3 Truth and Reconciliation

Truth and Reconciliation

Rebecca Hiebert

Before the arrival of European explorers and traders, Indigenous peoples were organized into complex, self-governing nations throughout what is now called Canada. In its early days, the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples was mutually beneficial. Indigenous peoples were able to help European traders adjust to the new land and could share their knowledge and expertise. In return, the Europeans offered useful materials and goods, such as horses, guns, metal knives, and kettles. However, as time went by and more European settlers and immigrants arrived, the relationship between the two peoples became much more challenging.

As the European population increased, they wanted to control larger sections of what is now Canada, so the Europeans implemented laws, policies, and treaties to control the Indigenous peoples’ access to land and restrict the Indigenous peoples from participating in their culture. Now some of the ancestors of the European immigrants and settlers are revisiting the treatment of the Indigenous peoples and regretting the way they were treated. They are working toward improved relationships and reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples.[1]

While you read, consider the following:

  • What information is new?
  • What did I used to think?
  • How can I use this information to welcome others?

The most important single act affecting First Nations is the Indian Act, passed by the federal government of the new Dominion of Canada in 1876 and still in existence today. The Indian Act was an attempt to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society as quickly as possible. You can read the complete Indian Act by clicking on this link.

One of the most infamous consequences of the Indian Act was the promotion of residential schools. Duncan Campbell Scott, Head of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, famously said in 1920 that “the goal of the Indian Residential School is to ‘kill the Indian in the child.’” Sadly, in many cases, this goal was accomplished. Children were removed from their homes and placed in residential schools where they were not allowed to speak their language and had to give up their cultural practices, beliefs, and any connection to their Indigenous way of life. In addition, children in residential schools were often mistreated, suffering from malnourishment, tuberculosis, and other diseases, as well as experiencing physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Today, Indigenous peoples are still living with the legacy of residential schools in the form of post-traumatic stress and intergenerational trauma.[2]

What is Reconciliation?

Like other policies under the Indian Act, the negative effects of residential schools were passed from generation to generation. Indigenous peoples have been working hard to overcome the legacy of residential schools and to change the realities for themselves, their families, and their Nations. The federal government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) to deal with the legacy of residential schools. Its mandate was to accumulate, document, and commemorate the experiences of the 80,000 survivors of the residential school system in Canada, so the survivors could begin to heal from the trauma of these experiences.[3] For more information, click on this link to read a summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action.

Reconciliation is an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships. A critical part of this process involves repairing damaged trust by making apologies, providing individual and collective reparations, and following through with concrete actions that demonstrate real societal change.[4]

– Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Summary of the Final Report, 2015

Multiple Perspectives

I have had newcomers ask me: What is it that we have to do? What is our role in this dialogue?

“As a newcomer, you may not have responsibility for the past but you do have a responsibility for the future because you made a commitment to this country. And the responsibility for the future is reconciliation. So, that means that you still have to understand what this history is, you have to understand what it has done to this country, you have to understand what it is doing to this country and you have to understand what it will continue to do, unless we change it. And the leadership from those newcomer communities that are occupying more and more leadership positions in government also need to figure out where they fit into that dialogue around change for the future, because they do fit. They are going to be influential leaders of this conversation.”

– Honourable Murray Sinclair

Lighting the Way Forward: The Calls to Action in Action[5]
– Vital Conversation: Winnipeg Vital Signs, The Winnipeg Foundation, March 25, 2019


Reconciliation has many meanings depending on the context in which it is used. For more information about using the term “reconciliation” in regard to repairing relationships with Indigenous peoples, click on this link.

Understanding Reconciliation

Reconciliation is about addressing past wrongs done to Indigenous peoples, making amends, and improving relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to create a better future for all. Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has stated, “Reconciliation is not an [Indigenous] problem – it involves all of us.”

You can think about reconciliation as work to improve a damaged relationship. Imagine that there was an individual who had been abused, lied to, and exploited for years – that person would have a lot of fear, mistrust, and trauma. The abuser would also have negative feelings: shame, guilt, self-blame, and possibly anger toward the victim. The abuser may even blame the victim. Repairing this relationship would mean apologizing, rebuilding trust, hearing each other’s stories, getting to know each other to appreciate each other’s humanity, and taking concrete action to show that the relationship will be different from now on.

With reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, we are not only talking about a relationship between two individuals, but we are also talking about a relationship between multiple groups of people and between many generations over hundreds of years. Clearly, the onus for this action is on the party that caused the harm, which in this case is the European settlers who came to North America. You can see from this example that reconciliation necessarily involves intensive emotional work for all parties. For Indigenous peoples it means revisiting experiences of trauma and becoming open to forgiveness, and for European settlers it involves gaining in-depth understanding of one’s own relation to Indigenous peoples and the impacts of colonization, including recognizing settler privilege and challenging the dominance of Western views and approaches.[6]

For more information about history of the Indigenous people and the impact of colonialization, read Pulling Together: Foundations Guide.


Indigenous Teepee
An Indigenous tipi now used for ceremonial and teaching purposes. Image source: Pixabay

Key Takeaways

Indigenous peoples had been living on the land that is now Canada long before European settlers arrived. When the Europeans arrived, they initially formed partnerships with Indigenous peoples, supporting each other through trading, exploring, and sharing expertise. As the European population grew, they took control of the land and attempted to assimilate Indigenous peoples into their society. This resulted in intense intergenerational trauma that Indigenous peoples are still working to recover from. Everyone in Canada, including newcomers, have a responsibility to work toward reconciliation to repair the relationships between the Indigenous peoples and others living in Canada. As you work with others at college, remember that each person has their own unique background and story. Be generous and consider the possible barriers, such as intergenerational trauma, that other people might be working to overcome.

  1. Pulling Together: Foundations Guide by Kory Wilson and Colleen Hodgson (MNBC). Kory Wilson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationfoundations/chapter/43/
  2. https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationfoundations/chapter/residential-schools/
  3. https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationfoundations/chapter/truth-and-reconciliation/
  4. Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers by Asma-na-hi Antoine; Rachel Mason; Roberta Mason; Sophia Palahicky; and Carmen Rodriguez de France. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationcurriculumdevelopers/chapter/pathways-toward-reconciliation/
  5. Full conversation video link: https://www.facebook.com/wpgfdn/videos/2313357328908155?vh=e&d=n&sfns=mo
  6. https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationcurriculumdevelopers/chapter/indigenization-decolonization-and-reconciliation/