide.” Appearing at a closing ceremony in Rideau Hall, Harper did not utter a word about the commission or its 94 recommendations, and since then has only continued to distance himself from the report. His indifference to the catastrophic impact of residential schools reflects the real priorities of the federal government and its continued unwillingness to address the suffering of indigenous peoples.
On the day of the summary report’s release, with hundreds of residential school survivors gathered at an Ottawa hotel to hear the findings, Harper sent Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt in his stead, despite the fact that the prime minister was only a few blocks away. The sole official response from the PMO was a brief press release acknowledging the work of the commission. Only days later, Harper was in the Toronto riding of Finance Minister Joe Oliver pontificating about the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, suggesting his government was back to business as usual.
The TRC was established in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, which was reached after residential school survivors took the government and churches who ran the schools to court, with the support of the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit organizations. The mandate of the Commission was to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and inform Canadians about that history, while working towards reconciliation based on a relationship of mutual understanding and respect.
From the 1870s until the last school closed in 1996, at least 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended residential schools in Canada. More than 130 government-funded, church-administered schools existed across the country, with the express purpose of “civilizing” aboriginal children by forcibly removing them from their own “inferior” cultures, in an effort to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture and thereby “kill the Indian in the child.” Countless families were torn apart as the Canadian government kidnapped children and placed them in schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages. Along with the denigration of their cultures, students faced rampant emotional, sexual and physical abuse.
If many of these facts were previously known, the summary report of the TRC remained staggering in the degree to which it shed light on these crimes. At least 3,200 children who attended the schools never returned home. Records were regularly destroyed, suggesting that the actual number of students who died may have been far higher (between 1936 and 1944 alone, 200,000 Indian Affairs files were destroyed). Sinclair estimated that the total number of students who died could be as high as 6,000, meaning that children who attended residential schools had a higher chance of dying than Canadian soldiers who fought in the Second World War.
Causes of death included disease, fires and suicide, with many children dying of exposure while trying to escape. Often the names, gender or age of the children who died were not known, with parents not informed about the fate of their loved ones. Some schools had no playgrounds, but did have cemeteries where many students were buried. Poor health care and nutrition were the norm.
The findings are a withering condemnation of the government and churches involved in the management of the schools, which were made aware of these problems but did nothing to solve them. Staff members who alerted officials to the problems were often dismissed, while the institutions protected the abusers.
The summary report also indicates that the schools were failures in terms of providing education. Reflecting both a lack of resources and the low opinion of natives held by state and church officials, students spent much of their time doing chores rather than learning. In an additional, dehumanizing measure, students were referred to by number, and those who spoke their own language faced harsh physical punishment.
Returning home after years separated from their families and unable to speak the language of their elders, students became alienated from their traditional communities. The TRC traced a direct connection between the intergenerational trauma suffered by aboriginal families over the course of more than a century and social problems faced by indigenous communities today such as poverty, homelessness, violence, and drug and alcohol addiction.
The recommendations of the TRC report offer a litany of suggestions for addressing the lingering effects of the schools, such as the adoption by Canada of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the establishment of a National Council of Reconciliation that the prime minster would respond to each year with a “State of Aboriginal Peoples” report. Other recommendations include respecting aboriginal land and treaty rights, reducing the number of aboriginal children in foster care, closing gaps in health care and education between aboriginals and non-aboriginals, and promoting awareness of the history of residential schools.
Many of the recommendations are reformist in nature. The adoption of the UN Declaration, while establishing a “framework” for reconciliation, does not provide the substantive measures that would actually be utilized to address the disparities faced by aboriginal people in areas such as health care, education, and economic opportunity. Similarly, an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women would do little to address the systemic reasons why native women and girls face a consistently higher risk of violence, which are rooted in the legacy of the colonial settler state and the ongoing inequality and marginalization exacerbated under capitalism.
Even so, the refusal of the Harper government to consider these basic measures is a testament to their contempt for indigenous people, revealing once more the emptiness and insincerity of Harper’s 2008 apology for the residential schools.
When TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair received a standing ovation after calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, the Aboriginal Affairs minister chose to remain seated. During question period in the House of Commons, Harper signalled that his government will not be implementing the UN Declaration, calling it merely an “aspirational” document and arguing that aboriginal rights were already enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. He claimed that his government had already taken steps to improve the lives of aboriginal people under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Such empty boasts will come as small comfort to aboriginal communities that continue to face higher rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addictions and violent crime, as well as shorter life expectancies. The government’s real feelings towards indigenous peoples were made clear when it was revealed – the same week as the release of the TRC summary report – that Aboriginal Affairs had held back more than $1 billion in promised spending for social services over the previous five years, placing it first among departments spending less than their budgeted amounts. In the years to come, the planned budget for Aboriginal Affairs is set to shrink even further, with an estimated $1 billion in cuts amounting to a total budget of $7 billion by 2017-18, despite increasingly desperate conditions on many reserves.
Meanwhile, the government’s continued push for oil and gas development is characterized by its blatant disregard for the health and environmental consequences faced by local communities, often largely indigenous. Such efforts, however, have faced massive resistance led by aboriginal people including the Idle No More movement or the opposition of Mi’kmaq people in New Brunswick to fracking.
It cannot be forgotten that the recommendations of the TRC are being made to the same institutions that spearheaded the residential schools to begin with—the bourgeois Canadian state and the churches. Any state controlled by the capitalists will always serve their interests in the last analysis, and the treatment of native peoples in Canada through the centuries reflects changing tactics in the capitalists’ efforts to fully exploit this country’s vast land and natural resources, with aboriginal peoples being a perpetual obstacle.
The negotiation of the treaties first arose because Canada did not possess the resources to defeat native forces militarily. The British crown decided to use the native nations in their war with the US republic (whose policy amounted to extermination). Once the treaties were signed, the state attempted wherever possible to circumvent their conditions and obligations. The residential schools were only the most blatant and harmful manifestation of this trend; by assimilating aboriginal children into white, Christian society, it would remove from the state the need to maintain its treaty obligations. The courage and determination of indigenous peoples to resist spelled the failure of this policy and necessitated a different approach.
So long as the Canadian state remains under the control of the capitalists, their relentless quest to profit from the exploitation of Canada’s land and resources will continue. The ensuing disregard for native land and treaty rights represents an irreconcilable contradiction between the Canadian state and indigenous peoples. This capitalist state must be overthrown. This is the same state that represses not just natives, but all workers and oppressed in Canada. Unity of the workers and oppressed is a key component of overthrowing the capitalist state. Through unity of aboriginal and non-aboriginal workers and respect for native sovereignty, land and resource rights, First Nations people would finally be empowered to democratically determine their own fate. Together, we could build a socialist society based on bottom-up democratic control and satisfying human needs rather than on exploitation, profit, and environmental destruction. This society would be far more in line with traditional indigenous values, from which we all have much to learn.