A Humanist Response to the Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Humanist Canada welcomes the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. We agree that Canada’s Indian Residential Schools represented a shameful chapter in the country’s history that included forced religious proselytization; and we call on our government to join with the majority of the world’s nations in signing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
We believe that the Truth and Reconciliation paid insufficient attention to the culpability of Canada’s churches in this failed and flawed endeavor. The churches viewed residential schools to be part of their missionary activity and viewed any federal funding to be a windfall in aiding them in doing what they considered their sacred duty. Their plan to pay for their negotiated share of the costs through the labour of the students using an English industrial student model proved to be an economic disaster. Students often paid for this shortfall with poor health flowing from insufficient rations and inadequate health care.
In 1907 the Bryce Report documented cruel conditions in the schools including overcrowding, inadequately trained personnel, poor ventilation, a lack of proper nutrition, contaminated water, and generally terrible sanitation. But in response to an internal cabinet document recommending their closure, the churches in western Canada mounted a successful campaign (supported by some chiefs and band councils) to keep them open. The federal cabinet yielded to the political pressure and kept the Indian Residential Schools open albeit with increased funding.
Given that the churches were presenting themselves as diviners of ethical and moral standards, it is possible to understand that the Canadian authorities were reluctant to believe the extent of the sexual and physical abuse of students occurring in these schools. Humanist Canada does not accept that religions are carriers of superior moral standards and consistent with the closure of Indian Residential Schools, we call on governments to withhold funding from all existing church-run schools. We believe that students who have been victimized in these schools should receive compensation from those responsible for keeping the institutions safe.
Of the four Christian denominations that ran the Indian Residential Schools, only the Roman Catholic Church has failed to issue a clear and unequivocal apology. Further, the Catholic Church has failed to pay its share of compensation. We call on the federal government to force the Roman Catholic Church to comply with its obligations.
We are disappointed that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to report on aboriginal people who had good residential school experiences as reconciliation cannot be achieved without balanced reporting. We also believe the commission could have provided greater insight into the reasons why the chiefs of Saskatchewan lobbied to keep the schools open when they were being closed in other parts of Canada during the 1970s. We note that instances of physical and sexual abuse happened in those schools and suggest the aboriginal authorities in charge should be judged by the same standards applied to the earlier church-run schools.
Finally, the report introduced the term “spiritual violence” which was defined as occurring when “a person’s spiritual or religious tradition, beliefs, or practices are demeaned or belittled” (p. 272). If what is meant by this term is that conversations be respectful, then we would agree; however, if the term is meant to stop discussion thereby limiting the capacity for personal growth, then we would disagree. Such an application could be used to restrict rational thought in adults and could be used to indoctrinate children with what is presumed to be their “spiritual or religious tradition.” Instead, we should consider religious indoctrination of children before they are mentally equipped to engage in such discussions to be a form of child abuse.