Phil Fontaine is a Survivor, TRC Honorary Witness, and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He writes the Foreword to new book A Knock at the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools, by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, reproduced below.
My name is Phil Fontaine and I am a survivor.
Survivor is a word that years ago I used in hushed tones to describe my experience at Indian Residential School. But that was then. I have now come to say the word louder and more imbued with pride with every passing year of my life. This year, “survivor” has reached a crescendo.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, and its findings, represents a historic moment for all survivors; for all Indigenous people everywhere. It is, I think, a historic moment for Canada, the significance of which rests in not only what has been, but also what is to come.
I cannot speak for every survivor—each of us has our own story—but we do have common characteristics. As survivors, we number in the thousands. But if you count our brothers and sisters who are no longer with us, we number in the hundreds of thousands, possibly many more. All of us, the living and the dead, endured the effects of a policy that sought transformation—transformation of us as a people, as parents, grandparents, a transformation of all of our descendants—forever.
And so, the story of how we came to be here today is a long and painful one. The release, the publishing, the official stamp upon the findings of the Commission represents a monumental moment, and it will help put our shared collective pain behind us.
I am pleased to write this foreword to A Knock on the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This book presents the history of the Residential School system in a way that makes it accessible to all Canadians.
It addresses one of the key objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: to educate all Canadians about the Residential School experience and how this sad chapter in our shared history has affected the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people today.
The Commission spent five years putting together a report that was given life by the thousands of stories from survivors who experienced the misguided experiment of assimilation. Their contribution is immense, and their truths now enshrined for all time. Because of this hard work, our history can no longer be denied.
The incontrovertible historical record before us, before all of Canada, has put an official limit on “the range of permissible lies,” to use Michael Ignatieff’s term.
By describing and validating our story, the Report validates Canada’s story. It demonstrates the righteousness and importance of our struggle. It tells us how the fundamental systems of governance failed to protect our social, economic, and cultural rights.
Education; health care; justice; child welfare: all of these systems and benefits are enjoyed, rightfully so, without a second thought by non-Indigenous Canadians. For Indigenous Canadians, wrongfully so, access to high quality education, health care, justice, child welfare was a passing dream.
What the Commission’s Report tells us is that Canada is indeed in need of transformation, but that transformation is not of us. What is needed is for Canada to transform itself to embrace our true, shared culture and history—to understand that we are all, in fact, in this together.
This year happens to be the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the great charter that inspired the Royal Proclamation of 1763—our Magna Carta—which in turn inspired the Commission and its prescriptions for reconciliation.
It has taken until 2015 to get here. It took the revelation of the experiences of residential school survivors to crystallize the reality that Canada was not the nation we wished it to be. But even so, beyond my fellow survivors I know that this would not have happened without the help of our allies. There are too many to name, and so to mention but a few I thank, first, the Chief Justice of Canada, the Rt. Hon. Beverley McLachlin, for speaking the words that could not be spoken: that what Canada did to us was cultural genocide. From the Supreme Court of Canada, she changed the vocabulary and narrative around residential schools. I thank the Hon. Frank Iacobucci for his commitment to bring about a settlement that everyone could live with. I thank the negotiators for their tenacity. I thank the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin for his support throughout. I give thanks to the Commissioners for their compassionate work, for their courage, their patience, their protection, their understanding, their vision, and their wisdom. Their work affirms the survivors’ legacy.
The attempt to transform us failed. The true legacy of the survivors, then, will be the transformation of Canada.
Boys playing hockey at the McIntosh, Ontario school. Many students said that they would not have survived their residential school years, were it not for sports. St. Boniface Historical Society, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Manitoba Province Fonds, SHSB 29362.
Inuit students at the Joseph Bernier School, Chesterfield Inlet, 1956. Diocese of Churchill-Hudson Bay. Courtesy of the TRC.
Text and images from the book A Knock at the Door: The Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Edited and Abridged, © 2015, by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Published by University of Manitoba Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
About A Knock at the Door:
“It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer.” So began the school experience of many Indigenous children in Canada for more than a hundred years, and so begins the history of residential schools prepared by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). Between 2008 and 2015, the TRC provided opportunities for individuals, families, and communities to share their experiences of residential schools and released several reports based on 7000 survivor statements and five million documents from government, churches, and schools, as well as a solid grounding in secondary sources.
A Knock on the Door, published in collaboration with the National Research Centre for Truth & Reconciliation, gathers material from the several reports the TRC has produced to present the essential history and legacy of residential schools in a concise and accessible package that includes new materials to help inform and contextualize the journey to reconciliation that Canadians are now embarked upon.
Survivor and former National Chief of the Assembly First Nations, Phil Fontaine, provides a Foreword, and an Afterword introduces the holdings and opportunities of the National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation, home to the archive of recordings, and documents collected by the TRC.
As Aimée Craft writes in the Afterword, knowing the historical backdrop of residential schooling and its legacy is essential to the work of reconciliation. In the past, agents of the Canadian state knocked on the doors of Indigenous families to take the children to school. Now, the Survivors have shared their truths and knocked back. It is time for Canadians to open the door to mutual understanding, respect, and reconciliation.
The Essential History of Residential Schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Edited and Abridged
“It can start with a knock on the door one morning. It is the local Indian agent, or the parish priest, or, perhaps, a Mounted Police officer.” So began the school experience of many Indigenous children in Canada for more than a hundred years, and so begins the history of residential schools prepared by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of …