The long history of European exploration, trade and settlement in North America has not been beneficial to the Indigenous peoples. The creation and expansion of the Canadian state has meant the paternalistic control of their lives and their lands, and a concerted effort to inhibit if not eliminate their economies, languages and cultural practices. One of the most sorry chapters in this story was the forced removal of their children from families and communities, boarding them in distant residential schools, and trying to strip them of their languages and culture. This is not ancient history. In many cases, as we have shockingly heard from survivors, some residential schools operated as recently as 25 years ago.
We Canadians like to think of ourselves as welcoming and tolerant—living in a country that celebrates diversity. This remains an aspiration rather than a reality.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of our country, it is essential that we take the necessary steps to build a better legacy.
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, came into effect nine years ago. As part of the Agreement, the Government of Canada established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which concluded its work last year. With the engagement of the Canadian public, and after confronting the facts of our history, the Commission outlined 94 calls to action to further reconciliation, and restore the interests and rights of Canada’s Indigenous people.
I’m a historian—that’s my field as an academic. I firmly believe that we need to rediscover our past and accurately communicate our history so we can make a better future. As Canada’s most important sites of academic and intellectual pursuit, universities have an important role—to study, research and increase our knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal issues, and do this in a way that is not culturally biased.
If you Google Truth and Reconciliation university, you’ll see that Canadian universities are stepping up. The University of Toronto is found on first page of search results, and we are taking a broad approach to our understanding of the recommendations. Other universities, such as the University of Manitoba and Wilfrid Laurier, have already committed to implementing each of the TRC's recommendations regarding post-secondary education. A consortium of 10 other schools has partnered with the TRC on a research agenda that will promote the spirit of reconciliation while working towards it.
Commemorating Canada’s sesquicentennial as educators demands that we strengthen our commitment to research, learning and civil discourse about our relationships with the First Nations within our communities. This is how we will celebrate and complicate our history. Think how much stronger Canada will become when this vital relationship is re-established, when all voices are truly invited to contribute.
Photo: This mural is mounted in the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre at U of T Scarborough and was created by six Aboriginal youth artists. Click here to learn more about the mural, and visit the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre to view the work. Photograph by Ken Jones.