Reconciliation in Canada

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

And yet where in your history books is the tale

Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth?
–Buffy St. Marie

Readers of this series may be surprised to learn that Canada has a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada has the image of a civilised beacon for human rights. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index Canada comes in at a saintly number nine compared to UK’s 17, USA’s 19 and Sri Lanka’s 79. Canada is never shy of berating Sri Lanka on human rights.

Why does Canada need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Actually, the TRC is focused on a specific issue rather than on human rights in general. In June 2008, the Canadian government undertook an effort to understand the history, abuses and intergenerational impact of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system that operated in Canada for over 100 years.

The IRS system consisted of a nation-wide network of church- and state-run schools focused on separating  indigenous (First Nation, Inuit, and Métis)  children from their cultural heritage. From 1920 into the 1960s, attendance was mandatory for aboriginal children aged 7 to 15. Priests and Indian Agents forcibly removed many children from their families and sent them to the schools. It is estimated that more than 150,000 children went through these schools.

Children were severely punished if they used their native language. Food and medical services were inadequate. Overcrowding contributed to the spread of disease. The mortality rate for residential school students was 40%. Children were often subjected to severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

One theory suggested that the name of Canada came from the Spanish cá nada,  meaning there is nothing there. There may have been no gold or silver but there were people. Scientists believe  that bones and artefacts prove  First Nations people have lived in what is now Canada for more than  12,000 years.

Canadian prosperity has long been tied to the existence of an “extractive frontier” where population densities were very low, and natural resources were abundant, untapped and essentially free. Inexpensive access to new lands depended upon a policy of keeping Aboriginal peoples separate and unequal, with neither the rights nor the power to demand full value for their labour and materials – or the land which was stolen from them.


According to Reverend Kevin Daniel Annett, there was a “Canadian Holocaust” and mainstream Christian churches were and are complicit in it. Annett claims  that the total number of aboriginals killed in the Canadian genocide by the British Crown is approximately 25 million people. Annett claims that over 50,000 aboriginal children are still missing and unaccounted for from the residential schools operated by the Catholic and other churches on behalf of the British Crown. Many believe that Annett is a charlatan or a madman. (He does bear a remarkable resemblance to mad poet Robert Lowell!).

How do the descendents of those people who occupied Canada 12,000 years ago fare today? The effects of the forced introduction of European culture and values, the dispossession of Aboriginal lands, and the imposition of alien modes of governance are still felt today. Underlying the problems of poverty, poor health and substance abuse is a loss of identity and helplessness from having their values oppressed and their rights ignored.

As of the 2006 census, there were 1,172,790 Aboriginal people in Canada, or 3.8% of the national population. In 1995, 55.6% of Aboriginal people living in Canadian cities were poor. 52.1% of all Aboriginal children were poor in 2003. First Nations people experienced a disproportionate burden of many infectious diseases. Similarly, the tuberculosis rate among First Nations people remained eight to ten times that seen in the Canadian population as a whole. Only 56.9% of homes were considered adequate in 1999­.

In 2012 three UN expert committees rated Canada’s  performance on meeting rights commitments — and found it wanting. An Amnesty International report found “a range” of “ongoing and serious human rights challenges,” especially for indigenous peoples. There was a disproportionate number of missing or murdered indigenous women on Vancouver’s downtown East Side from 1997-2002, and their cases did not receive equal treatment by police. AI says that UN recommendations have too often been ignored, and the implementation process is so “cloaked in secrecy” that most Canadians have no idea whether the government plans to act on them. Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch said that “the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada is a national problem and it demands a national enquiry.”

An interviewer who met Annett described his “unexpected demeanour and the intelligent clarity of his words”.  She  asked him what he wanted. “A war crimes trial. Returning the children’s remains, first of all, for a proper burial”.

Rather similar to what Canada wants from Sri Lanka. Canada has had longer to think about it.