Truth and Reconciliation – what we didn’t learn in school

©2001 Marion Pennell

©2001 Marion Pennell

Here are excerpts from the introduction of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final document (

For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”
Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.

Here is some more truth from the introduction:
In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:
When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.
The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources. If every Aboriginal person had been “absorbed into the body politic,” there would be no reserves, no Treaties, and no Aboriginal rights.
I am currently reading the History section of the document – full of testimony – the Truth part of Truth and Reconciliation.
©2001 Marion Pennell

©2001 Marion Pennell

Many non-aboriginal Canadians are unaware of the breadth and the scope of the damage inflicted by official policy towards our native people.
Oh Canada
Our home and on native land
Now we have the opportunity.  The report is readable and should be adapted into every school’s curriculum.
When I went to school the first lessons in history (upper grades of elementary school) would have been all Explorers all the time.  For us the history of Canada began briefly with the Vikings, and then with Cabot, Cartier, Champlain, Hudson, Radisson and Groseilliers (Radishes and Gooseberries).
Our field trips were to Upper Canada Village, Québec City (Plains of Abraham), and Ottawa (Museum of Science and Technology – with the crooked kitchen, and Parliament).
Lief Ericson’s settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, at the northwest tip of Newfoundland is a tourist destination.
L'Anse aux Meadows

L’Anse aux Meadows

John Cabot is Giovanni Caboto – landed the Matthew  in the beautiful natural harbour of St. John’s in the New Found Land in 1497.  Signal Hill has Cabot Tower and Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission at this location (closer to Europe than to Vancouver).
©2006 Marion Pennell

©2006 Marion Pennell

Jacques Cartier is everywhere in Montréal – bridges, squares, monuments… and a 70’s song by Robert Charlebois.

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier

"He took possession of the whole country in the name of his king and his master and called it New France."

“He took possession of the whole country in the name of his king and his master and called it New France.”

Samuel de Champlain also has a bridge in Montréal, as well as a lake in upstate New York, complete with ‘Champ’ – the Nessie-like monster thought to be mentioned in Champlain’s own journals.

Henry Hudson’s own crew set him adrift in Hudson’s Bay.  A chilling demise.

Radisson and Groseilliers were fur traders.  With adventures.  

©2002 Marion Pennell

©2002 Marion Pennell

And the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 defines Canada and Québec foreverafter – they are basically still arguing over what happened in this field.  The English won (both generals Wolfe and Montcalm died).  When I was much older, a sociology professor added the background of the Seven Years’ War to my scant knowledge – and how there were mercenaries going around the world fighting for England or France in their respective territories.  So it was never as local as we think in the first place.

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770  (National Gallery of Canada)

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770 (National Gallery of Canada)

Aboriginal Canadians are briefly mentioned in Canadian history.  Eskimos (not yet Inuit) are said to have walked over the ice bridge at the Bering Strait.  That’s about it for the North.  Here, we learn of the Iroquois, and that Caughnawaga (now Kahnawake) is our nearby Mohawk reserve.  We barely learn that the English (Canadian and American) and the French had various alliances with one tribe or another –  mostly people only know where a tribe is from if something ‘white’ is named for them. (Algonquin Park, therefore the Algonquins are from Ontario.)

Then we hit high school (grade 7 through 11 here) and we start over.  Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.  Pyramids. The Code of Hammurabi.  Spartans.  Aqueducts.

I think the Battle of Hastings (1066!) comes up at some point?  The Magna Carta maybe? Then history jumps to the War of 1812 (we won) – we don’t really cover the American Revolution at all.  There are some rebellions in the Canadas (Upper and Lower), and the west opens up, and the railway goes through, and Confederation is in there somewhere but it’s just a bunch of guys – nothing dramatic like the USA – and Louis Riel (now that’s dramatic! but barely covered, and if so from the perspective that he deserved to hang), and the 49th parallel. Did we ever cover WWI or WWII? The Quiet Revolution in Québec?  Don’t think so.  Maybe hurried at the end of term.


Some took extra history – I took extra math – but the required credits for graduation were either grade 10 Canadian History or Canadian Geography. Most of what I know about Canadian history comes from real life, meeting people who lived through real stuff, and of course my ever present research and reading to sate my curiosity and to continue to fill in the knowledge gaps.

I lived through Expo 67, the October Crisis of 1970, the Montréal Olympics in ’76, the election of the Parti Québécois in November of that year, the misogynist murders at École Polytechnique in 1989, the deranged prof turned murderer at Concordia in 1992, and the Columbinesque killing at Dawson College in 2006.  

I vote all the time.  I try to stay informed. Provincial politics here can be a tinderbox and shouldn’t be tackled lightly, yet I have heard young people on both “sides” expressing unverified rhetoric from whatever parental figure currently influencing them.  Ignorance – worse yet willful ignorance – will be our country’s undoing.

I didn’t go to CEGEP here (basically grade 12 and 13 to some, or preparatory college to others) and in order to enter a Bachelor’s program at Concordia, I needed an English course (to prove I was literate and to provide helpful instruction on research, footnotes, and how to write a termpaper) and Introduction to Art History (from caves to Picasso in only September through April), and one Introductory Studio Art course.  No history, no humanities.  I used up all my electives on a Minor in Mathematics.

The Oka crisis of 1990 happened not far from here – instigated by a white mayor who wanted a golf course developed (for personal gain) on literal sacred Indian burial grounds at Kanehsatake.

Oka standoff

Oka standoff

The Mohawks blocked bridges and highways for the summer.  Many sympathized. Some were racist. Cars leaving the reserve were pelted with stones. Most just wanted the bridge open again.

So what did I learn about the First Nations, the Métis, the Inuit at school? Not much.  My mom told me about the extinct people of Newfoundland – the Beothuk Indians – the more well known Mary March, and also their last member, Shanawdithit, who died in 1829.  If we start with Cabot, and not the Vikings – then it took 332 years to wipe out a people.

One of the main recommendations of the TRC in order to bring about reconciliation – is the education of ALL Canadians in the history of the people who were here first.  After all Canada is a Iroquois word. Ontario is Huron; Québec is Mikmaq.

Stephen Harper – Sa’nikonhraien:tas ken?

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