Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action for Career Development

Truth and reconciliation, hand-crafted bead work

For six years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada documented Canada’s 120+ year-long history of Indian Residential Schools (IRS), exposing a legacy of physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse, the destruction of Indigenous families and communities, and the cultural genocide of Indigenous Peoples.

Truth can be difficult to hear, and learning about Canada’s history of residential schools can be unsettling. A statement taken from the preface of the summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada acknowledges this: “The stories of that experience are sometimes difficult to accept as something that could have happened in a country such as Canada, which has long prided itself on being a bastion of democracy, peace, and kindness throughout the world.” However, the survivors of IRS have a shared vision of dialogue and healing, to learn hard lessons so they will never be repeated. Reconciliation is not only about the past; it is about a just and equal future that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people will forge together.

The work of the commission completed in 2015, but there is still much work to do moving forward. Every resident of Canada has a role to play in reconciliation, and as CDPs, we have an ethical duty to “promote equality of opportunity” under Section 1.g. of of our Canadian Standards and Guidelines for Career Development Professionals (S&G’s Code of Ethics). We owe Indigenous clients an ethical obligation to learn about and denounce the systems of oppression, both historical and current, that impact their work and personal lives.

History of Residential Schools

Indian Residential Schools operated in Canada from before Confederation in 1867 until the final school closed in the mid-1990s. In 1883, they officially became part of a coherent political policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples, and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will. In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men. 

Indian Residential School policy took children from their families and communities, placing them in church-run schools, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away from their homes. Parents could not object; from 1884 until 1969, school attendance was required under the Indian Act, and enforced by the RCMP. Once at the school, children were not allowed to speak their language or practice their cultural and spiritual beliefs.

Learning often came second; children’s labour was frequently used to supplement the schools’ budgets. They worked in school gardens and kitchens, cultivating and preparing crops to feed the staff. Children’s labour outside the school, as farm hands, domestic labourers, and artisans, brought revenue into many schools. When learning did occur, curriculum in many schools did not meet provincial standards, and instead was used to reinforce European cultural and religious beliefs.

A lack of adequate supervision led to tremendous physical, sexual, and mental abuse at the hands of school and church representatives. Poor food, shelter, and healthcare resulted in high death rates among the children. When they died, children were often buried in school-run graveyards, either because their families were never notified of their death or because the school refused to return the children’s bodies to their families.

In 1969, the federal government slowly began to move away from their official policy of Indian Residential Schools; however, a lack of access to local education options in remote communities across Canada necessitated the continuation of some schools until the mid 1990s. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the continuation of abuse, and destruction of Indigenous families during this time.

Truth and Reconciliation, Calls to Action

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made 94 Calls to Action, a series of recommendations for government, civil society, and all Canadians to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation in Canada. Of particular significance for the Career Development sector is Call to Action 7: “We call upon the federal government to develop with Aboriginal groups a joint strategy to eliminate educational and employment gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.”

Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe broadcaster and advocate reminded us that “Indigenous people are largely in a period of healing. The process of healing from centuries of genocide, marginalization and injustice takes time, likely generations, and cannot be expedited to meet the timelines of any individual’s, organization’s or government’s vision of reconciliation.”

As of December 2019, many Calls to Action remain unfulfilled. While it may take generations for Indigenous communities to heal, non-Indigenous Canadians cannot allow the efforts of reconciliation to fade without realizing that a transformed relationship with Indigenous Peoples is a gift to all Canadians.

Build Trust to Help Break the Cycle of Systemic Oppression

All Canadians — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous — must be part of the healing process for reconciliation to flourish. Building trust is the first step to becoming allies. To build trust, we need to value Indigenous culture and worldviews, and respect Indigenous people as equals in Canada.

If you are not part of the Indigenous community, you may not have been exposed to the truth about Canada’s history of institutional racism and oppression. Begin by educating yourself. Listen to and amplify Indigenous peoples’ voices. Join events that Indigenous practitioners attend, such as Cannexus, Canada’s largest career development conference. Download and study CERIC’s full chapter of Career Development Through an Aboriginal Lens: Exploring Career Development and Planning in Canada. Read their reference guide on working with Inuit clients. Keep up with other Indigenous resources and news as it develops, as well.

As a community-driven social enterprise, CPC members collaborate to maximize our collective social impact. CPC is working very hard to add benefits and resources designed to make our profession more inclusive. This article is part of a series to help develop better understanding of the Indigenous population in Canada and the career professionals who support them. Read more about Indigenous Peoples in Canada in this Primer for Career Development Professionals.

Gabrielle LeClair is Master-Certified Career Strategist of Métis and Dutch ancestry. Founder and Principal Consultant of GDL Consulting, a boutique consulting firm, Gabrielle specializes in the confluence of career development and adult education. In online and in-person classrooms, Gabrielle supports and mentors professionals in all stages of their career to increase their impact with clients. As senior advisor, certification chair, and standards manager of Career Professionals of Canada, Gabrielle has developed course curriculum and supports career practitioners in expanding their professional competencies.

Photo by Tom Grundy on 123RF

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