Truth and Reconciliation – A Place to Start

[Note from Gillian Calder and Rebecca Johnson:  We came across this lovely TRC Action Plan, produced by Sarah Robinson, a former law student.  It left us thinking about all the different ways people might not only think about their own TRC learning plans, but also about the ways such plans might be helpful with people in their classrooms, families, or communities.  We asked her if it could be shared here as a resource, and invited her to reflect on her own experiences of the ways people at different stages of their own work might begin to think about their own learning journeys]

Truth and Reconciliation – A Place to Start

Sarah Robinson

TRC Action Plan, page 1

Many Canadians – including those working in legal and justice systems –  find truth and reconciliation efforts overwhelming, and often express that they don’t know where to start.

If you feel that way, know that you’re not alone.  Many online resources exist to help build understanding about Indigenous perspectives, including a free Truth and Reconciliation Personal Action Plan [link to:] to help you get started.

Hundreds of Indigenous cultures exist in the lands now known as Canada. Many continue to operate under complex legal systems that have existed for millennia, and all have been impacted by the recent introduction of Canadian law.

Aaron Paquette, an Indigenous[i] artist and politician, once remarked that

If you’re born Indigenous, you’re born political. From birth, the government is intensely interested in who you are [and] where you live… Indigenous lives are the most legislated lives in Canada.[ii]

Screenshot 2020-05-07 13.55.34
TRC Action Plan, page 2

To understand what this means, we must examine the dominant legal system that now operates in the territories now known as Canada. Interrogating this legal system exposes its Euro-Christian foundations and brings its histories into the realm of light and truth. Seeking truth is a necessary component of each Canadian’s responsibility to reconciliation.[iii]

Generally, a legal system is a mirror of the society in which it develops, and of the people who hold power in that society. Western legal systems – including contemporary Canadian and provincial legal regimes – are built upon Euro-Christian worldviews, beliefs, and values, such as patriarchy, private property, wealth accumulation, individual rights, and elections-based governments. These approaches sit in contrast to many Indigenous worldviews, beliefs, and values, such as matriarchy, communal use of places, wealth distribution, collective rights, and accountability-based governments. None of these systems are perfect. All cultures and legal systems offer successes, challenges, and room for improvement.

However, it is vital to appreciate that all legal systems uphold and replicate – both visibly and invisibly – particular worldviews, beliefs, and values.

When settlers first arrived, they may have imported Euro-Christian values with them but they relied heavily on Indigenous allies and knowledge in order to survive. Many Indigenous communities recount oral histories about their first interactions, in which the newcomers were often lost, hungry, and in need of help. The newcomers brought new diseases to this continent and epidemics quickly swept through Indigenous communities, decimating some populations by up to 90%.[iv] Simultaneously, thousands of settlers continued arriving to “the colonies,” their occupation made easier as railways and other forms of transportation improved. By the time colonial leaders began drafting legislation about Indigenous peoples, settlers physically outnumbered Indigenous peoples. Due in part to this, the colonial legal system eventually took hold as the dominant legal system in the developing geopolitical country of Canada.

In 1850, colonial legislation established a legal distinction between Indigenous peoples and settlers by defining – from the colonial government’s perspective – who is an “Indian.”[v] Subsequent legislation clarified that a “person” was an “individual other than an Indian.”[vi] In 1869, the colonial government implemented a patriarchal approach to Indian Status and identity control, which erased the legally-recognized Indigenous identities of innumerable Indigenous women and children. (In fact, Bonita Lawrence estimates this figure to be in the millions[vii]). Over time, Canadian legislation effectively dispossessed these millions of Indigenous individuals from their territories, thereby opening up the land for settlement. This oppressive legislative approach was finally revised in 1985, but the damage done by this 116-year regime remains widespread.

To reiterate: from 1869-1985 Indian Status had nothing to do with Indigenous ancestry. (For an excellent overview, see Val Napoleon’s work[viii]). Indian Status was established to legally create, erase, and control Indigenous identities and bodies by regulating who can do what and where. The Pass System is a disturbing example.[ix] From the 1880s until the 1930s, Status Indians were supposed to seek a written pass from their local Indian Agent before leaving their reserve. This allowed Indian Agents to monitor and control Indigenous people’s movement. There was no legislative basis for this approach. Instead, rations and other “privileges” were withheld from those who did not comply, although the most effective compliance approach was to have the police arrest those found off-reserve without a pass.[x] In 1902, a commission from South Africa visited Canada to study its Pass System as a method of social control,[xi] and passes later became a cornerstone of South African apartheid.

It is curious that Canadian legislation about Indigenous peoples presents a paradox of “protective assimilation,” [xii] in that it acknowledges Indigenous peoples’ unique rights while concurrently placing strict restraint on Indigenous identities, and therefore Indigenous bodies.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada released 94 Calls to Action, [link to:] which place responsibility on the shoulders of each Canadian to learn about and unpack these histories. Of particular significance are Calls to Action 25-42, which are directed at those working in legal and justice systems.

There is no time like the present to begin righting the wrongs of the past. As the TRC Final Report encourages, “the country has a rare second chance” to pursue truth and reconciliation.[xiii] Download your free Truth and Reconciliation Personal Action Plan [link to:] to get started, and be part of the change.


[i] Although this blog post frequently uses the word Indigenous (which signals Inuit, First Nations, and Métis peoples), its content speaks to legislation that was somewhat targeted to First Nations. However, all Indigenous peoples are impacted by colonial legal systems that interfere with Indigenous experiences, including defining and categorizing different types of Indigenous identities in the first place.

[ii] CBC. I Am Indigenous.

[iii] As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Final Report stated, “reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one.” TRC Summary Report, vi.

[iv] I am married into the Toquaht Nation, one of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations on the west-coast of what is now called Vancouver Island. Toquaht was once a Nation of thousands. After disease epidemics passed through, around 30 remained.

[v] An Act for the better protection of the Lands and Property of the Indians in Lower Canada. August 10, 1850.

[vi] The Indian Act, 1876.

[vii] Bonita Lawrence. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (UBC Press: 2004), 56. Check this book out for a brilliant and comprehensive analysis of the impact that Indian Status has had on Indigenous women, children, Nations, territories, and identities.

[viii] Val Napoleon. “Extinction by Number: Colonialism Made Easy.” Canadian Journal of Law & Society (2001)16, 117.

[ix] A documentary about the Pass System is available at:

[x] John Giokas. “The Indian Act: Evolution, Overview and Options for Amendment and Transition” (March 22, 1995), 45.

[xi] F. Laurie Barron. “The Indian Pass System in the Canadian West, 1882-1935.”

[xii] For an interesting overview of the “protective assimilation” paradox and its presence in colonial policies about Indigenous peoples, see: John Giokas. “The Indian Act: Evolution, Overview and Options for Amendment and Transition” (March 22, 1995), 2.

[xiii] TRC Summary Report, 7.


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