NGDI Honours the Closing of Truth & Reconciliation Commission

Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools reaches ceremonial end


Today, June 3, 2015 marks the official close of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on residential schools in Canada. The following are excerpts from the Summary Report: Honouring the Truth; Reconciling for the Future (available here). The report contains 94 Calls to Action divided under legacy and reconciliation (full list here).  Calls to Action number 18 through 24 deal with health issues from the legacy of the residential school system. The following excerpts of the report outline the Health Calls to Action that are recommended.


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.”

Residential schools endangered the health and well-being of the children who attended them. Many students succumbed to infectious disease, particularly tuberculosis. Sexual and physical abuse, as well as separation from families and communities, caused lasting trauma for many others. The effects of this trauma were often passed on to the children of the residential school Survivors and sometimes to their grandchildren. Residential schools also posed a threat to the mental health of students through the pervasive assumptions and assertions they made about the inferiority of Aboriginal peoples, cultures, and languages. This disregard for Aboriginal health and well-being was consistent with the long-established patterns of colonialism: the introduction of new diseases, the disruption of traditional food sources, and the concentration of people on unproductive land and the housing of them in cramped, unsanitary dwellings.

The schools undermined Aboriginal health by failing to feed and clothe the children properly and housing them in poorly constructed and dangerous buildings. The schools did not properly screen out sick and infectious children, and often lacked adequate treatment facilities. As Ruby Firth, a former student at Stringer Hall in the Northwest Territories, told the Commission, those conditions had a lasting effect.

The children in residential schools were powerless to take healing measures. They were denied access to traditional foods and to families, traditional healers, and communities who could have helped them, according to Aboriginal ways, to deal with the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements of ill health. Because of the isolated location of many of the schools, students were also often denied access to ‘Western’ doctors and nurses. This double denial of health care, based in government policy, continues to this day, due to the relative isolation of many Aboriginal communities, many of which have no road access, and limited access to local health resources.

Health care is a right enshrined in international and constitutional law as well as in Treaties. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes that Indigenous peoples have the right to physical and mental integrity, as well as the right to equal enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. In taking measures to achieve these goals, states are obligated to pay particular attention to the rights and special needs of Elders, women, youth, children, and persons with disabilities. Indigenous peoples have the right to be actively involved in developing, determining, and administering health programs that affect them. Indigenous peoples also have the right to traditional medicines and to maintain their traditional health practices.

The Numbered Treaties also established additional legal obligations concerning Aboriginal health and wellness. The right to medical care was recognized in Treaties 6, 7, 8, 10, and 11. Treaty 6 explicitly included provision of a “medicine chest” and relief from “pestilence.” However, the right to health is not limited to these Treaties. The Treaty negotiations included many references to the protection of, and non-interference with, traditional ways of life.

Call to Action 18
We call upon the federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments to acknowledge that the current state of Aboriginal health in Canada is a direct result of previous Canadian government policies, including residential schools, and to recognize and implement the health-care rights of Aboriginal people as identified in international law and constitutional law, and under the Treaties.

The health gap
There are troubling gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. For example:
• The infant mortality rates for First Nations and Inuit children range from 1.7 to over 4 times the non-Aboriginal rate.
•From 2004 to 2008, the “age-specific mortality rate” at ages one to nineteen in the Inuit homelands was 188.0 deaths per 100,000 person-years at risk, compared with only 35.3 deaths per 100,000 in the rest of Canada.
• First Nations people aged forty-five and older have nearly twice the rate of diabetes as the non-Aboriginal population.
• First Nations people were six times more likely than the general population to suffer alcohol-related deaths, and more than three times more likely to suffer drug-induced deaths.

The overall suicide rate among First Nation communities is about twice that of the total Canadian population. For Inuit, the rate is still higher: six to eleven times the rate for the general population. Aboriginal youth between the ages of ten and twenty-nine who are living on reserves are five to six times more likely to die by suicide than non-Aboriginal youth.

Measuring progress
Obtaining precise information on the state of health of Aboriginal people in Canada is difficult. The most complete information about comparative health outcomes is out of date, much of it coming from the 1990s. Unlike in other countries, the Canadian government has not provided a comprehensive list of well-being indicators comparing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations. The lack of accessible data on comparable health indicators means that these issues receive less public, media, and political attention. In Australia, the government has set a timeline for closing the gap in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal citizens. The Australian prime minister reports annually on the progress being made to close the gaps in targets related to life expectancy and mortality rates for Indigenous children. Canada must do likewise.

Call to Action 19
We call upon the federal government, in consultation with Aboriginal peoples, to establish measurable goals to identify and close the gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, and to publish annual progress reports and assess long-term trends. Such efforts would focus on indicators such as: infant mortality, maternal health, suicide, mental health, addictions, life expectancy, birth rates, infant and child health issues, chronic diseases, illness and injury incidence, and the availability of appropriate health services.

In 2003, the First Ministers’ Accord on Health Care Renewal recognized the obvious: that Aboriginal peoples face serious health challenges. The accord committed to making the reduction of the gap in health status between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples a national priority. More than a decade later, that gap remains. In fact, the federal government has moved backwards on issues of Aboriginal health since the signing of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and Canada’s apology to Survivors. It has terminated funding to a number of Aboriginal health organizations, including the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the National Aboriginal Health Organization. These organizations were committed to models of research and treatment in which Aboriginal communities have ownership, control, access, and possession. Their loss significantly limits the development of accurate information about health issues and solutions under Aboriginal control. Health Canada has also cut funding for a number of Aboriginal primary health programs, including programs that address diabetes, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, youth suicide, infectious diseases, and maternal and child health. These cuts have had a serious impact on Aboriginal communities.

Health reforms often involve Aboriginal people in complex jurisdictional disputes and tripartite negotiations with both the federal and provincial or territorial governments. Such jurisdictional disputes have particularly affected Métis, non-status, and urban Aboriginal people, as the federal government insists that providing services to these groups is a provincial and territorial responsibility.

Call to Action 20
In order to address the jurisdictional disputes concerning Aboriginal people who do not reside on reserves, we call upon the federal government to recognize, respect, and address the distinct health needs of the Métis, Inuit, and off-reserve Aboriginal peoples.

Aboriginal healing practices
Aboriginal health practices and beliefs, like Aboriginal peoples themselves, are diverse. However, an holistic approach to health is common to many Aboriginal cultures and has also been increasingly validated by ‘Western’ medicine. A belief shared among many Inuit, Métis, and First Nation people is that a sacred connection exists among people, the Earth, and everything above it, upon it, and within it. For purposes of healing, this means activities such as “on-the-land” or “bush” healing camps where participants can experience the healing power of the natural world. Traditional practices can also include sweat lodges, cedar baths, smudging, the lighting of the Qulliq (a stone lamp used by the Inuit for ceremonial purposes), and other spiritual ceremonies. Best practices for Aboriginal wellness involve a range of services from mainstream health care to traditional practices and medicines, all under community leadership and control. Such an integrated approach has the power to improve the lives of all community members.

Call to Action 21
We call upon the federal government to provide sustainable funding for existing and new Aboriginal healing centres to address the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual harms caused by residential schools, and to ensure that the funding of healing centres in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories is a priority.
Call to Action 22
We call upon those who can effect change within the Canadian health-care system to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices and use them in the treatment of Aboriginal patients in collaboration with Aboriginal healers and Elders where requested by Aboriginal patients.

Overcoming the health legacy of the residential schools will require a long-term investment in Aboriginal communities, so that communities can revive their capacity to heal themselves. One key investment will be the training of more Aboriginal health and social service professionals. The work that Health Canada’s community cultural and traditional knowledge healing team members did in support of this Commission and other Settlement Agreement processes is but one example of the invaluable service these professionals can provide.

Call to Action 23
We call upon all levels of government to:
i. Increase the number of Aboriginal professionals working in the health-care field.
ii. Ensure the retention of Aboriginal health-care providers in Aboriginal communities.
iii. Provide cultural competency training for all health-care professionals.

Closing the gap in health outcomes will come about only as part of a comprehensive strategy of change. To be more effective in improving health outcomes, non-Aboriginal medical practitioners must develop a better understanding of the health issues facing Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and of the legacy of residential schools.

Call to Action 24
We call upon medical and nursing schools in Canada to require all students to take a course dealing with Aboriginal health issues, including the history and legacy of residential schools, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Treaties and Aboriginal rights, and Indigenous teachings and practices. This will require skills-based training in intercultural competency, conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism.