Education (6-12): Current Problems


June 20, 2022

Indigenous History

How familiar are Canadians with the history of Indigenous residential schools?

Toronto Star: One year after more than 1,000 unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of former residential schools — putting a global spotlight on Canada’s horrific history of assimilation and abuse of Indigenous children — Canadians are barely any more familiar with the painful legacy of the institutions, new research shows.

According to data shared with the Star, 62 per cent of Canadians say they feel very or somewhat familiar with the history of residential schools, compared to 60 per cent who said they felt the same way in early 2021.

“I’m not surprised,” says Nunavut MP Lori Idlout. “If there’s interest in Indigenous history, it has to be sought out, so I’m not surprised that the history is still not well understood by mainstream Canada.”

The numbers come from a new report on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, as part of the annual Confederation of Tomorrow survey conducted by the Environics Institute and its partners. More than 5,400 adults took part in the survey, which was first rolled out in 2019. This year’s report is the first release since the burial sites were confirmed last year.

But while the discoveries dominated political and public discussions over the past year, awareness has hardly changed, the report notes. “The education system in Canada still does not incorporate the history of First Nations, Métis and Inuit at all levels,” said Idlout, who serves as the NDP’s critic for Indigenous services, Crown-Indigenous relations and northern affairs.

It’s not for a lack of available material, Idlout told the Star. She said two landmark documents — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls — are rife with the experiences, stories and recommendations necessary to improve Canada’s understanding of its history.  “There’s already been a lot of gathering to try and educate more Canadians about what needs to happen, and a huge part of it just needs to be to ensure that (the recommendations) are being implemented,” she said.

The survey findings suggest that bridging that gap could pose a challenge. It found that over the past year:

  • the percentage of Indigenous people who felt that relations between themselves and non-Indigenous people were positive dropped from 47 per cent to 34 per cent. Similarly, those who felt their relationship with non-Indigenous people was negative climbed from 47 per cent to 60 per cent. 
  • The survey also found that in 2020, 63 per cent of Indigenous people felt all levels of government had not gone far enough to advance reconciliation, a number that rose to 71 per cent in 2022. The figure was much lower when the same question was posed to non-Indigenous people, with 44 per cent of those respondents reporting in 2022 that governments had not worked hard enough on reconciliation. 
  • Overall, the proportion of all respondents who said governments had not gone far enough increased in all parts of Canada aside from the north, where figures were already higher than in other regions. The numbers also increased across all age groups, but were more pronounced among Canadians aged 18 to 34.

Last month, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said the process of fully investigating the deaths that occurred at residential schools could, according to some communities, take up to a decade. “I think most of us aren’t really prepared for what that truth, ultimately, will reveal as a country. We’re really at the tip of the iceberg in terms of discoveries,” Miller said.

Among other pledges toward advancing reconciliation, the federal government has put $78.3 million toward 70 projects involved with commemorating and investigating sites of former residential schools. The federal budget earmarked $122 million over the next three years to further support the Residential School Missing Children’s Community Support Funding program.

Two weeks ago, the government named Kimberly Murray, the former executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as its special interlocutor for missing children and unmarked graves at former residential schools. The appointment fulfilled the Liberal government’s 10-month promise to create the role, which is focused on crafting a federal legal framework to appropriately address the discoveries and investigations.

Idlout said that while Indigenous advocacy is often “ignored” by governments — and that the survey results bear out her belief — she said she has sensed “sincere empathy” from the cabinet ministers tasked with pushing reconciliation forward. 

“We do have great meetings,” she said, “but I’m at a point where I need to turn that empathy into action.”