Truth and Reconciliation: Canadians see value in report, skeptical government will act

While many Canadians are cautiously optimistic that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a valuable process, they are skeptical that the federal government will take meaningful action, according to a 2015 Angus Reid Institute public opinion poll.

7 of 10 Canadians agree with TRC's characterization of residential schools as 'cultural genocide'

Drummers pass Parliament Hill as they lead the Walk for Reconciliation, part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on May 31, 2015 in Ottawa. A poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute found that Canadians are cautiously optimistic about the far-reaching impact of the TRC report. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

While many Canadians are cautiously optimistic that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a valuable process, they are rather skeptical about whether their government will take meaningful action, according to an Angus Reid Institute online public opinion poll published Tuesday.

The TRC's final report was released in June 2015, documenting six years of hearings and testimony from over 6,000 survivors of residential schools, whom the report said lived through a "cultural genocide" over seven generations.

Justice Murray Sinclair, who was tasked with studying the legacy of the schools, found that at least 6,000 children died while in the care of the school system that originated in the 19th century. The Canadian government at the time developed a policy of "aggressive assimilation," having aboriginal children taught at the church-run, government-funded schools. The last institution closed in 1996.

The ARI commissioned and conducted the poll from June 9-12, 2015 on a randomized sample of 1511 Canadian adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. 

'Cultural genocide'

The poll found that seven out of 10 Canadians recognize the TRC's characterization of the schools' behaviour as "cultural genocide," regardless of whether or not those polled have relationships with indigenous people. Even groups who tended to be less sympathetic to aboriginal causes in their answers — people in the prairie provinces, past Conservative Party voters and those without relationships with indigenous people, for example — predominantly recognized it as a "cultural genocide."

Almost half of respondents said the process has been worthwhile for Canadians while larger numbers said it was particularly valuable for First Nations and even more so for residential school survivors. 

Just 63 per cent said they are optimistic the TRC's report will create a better situation for aboriginal people, with only 7 per cent saying they are "very optimistic." 

Two out of five Canadians (43 per cent) feel the federal government will take less restorative action than they believe it should, according to the poll.

Strong support for TRC recommendations

The ARI canvassed Canadians and selected eight of the original 94 recommendations put forth by the TRC that it felt captured the attention of the country at large. Canadians strongly supported seven of those eight recommendations, with the exception being memorializing residential schools with public monuments in Ottawa and other provincial and territorial capitals.

Two of the eight recommendations received 80 per cent support. One called for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and the other suggested adding aboriginal history to all Canadian school curriculums, including the history of residential schools.

A TRC recommendation calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women received 80 per cent support in the poll. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Popular support for the recommendations did not reach across the entire country, with more muted responses in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and to a lesser extent, Alberta. In Saskatchewan, most people are opposed to five of the eight recommendations.

Though 42 per cent of Canadians feel not enough attention is being given to aboriginal issues, many say this will not affect their vote in the upcoming federal election. Canadians are split on who would better handle these issues were it a larger election topic. Over one third (38 per cent) feel NDP leader Thomas Mulcair would be best suited while the remaining 62 per cent was split evenly between Prime Minster Stephen Harper and Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau. 

Half of Canadians are uncertain about how the TRC will affect their own hometowns and communities, which could speak to a disconnect they feel towards the issues reported on.

News of the TRC and aboriginal issues has caught the attention of roughly half of Canadians, with most of those being highly educated, more likely to have relationships with aboriginal Canadians or are aboriginals themselves, the poll found.