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Truth comes before reconciliation

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Wearing your orange shirt is a wonderful way to show your support, but one of the most effective actions you can take towards truth and reconciliation is educating yourself and those around you! Most Canadians and newcomers have never been taught this history. Learning about the topics below will provide a context for understanding current realities for Indigenous peoples today and how we got here.  

The topics below are focused on the history of colonization in Canada. To build your cultural awareness and engage in respectful relationships with Indigenous people, please visit the FAQ section.

There are hundreds of distinct First Nations, Inuit, and Métis nations across Turtle Island (what is now ‘Canada’). Attempts by the Canadian government to assimilate Indigenous peoples has led to a common misconception whereby Indigenous peoples are often not respected as the diverse, independent nations that they are. Overall, there are an estimated 1.6 million Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island (as of 2016), comprised of hundreds of independent nations with unique histories, traditional, and languages. Among the Indigenous population in Turtle Island, there are at least 53 unique languages from about 11 language families.  

As you continue to learn more about Indigenous cultures and our shared responsibilities of reconciliation, please take note to always acknowledge the diversity amongst First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples across Turtle Island.  

Sources and further reading:  

Canada 150 Snapshot of Indigenous Nations from Statistics Canada  

Virtual Map of Native Land Across the Globe  

University of Alberta’s Indigenous Canada Course (Free Online Course) 

The Doctrine of Discovery (also known as terra nullius meaning ‘nobody’s land’) is a series of formal statements from the Pope in the 1400s which stated that European explorers could claim land for European countries and monarchies because North America’s inhabitants were not practicing Christian peoples, and therefore did not have rights. The Doctrine of Discovery paved the way for the settlement of lands, deceptive treaties, Confederation, the *Indian Act and Residential Schools.  

Modern court rulings continue to interpret legal claims relying on the Doctrine of Discovery to justify occupation of lands. There are calls for both the Canadian government and the Pope to formally renounce the Doctrine to recognize the obligations Canada has toward First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples and allow equitable settlement of outstanding claims to lands, territories, and resources. Regardless of any formal renouncement of the Doctrine from the Catholic Church or Canadian Government, we must each reflect on the extent to which racist beliefs exist within us and colour the way that we acknowledge the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples.    

Sources and further reading:  

Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, Assembly of First Nations, 2018 (PDF)    

The Doctrine of Discovery and what could happen if the Pope revoked it (National Post, 2022) 

Doctrine of Discovery is a Legal Fiction by APTN News  

*Note: The term ‘Indian’ when used to describe First Nations people is derogatory and offensive. This language is used here as it is still used by the government of Canada within its legislation. 

From an Indigenous perspective, a treaty is a promise based on mutual respect within an established and maintained relationship. Prior to European contact in North America, Indigenous nations had treaty agreements with other Indigenous nations to maintain good relationships. For example, the Dish with One Spoon Wampum is a treaty between the Three Fires Confederacy (Ojibway, Potawatomi, Odawa) and the Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Tuscarora) to share the area that is now known as Southwestern Ontario. After European settlers arrived, some wampum treaties were made with European nations in the spirit of friendship and sharing.  

From a European legal perspective, a treaty is legally binding contract or agreement between nations that sets a standard for how the parties will treat each other. When European contact occurred, some individual treaties were made between European citizens and Indigenous peoples. However, the British Crown soon sought to claim land more formally for Britain and thus began a strategic political and legal colonial enterprise to gain land through treaties. The British Crown forged the Royal Proclamation which asserted Indigenous rights and title to the land of North America, and simultaneously created a European legal framework for the land to be ceded through treaties in the years to follow. As treaties were forged, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples were further displaced from their homelands and forced to survive in clandestine conditions. Many, if not all, treaties in Canada are marked with deep betrayal and injustice for Indigenous peoples from the Crown as they were deceptive, and their provisions have not been fulfilled.  

Treaties in Canada Education Guide 

Map of Ontario treaties and reserves (Government of Ontario)   

Two Row and Dish with One Spoon Wampum Covenants  

Treaties in Canada by John Burrows (Lecture) 

Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada  

The Journey – Part 2: What is a Treaty? (Interactive Learning, Anishinabek Nation) 

Canadians have been breaking their promises to Indigenous people (Video - CBC docs) 

Resources for Treaties Recognition Week in Ontario (Facing History and Ourselves)  

At the time of European contact, Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island began to experience land dispossession and homelessness. When Europeans arrived, Indigenous people came across European settlements and found they could no longer access the land in the ways they needed for survival. Colonial warfare and violence also made it unsafe for Indigenous peoples to be in certain areas, especially as European colonial countries fought each other to ‘claim’ territories in North America.  

In 1763, following the 7 years’ war and British victory over the French, King George III of Great Britain issued the Royal Proclamation. This document declared the British Crown’s ownership over the newly established European colonies in North America, and it confirmed Indigenous land ownership and rights to the territories outside of European settlements. The Royal Proclamation stated that Indigenous territories would be protected from settlement, while at the same time providing a set of protocols and procedures for the purchasing of First Nations’ land through treaties. In other words, the Royal Proclamation provided the framework for ‘legal’ and orderly dispossession of lands through treaties to come over the next few hundred years.  

Sources and further learning:  

Justice Murray Sinclair on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 (Video) 

Lost in History – Royal Proclamation (Video)  

250th Anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 (Government of Canada) 

Thistle, J. (2017.) Indigenous Definition of Homelessness in Canada. Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press.  

The confederation (the ‘creation’ of Canada) forever changed the relationship between First Nations and settlers. Despite a long-standing tradition of binding Wampum Covenants and dozens of Numbered Treaties across Turtle Island, Indigenous nations were left out of the creation of Canada. The ‘Fathers of Confederation’ continued to hold dismissive, paternalistic views of Indigenous peoples dating back to the Doctrine of Discovery. Under the British North America (BNA) Act, which united the British colonies into the Dominion of Canada in 1867, the federal government unilaterally created a country without consent or participation from Indigenous peoples. Within the Constitution Act, the federal government determined that it would be “responsible for Indians and Lands reserved for Indians”.  

Through the Department of Indian Affairs, Canada developed national policies that would effect all Indigenous peoples. These policies were incorporated into the Indian Act in 1876 and would come to control and dominate all aspects of life for Indigenous peoples in Canada. Today, we all exist within a society that continues to actively dismiss and erase Indigenous peoples’ rights and knowledge to justify ongoing settlement.  

Sources and further learning:  

Confederation (The Canadian Encyclopedia) 

Confederation comes at a cost: Indigenous peoples and the ongoing reality of colonialism in Canada (Gabrielle Slowey, Active History, 2016)  

*Note: The term ‘Indian’ when used to describe First Nations people is derogatory and offensive. This language is used here as it is still used by the government of Canada within its legislation.    

The *Indian Act is a piece of legislation that was created to assimilate Indigenous peoples into mainstream Canadian culture. It formally came into effect in 1876 and is still in force today. The *Indian Act forced Indigenous peoples onto reserves causing mass dislocation. A ‘pass system’ of racial segregation was implemented where Indigenous peoples could not leave the reserve without a pass from an Indian Agent (government official appointed to live on reserve). Additionally, the *Indian Act stripped Indigenous nations of their political and governance structures by enforcing a Westernized democratically elected chief and council system modelled after, and accountable to, the colonial government. The *Indian Act also outlawed cultural practices. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people were not allowed to express their identities or cultures through traditional ceremonies or speaking their languages. Additionally, to achieve assimilation the *Indian Act required Indigenous children to attend Residential Schools.  

A prominent component of the *Indian Act is the concept of Indian Status, which continues today to define who is “Indian” under the law as a separate category of citizenship within Canada. As the mission of the government was to assimilate First Nations peoples, the Indian Act employed strategies to have Indigenous peoples give up their status. Enfranchisement is the legal process of stripping away a person’s *Indian status. Under the act, a person lost status if they graduated university, married a non-status man, or became a Christian minister, doctor or lawyer. When a person was enfranchised, they lost all treaty benefits associated with having status, as did their children who were also no longer considered ‘Indian’ under the law.   

Sources and further learning:  

Indian Act: A Summary (Video, The Canadian Encyclopedia) 

Indian Act (Video, students) 

Indian Act (The Canadian Encyclopedia) 

Indian Act and Elected Chief and Band Council System (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2015) 

Enfranchisement (Assembly of First Nations) 

Residential Schools were government mandated, church-run boarding schools that Indigenous children were forced to attend. For over 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their families and communities and sent to the schools, often not returning to their families for many years. The schools sought to “destroy Indigenous cultures and languages and to assimilate Indigenous peoples so they no longer existed as distinct peoples” (TRC, 2015). Residential Schools were generally underfunded and overcrowded. Children were harshly punished for speaking their own languages and were often not able to see their families or siblings. Many children did not return home from Residential Schools, and those who survived recount many forms of physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse. About 139 Residential Schools operated in Canada, with the last one closing in 1996.  

In June 2021, the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, BC. The uncovering of these unmarked graves has sparked the search of hundreds of former residential school sites across Canada. As searches continue, thousands of unmarked graves have been discovered.   

The Residential Schools Settlement Agreement recognizes the damage inflicted on Indigenous peoples by residential schools and is the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. It includes the formation and work of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, commemoration, and funding to assist survivors in their healing.  

Sources and further learning:  

Residential School History (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation)  

Murray Sinclair delivers statement on discovery at Kamloops residential school (CBC) 

Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (Canadian Encyclopedia)  

In addition to Residential Schools, the federal government enforced attendance at *Indian Day Schools, which were mandated by the federal government, and run by churches until the year 2000. While Residential Schools were boarding schools often located far away, Day Schools were located within and around Indigenous communities, and students went home to their families in the evenings. Day schools were another tool of assimilation where thousands of children suffered physical, verbal and sexual abuse. About 699 Indian Day Schools operated in Canada.  

*Indian Day Schools were not included in the Residential School Settlement Agreement, however in 2009, survivor Gary McLean began a class action lawsuit for Indian Day Schools. In 2019, the federal court approved a settlement agreement for survivors of the schools. Applications for Day School claims are in process.  

*Note: The term ‘Indian’ when used to describe First Nations people is derogatory and offensive. This language is used here as it was and is still used by the government of Canada within its legislation.    

Sources and further learning:  

Learning about Indian Day Schools (McGill University Indigenous Initiatives) 

Canada’s Colonial Reckoning Must Include Indian Day Schools (Sean Carleton, Jackson Pind, The Tyee, 2022)  

Indiandayschools.org  (Interactive map of Day Schools in Canada) 

Indian Day Schools (University of British Columbia) 

The Sixties Scoop refers to the mass apprehension of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system between 1951 and the 1980s. Following amendments to the Indian Act, Indigenous child welfare moved under provincial jurisdiction during a time when racist policy permeated social work. Many Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their communities and placed with non-Indigenous families under the Eurocentric assumption that their parents were not properly caring for them. Rather than recognizing the value of Indigenous children being in their communities and providing community resources to prevent apprehension, provincial governments considered apprehension of Indigenous children the simplest way of addressing child welfare issues.   

Thousands of Indigenous children were adopted by non-Indigenous families, and in some cases sent abroad, causing intergenerational estrangement from their families, cultures, and identities. Thousands of Indigenous peoples today struggle with the intergenerational effects of the scoop as they strive to reconnect to their families, nations, cultures, identities, and spirituality.  

The trend of removing Indigenous children from their families continues in alarming numbers today and has come to be referred to as the Millennial Scoop. In Canada, 52.2% of children in foster care are Indigenous, but only account for 7.7% of the population demographically. In January 2020, the federal government made legislative changes to place control of child welfare systems in the hands of Indigenous communities; however, much works still needs to be done.  

Sources and further learning:  

What is the Sixties Scoop? (Settlement.Org) 

Sixties Scoop (Canadian Encyclopedia)  

Reducing the number of Indigenous children in care (Canadian Government) 

Ontario to end practice of birth alerts that’s led to babies being seized (CBC, 2020) 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada was formed as a component of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007. Over six years, the TRC was created to gather and hear stories of 6,500 Residential School Survivors to create a historical record of the Residential School system. The TRC released its final report in 2015, including 94 Calls to Action calling upon all levels of government, institutions, and the Canadian public. Reconciliation became popularized in Canadian mainstream media, however to date, only 5 of the calls to action have been completed.  

Sources and further learning:  

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the TRC Final Report 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action  

Calls to Action Accountability: A 2021 Status Update on Reconciliation (Yellowhead Institute) 

Murray Sinclair: Truth and Reconciliation (Video, The Agenda, 2011) 

National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website  

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Government of Canada) 

The Politics of Recognition by Glen Seth-Coulthard (Book) 

Orange Shirt Day is a legacy of commemoration efforts of St. Joseph Mission Residential School in Williams Lake, BC. In 2013, Phyllis Webstad told the story of her shiny, new orange shirt being taken away from her on her first day of school at the Mission Residential School. As Orange Shirt Day grew into a larger movement over the next several years, the orange shirt became a symbol of the horrific losses Indigenous people experienced through Residential Schools – the losses of family, culture, language, connection, and well-being. Orange Shirt Day became a day to honour survivors, remember those who did not come home, and keep the discussion on all aspects of Residential Schools continuing in the Canadian public.  

In 2021, Canada declared September 30 National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a federal statutory holiday. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called up the federal government to mark a statutory holiday as one of its 94 calls to Reconciliation to ensure the Canadian public takes pause to acknowledge the history and effects of residential schools. It is a difficult day for Indigenous peoples, families and communities who are continuing their healing. In a statement released in 2021, Prime Minister Trudeau said the day was an opportunity for people to learn more, affirm the need for reconciliation and commit themselves to the work ahead. It is up to non-Indigenous Canadians to learn about their responsibilities in reconciliation and what reconciliation means to them on a deeper level. 

Sources and further learning:  

Why the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation isn’t just another stat holiday (CBC, 2022)  

Phyllis’ Story: The Original Orange Shirt (Orange Shirt Day Society) 

Statement from the Prime Minister on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation 

Why Canada is Marking 1st National Day for Truth & Reconciliation this year (CBC, 2021)  

Colonization is often thought of as a set of events in history that have passed. However, colonization is a system that remains in place in our country today. Canada has a very particular form of colonization, known as “settler colonialism,” which means that the people who settle in a place, remain there indefinitely. Today, Turtle Island remains occupied and settler colonialism is enacted within our society in the very systems that we live and work within to continue to oppress and control Indigenous peoples, thus justifying ongoing settlement and occupation of lands.  

Some contemporary issues that are ongoing due to the active nature of settler colonialism include: lack of clean drinking water on reserves, housing crisis on reserves, environmental racism including pipeline occupations, and missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and men (MMIWGM).  

Despite hundreds of years of violence and trauma inflicted on Indigenous peoples, we are reclaiming our power and agency across Turtle Island to assert our inherent rights and revitalize cultural knowledge and traditions.  

Sources and further learning:  

Canada’s Obligation to End First Nations Water Crisis (Human Rights Watch) 

Canada Sides with a Pipeline – Violating Wet’suwet’en Laws and It’s Own (Grist) 

8 Things You Need to Know About on Reserve Housing Issues (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.) 

Toxic Legacy: The Fight to End Environmental Racism in Canada (Al Jazeera) 

What is the MMIW Movement?   

National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Final Report  

From Immersion Camps to Podcasts Innovation Attracts New Indigenous Language Learners (CBC Radio Unreserved) 

This Plant Medicine Teacher is Reclaiming Anishinaabe Names for Species – Here’s Why (CBC) 

Miigwech (Anishinaabemowin), Yaw’ko (Oneida), Anushiik (Lenape)

THE 2022 NATIONAL DAY FOR TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMITTEE

For their good work and assistance in making this gathering happen.

OUR HONOURED PARTNERS

Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, City of London, Oneida Nation of the Thames, and Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre.

OUR CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS EDUCATION PAGE

Dennis Whiteye, Tammy Doxtator, Alana Pawley, Cassandra Harris, Alizabeth George-Antone, Jason George, Todd Cornelius, Natasha Timothy, Nancy Deleary.