From 2008 to 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada conducted research across the country and heard testimony from over 6000 witnesses and survivors of residential schools, culminating in the publication of the TRC’s Final Report in December 2015.
Problems and Purpose
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was established in 2008 to create a history of the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) system, predominantly informed by survivors’ testimonies. The TRC used public and private methods of statement-taking, then produced a final report with recommendations. Over the course of five years, the TRC collected 6,750 statements from survivors of residential schools, their family members, and former staff of residential schools. The testimonies detailed sexual and physical abuse, coercive assimilation practices, forced loss of language and culture, and the active destruction of families and communities.
Background History and Context
The establishment of truth commissions as a democratic innovation in the realm of ‘official’ restorative justice has been on the rise, growing in popularity in the 1980s and increasing in use throughout the early 2000s. More than fifty truth commissions have been implemented around the world.
The Canadian federal government first engaged in a version of a truth commission with the implementation of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) in the 1990s. The RCAP was established by Order in Council on August 26, 1991, and proceeded to hold 178 days of public hearings to investigate the issues currently and historically faced by Indigenous populations in Canada. The RCAP was established in the midst of a series of other reports and inquiries on Indigenous issues in Canada, such as those embedded in the criminal justice system. The Report of the RCAP, therefore, was not the first of its kind to make a concerted effort to embark on such an inquiry and produce a usable report. However, the RCAP was the first major attempt at reconciliation to take on the mandate of examining Indigenous issues across Canada and inclusive of the entire five-hundred-year-long relationship between Indigenous peoples of Canada and European settler society.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s appointment of the RCAP in August 1991 initiated official consultations with Indigenous organizations, a series of hearings that were held across Canada, and extensive scholarly research by the commissioners. The Commission’s work culminated in the Report of the RCAP, a five-volume report published in 1996, containing 440 recommendations. After many years of a lack of follow up by the Canadian government on the recommendations of the RCAP, the Assembly of First Nations launched a class-action lawsuit against the federal government demanding $36 billion in damages. The Canadian government ultimately agreed to an out of court settlement in 2006, known as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). The settlement included funds allotted for a ‘Common Experience Payment’ to all living survivors, a new assessment process for individual claims, the creation of a residential school archive, new forms of commemoration, improved health services, and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. The TRC of Canada was then established specifically to collect testimony from survivors of the IRS system and to educate Canadians on the experiences of such victims of state-sponsored violence.
Residential schools were church-run and government-funded boarding schools designed to remove Indigenous children from their families and cultures. The first residential school, the Mohawk Institute, opened in 1831 and the Canadian government officially authorized such church-run schools as a federal system in 1883, with the last residential school closing in 1996. Residential schools were one part of a larger federal effort to colonize and destroy Indigenous lives and culture through assimilatory strategies such as the removal of people from their lands; the enactment of laws to prohibit or limit hunting practices, ceremonies, and ways of life; regulations on Indigenous legal status; limits on freedom of mobility; and the neglect of infrastructure and basic needs on reserves. The IRS system was actively used as a central means of assimilating Indigenous children into European society that was designed to infiltrate communities by severing cultural knowledge at the point of children and ultimately destroy Indigenous lives. Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy minister of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1920, exemplified the government’s assimilationist policies of the federally funded schools when he stated that the goal of the IRS system was to “get rid of the Indian problem.” Over 130 residential schools were organized and operated by the federal government in conjunction with churches across what is currently called Canada.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The TRC was led by three Commissioners: Chair of the Commission Justice Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild, and Dr. Marie Wilson. The Commissioners oversaw the Executive Director, Kimberly R. Murray, and the senior management team. There was also a 10-member Indian Residential School Survivor Committee that acted as an advisory body to the TRC process. Regional Liaisons were also hired to keep the TRC relevant to, and in service of, Indigenous communities. An Inuit Sub-Commission was also created to conduct hearings and events in Northern Canada.
The TRC was predominantly funded by the Government of Canada, which provided approximately $72 million over 7 years.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, where the TRC records are archived, receives funding from the Government of Canada to continue the ongoing work of the TRC recommendations.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participation in the TRC hearings was entirely voluntary. To recruit individuals to participate in providing testimonies, the TRC engaged in actively seeking out participants and drop-in or sign-up methods of recruitment. To recruit survivors of residential schools to share their experiences during the TRC hearings, the TRC partnered with regional and national survivor organizations. The TRC also hosted six national events across the country during which the public could attend demonstrations and exhibits, with opportunities to provide a personal statement or testimony during the events. The Indian Residential School Survivor Committee, in partnership with local organizations, organized TRC Community Hearings that involved sharing panels and sharing circles during which survivors could provide their testimony within the safety of their community. On the TRC website, there was also a space to submit a statement online. In total, 6,750 participants provided statements to the TRC.
Participants were not provided any tangible enticements such as an honorarium, however, participation in the hearings was encouraged by the TRC as an opportunity to work toward the personal healing of traumas.
Methods and Tools Used
The Canadian TRC is a form of restorative justice. Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm and severed relationships as a result of violence (this includes more than just physical violence). The TRC of Canada emphasized its focus on restorative justice practices in the TRC mandate which states, “the Parties have agreed that an historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be established to contribute to truth, healing and reconciliation.” The TRC was directly modeled on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which also placed significant emphasis on healing symbolically, personally, and on a national level in order to sustain peace. A significant difference between the South African TRC and the TRC of Canada was that Canada was not in a state of political transition. The TRC of Canada used a transitional justice model in a non-transitional context. Scholars have argued that this was both an inventive use of the model and a hindrance to achieving any significant structural change as there was no real risk to the Canadian government at the time.
The TRC of Canada predominantly used public and private hearings as a means of collecting personal experiences and to provide opportunities for individuals to feel their story was being heard in the hopes of achieving catharsis. Public hearings, in particular, were implemented as a direct response to the hundreds of years of silence enforced upon Indigenous peoples by the government and settler society, at large. This method was useful for some participants while others expressed that they were retraumatized by the public retelling of their story. The TRC provided counseling services and opportunities to meet with Elders to assist in processing the trauma of retelling residential school experiences, however, this process remained a retraumatizing experience for some participants. See the “Analysis and Lessons Learned” section for more detail.
Some of the TRC Community Hearings also integrated Sharing Circles into the process. Sharing circles usually involve no more than ten participants who sit together in a circle to sharing their experiences, thoughts, and emotions. These circles are often facilitated by someone from the community.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
To conduct public hearings, the TRC hosted six ‘National Events’ between 2010 to 2014 during which ‘statement-gathering’ occurred, demonstrations of Indigenous cultural celebrations were performed, and national media outlets could publicize the TRC’s work. These events took place across multiple days and were said to have been attended by “thousands” of individuals. Hearings were not organized thematically or temporally. Rather, multiple time periods and residential school locations were addressed during each hearing. The hearings were designed to be an opportunity for survivors to share personal experiences in the manner of their choosing (within the allotted 15 minutes time frame per person), rather than an interrogative process led by the Commissioners. During the hearings, the Commissioners primarily took notes based on what participants stated during their sessions while the testimony was transcribed in full. Commissioners rarely intervened to ask questions of the participants. Even in the sharing circles, facilitators rarely intervened as the TRC approach was to record and bear witness to any survivor providing testimony. The TRC hearings also did not have victims confront perpetrators, as has been done in other truth commissions. This was a victim-centered truth commission that placed survivor storytelling at the forefront of the process. All transcripts from testimony provided at public hearings are available for access at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
The public hearings were mostly conducted in large event spaces with the Commissioners and survivors seated on a stage and the audience seated auditorium-style. Those providing testimony were video recorded and live-streamed. The Sharing Circles were held in smaller venues and those involved in the process were seated in a circle with audience members seated surrounding the circle. The Sharing Circles were chaired by members of the Indian Residential School Survivor Committee, participants had no time limit associated with their speaking time, and these sessions were not recorded or livestreamed.
After the completion of the hearings and all other statement-taking activity, the TRC Commissioners were tasked with the second stage of the process, which was to produce a final report. While the TRC collected all testimony with minimal disruption, in crafting the final report the Commissioners curated a narrative intending to detail the history of the schools for a broad public. See the “Analysis and Lessons Learned” section for scholarly critiques of this curation. All reports associated with the TRC process, including the final report, are in the public domain and housed by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Archives.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Commission published the Final Report of the TRC in 2015 which included a detailed history of the residential schools and 94 “Calls to Action” or recommendations for improving the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in Canada. The Calls to Action address child welfare issues, gaps in education funding, a need for an Aboriginal Languages Act, healthcare funding, and the creation of a National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
While the report and recommendations of the TRC made the violence and trauma experienced by Indigenous children in residential schools more publicly known, the 94 Calls to Action largely went unaddressed by the government and the broader public in the immediate years after the close of the commission. The TRC was created through a settlement (IRSSA), therefore, it did not have any legal authority or ability to directly introduce legislation. However, some of the Calls to Action have begun to be implemented across the country. CBC News launched a website called Beyond 94 to track and share the progress made on implemented the TRC’s 94 calls to action. A progress status of each call to action was updated in September 2021. As of September 2021, 13 Calls to Action are considered complete, 29 are in progress and underway, 32 are in progress and proposed, while 20 Calls to Action remain not started.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The TRC has received a mixture of praise and criticism for its victim-centered approach. Some supporters claim the focus on the survivor experience was necessary to provide a platform for previously silenced voices, while critics argue that personal experiences were pared down by the Commission to fit into their predisposed conception of the schools. Scholars such as Ronald Niezen argue there was a clear tendency in TRC hearings towards focusing on the most horrific acts of violence experienced by the children in the residential schools. This left other stories of socio-culture damage largely receiving less attention and ultimately considered less violent by the government. A victim-centered truth commission with the type of mandate applied to the TRC created concern that it would make Canadians believe listening is enough and they would not need to do the work of making practical and tangible amends. This tends to leave structural inequalities unaddressed. Many Indigenous scholars such as Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) scholar Taiaiake Alfred argue that encouraging healing without land restitution and remaking Canadian politics to allow for full sovereign rights for Indigenous peoples, would simply be a process aimed at reconciling Indigenous peoples with colonialism again.
Paulette Regan, former Director of Research for the TRC, published a book titled Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada in 2011 while the commission was still in process. Regan’s book provided a new means of approaching reconciliatory processes. Instead of promoting reconciliation between Indigenous people and settler society, Regan suggests a need for non-Indigenous Canadians to “unsettle” their understandings of Canadian society and to engage in reconciliation processes themselves. Therefore, Regan does not necessarily criticize the TRC, but suggests the only way for such a process to be effective long-term is if non-Indigenous Canadians participate.
Also writing at the time the TRC was in process was Rosemary Nagy, a prominent scholar in the field of human rights and transitional justice. In multiple articles published from 2010 to 2013, Nagy responded to ongoing criticism of the TRC and agreed that it was not addressing structural violence. However, Nagy recognized potential within the TRC process to contribute to decolonization if the Commission would expand its scope to include reconciliation measures outside of notions of “healing”. Scholars at the time of Commission operation appeared doubtful of the TRC’s abilities to make change yet imbued their work with a sense of optimism as the TRC Final Report had yet to be released.
Critiques of the TRC from academia grew in the immediate few years proceeding the publication of the Final Report. For example, Ravi de Costa who argues because the TRC is an institution reliant on discourse for mobilizing the public, which ordinarily can be successful in societies emerging from violent overthrows of power, is ineffective in a non-transitional society such as Canada. Other works continued to question the effectiveness of the structure of the TRC and the methodology used in hearings and archival research, while commending the TRC for at the very least prompting national interest in reconciliation.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commissions - method
- Restorative Justice – method
- Public Hearing – method
- Deep Listening Circles – method
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia – case
- The National Reconciliation Commission in Ghana - case
- Gacaca Courts: Community Justice in Rwanda – case
- Orange Shirt Day – case
 “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, University of Manitoba, https://nctr.ca/about/history-of-the-trc/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/
 Rosemary Nagy, "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Genesis and Design," Canadian Journal of Law & Society 29, no. 2 (2014): 200.
 See, for example, the Task Force on Aboriginal Peoples in Federal Corrections 1989; Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall, Jr., Prosecution, 1989; Report of the Task Force on the Criminal Justice System and its Impact on the Indian and Metis People of Alberta, 1991; Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, 1991; Saskatchewan, Report of the Saskatchewan Indian Justice Review Committee, 1992.
 Marlene Brant Castellano, “Renewing the Relationship: A Perspective on the Impact of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,” in Aboriginal Self-Government in Canada: Current Trends and Issues, ed. John H. Hylton, 93 (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing Ltd., 1999).
 Brieg Capitaine and Karine Vanthuyne, Power through testimony: reframing residential schools in the age of reconciliation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 6.
 John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999), xxxvi.
 Margot Francis, ““Bending the Light” toward Survivance: Anishinaabec-Led Youth Theater on Residential Schools,” Native American and Indigenous Studies 2, no. 2 (2015): 88.
 “TRC Commissioners,” National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, University of Manitoba, https://nctr.ca/about/history-of-the-trc/trc-commissioners/
 “Meet the Members of the Indian Residential School Survivor Committee (IRSSC),” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, https://web.archive.org/web/20200426133720/http://www.trc.ca/about-us/meet-the-survivor-committee.html
 “Inuit Sub-Commission,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, https://web.archive.org/web/20200507205623/http://www.trc.ca/about-us/inuit-sub-commission.html
 “About Us – FAQs,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, https://web.archive.org/web/20200507211405/http://www.trc.ca/about-us/faqs.html
 “Share Your Truth,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, https://web.archive.org/web/20200507215828/http://www.trc.ca/statement-gathering.html
 “Our Mandate,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, https://web.archive.org/web/20200507215137/http://www.trc.ca/about-us/our-mandate.html
 Jula Hughes, "Instructive Past: Lessons from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples for the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools," Canadian Journal of Law & Society 27, no. 1 (2012): 102.
 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” 211, https://truthcommissions.humanities.mcmaster.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/TRC_Summary-of-the-Final-Report-of-the-Truth-and-Reconciliation-Commission-of-Canada.pdf
 “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, https://nctr.ca/about/history-of-the-trc/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/
 Ravi de Costa, “Discursive Institutions in non-transitional societies: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” International Political Science Review 38, no, 2 (2017): 191.
 Brian Gettler, “Historical Research at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” The Canadian Historical Review 98, no. 4 (2017): 644.
 Rosemary Nagy, “Settler Witnessing at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” Human Rights Review 21 (2020): 219-241.
 Gettler, “Historical Research at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” 645.
 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015): 1-3, 9.
 De Costa, “Discursive Institutions in non-transitional societies,” 188.
 Ronald Niezen, “Templates and Exclusions: Victim Centrism in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22 (2016): 921, 926.
 Rosemary L. Nagy, “The Scope and Bounds of Transitional Justice and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” The International Journal of Transitional Justice 7 (2013): 62.
 Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (UBC Press, 2010), 11, 17.
 Nagy, “The Scope and Bounds of Transitional Justice and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” 54, 61.
 De Costa, “Discursive Institutions in non-transitional societies,” 196.
Recordings of Sharing Circles - https://archives.nctr.ca/Sharing-Circles
Transcripts from TRC events and hearings - https://archives.nctr.ca/Transcripts