Public attitudes about reconciliation shifting: report

By Dave Baxter
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Winnipeg Sun

An increasing number of Canadians recognize the harms and trauma residential schools inflicted on generations of Indigenous people, according to a new study but some experts say along with that a disturbing trend of residential school denialism also continues to grow.

“We cannot discount or deny the dangerous rise in denialism in both mainstream and online media,” National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) executive director Stephanie Scott said in a Wednesday media release. This is why our work is so crucial; we are amplifying the voices of residential school Survivors.

“Their truths must be heard.”

Scott’s comments come in reaction to the release of the second national Canadian Reconciliation Barometer, a study conducted by a group of researchers from Canadian universities investigating public perceptions of progress towards reconciliation with Indigenous people in Canada.

The report shows awareness of the history of residential schools has increased in Canada since 2021, and increased significantly among non-Indigenous people, as 90% of non-Indigenous respondents said they had previously read or heard about residential schools, up from just 65% in 2021.

Awareness about residential schools has also grown among Indigenous people in Canada up from 87% of respondents in 2021, to 94%.

The study also shows other important measures of reconciliation have not improved or improved “only slightly,” including the number of non-Indigenous people engaging with Indigenous people, and spending time in Indigenous communities.

“We are still far apart on a lot of issues and progress is slow in many areas,” the report states. “For example, non-Indigenous people are not yet taking that next step in reconciliation, such as getting to know Indigenous communities in their area, taking in Indigenous cultural events and trying to learn more.”

The study also shows that since 2021, non-Indigenous respondents reported a better understanding of the harm government policies have caused to Indigenous peoples, as 66% of non-Indigenous respondents agreed that governments in Canada have harmed Indigenous peoples “intentionally, systematically, and for a long time,” up from 57% in 2021.

Ry Moran, a team member on the study, and an associate university librarian, reconciliation, at the University of Victoria, said he believes education about residential schools must be implemented in schools, and in all areas of society for reconciliation efforts and perceptions to improve.

“Awareness is the start of the journey,” Moran said. “It helps open the door for further learning and paves the way for deeper and more meaningful engagement with the historical and contemporary realities faced by Indigenous peoples.

“We need to be cautious that we don’t rush into thinking we are further ahead than we are.”

Andrew Woolford, a University of Manitoba professor of sociology and criminology who has spent years researching Canada’s residential school system, said in a Nov. 20 interview that while understanding of the realities of residential schools has grown, he also agrees that there has been a growing movement of denialism.

“Certainly there is a lot of denial that we see about the harms of residential school, specifically now on social media,” Woolford said. “So it’s important that we continue to work to establish a basic-ground level truth that we can all subscribe to, rather than continuing to debate about if residential schools were harmful.”

The findings in the report were gathered from experts at the University of Manitoba, the University of Victoria, and Toronto Metropolitan University, in collaboration with The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and Probe Research Inc.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.