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Children and staff at a residential school in Fort Providence, NWT in 1921. The Canadian government funded such institutions from the 1870s to the 1990s, which saw more than 150,000 children taken from their homes.

What is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

The TRC was created as a result of the largest class action in Canadian history. When former students of Indian residential schools decided to settle out of court with the federal government and four national churches, the launch of a TRC was part of the terms of settlement. The former students wanted to ensure their stories were not lost by settling out of court. The commission’s mandate was to gather the written and oral history of residential schools and to work toward reconciliation between former students and the rest of Canada.

How much did the commission cost and where did the money come from?

The commission was paid for with money from the out-of-court settlement, which included contributions from churches and the federal government. The settlement agreement provided the TRC with a five-year mandate and a $60-million budget. The mandate was later extended for one additional year.

Did former students receive direct financial compensation from the out-of-court settlement?

Yes. The settlement awarded a so-called common-experience payment (CEP) to former students of the schools, regardless of whether they’d suffered physical or sexual abuse. As of last September 2015, 79,272 applications for payments were paid and 23,892 were deemed ineligible. The average payment was $20,452 and total payments were $1.62-billion.

In addition to the CEP, former students could seek damages for claims of sexual abuse or serious physical abuse through a system called the Independent Assessment Process. As of last September, 29,384 claims had been resolved (including 4,712 that were not admitted or withdrawn). The average payment was $114,179 and the total amount of payments approved under this process was $2.552-billion.

What has the commission done?

The TRC held seven national events between 2010 and 2013 where they gathered stories from former students. The TRC has collected more than 6,200 statements from former students and most were recorded on video. It has also led a “Missing Children and Unmarked Graves Project” in an attempt to document the number of deaths of children at the schools.

May 2021: Discovery of remains of 215 children at former Kamloops residential school prompts calls from Indigenous leaders to investigate all sites

What is the commission expected to accomplish over the long term?

All of the documents and videos gathered by the commission will be kept and managed by a new National Research Centre on Indian Residential Schools at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. They will be accessible to the public.

More broadly, commissioners hope that if Canadians have more knowledge of indigenous history they will have a better understanding of the background behind current policy disputes between governments and aboriginals over natural resources, education and child welfare.

What are Indian residential schools?

Church-run residential schools began to receive funding from the federal government in the 1870s, setting the stage for a national program that would run for more than a century. The last schools closed in the 1990s.

The churches and the federal government shared the common goal of assimilating Canada’s indigenous population into the dominant culture of European and Christian immigrants. More than 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their homes, sometimes by force with the assistance of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to attend the schools.

What was wrong with the schools?

While many teachers and supervisors were well-intentioned, the residential nature of the schools left young children vulnerable to child predators working in the system. Commissioner Marie Wilson describes the situation in a video posted on the TRC website.

"[The schools] happened in situations where the children were ripe for abuse in cases where there were any deviants in their midst, and so there was a tremendous amount of physical abuse," she said. "There was a far greater amount of sexual abuse than anybody ever knew when we started having this national conversation."

A 2012 interim report by the TRC outlined what commisioners had heard to date.

“Many people came with stories of harsh discipline, of classroom errors corrected with a crack of a ruler, a sharp tug of the ear, hair pulling, or severe and frequent strappings. The Commission heard of discipline crossing into abuse: of boys being beaten like men, of girls being whipped for running away. People spoke of children being forced to beat other children, sometimes their own brothers and sisters. The Commission was told of runaways being placed in solitary confinement with bread-and-water diets and shaven heads. People spoke of being sexually abused within days of arriving at a residential school. In some cases, they were abused by staff; in others, by older students. Reports of abuse have come from all parts of the country and all types of schools.”

Isn’t this a problem from a long time ago?

A common concern raised by former students is the intergenerational impact of the schools.

“It has left devastating impacts in communities and in families,” said Ms. Wilson. “Because many of those learned behaviours are the very ones that those children brought in to their own adulthood and then – as the courageous ones are able to say – they did the very same things to their children in many cases, as had happened to them.”

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