Imagine: You are a child. You are taken from your community, and from your parents, by strangers. By canoe, by plane, by train — sometimes as far as 4,000 kilometres. The first day of school, your name is taken away and you are given a number. For Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild, that number was 65.
Littlechild survived for over a decade in Ermineskin Indian Residential School south of Edmonton. He went on to earn the first law degree by a First Nation person in Alberta, serve as a Member of Parliament, and two terms with the United Nations as a parliamentary delegate.
In 2009, Littlechild became one of three commissioners appointed to head Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission released its final report two years ago, and a few weeks ago he told his story, and the story of Canada’s dark colonial legacy, to students, staff and faculty of the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.
'Darkest and most unknown chapter in Canadian history'
“The era of residential schools has been categorized as the saddest, darkest and most unknown chapter in Canadian history,” Littlechild told an audience that also included members of the public, health professionals and Indigenous communities, as he discussed the report’s seven health-related calls to action at the annual Clarence Guenter Lecture on Global Health. “Reconciliation is a process of healing, and it will require action to address the destructive impacts on Aboriginal health and general welfare from this legacy.”
The TRC’s final report — built upon six years of testimony gathered from across Canada — contains historical details and first-hand accounts of what happened in residential schools, as well as 10 guiding principles and 94 recommendations, or calls to action.
Littlechild discussed the calls to action relevant to the health realm and medical profession, but also touched on the details — the parents left behind, the cultural, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse with which many survivors and their families still struggle, and the resulting health challenges that continue to this day. He also spoke of the estimated 6,000 children who never came home, succumbing to diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza and tuberculosis. Or the children who ran away in attempts to return home, but never made it back to their families.
“As a school, we are committed to try and find ways to make health for all become a reality,” said Dr. Jon Meddings, Cumming School of Medicine dean. “It was an incredible honour for us to have Chief Littlechild share his experience and expertise with us. He truly spoke from the heart, which was felt by everyone in attendance.”
The role of the medical school
Acknowledging that the health disparities currently experienced by Indigenous people in Canada are a direct result of past government policies, including residential schools, is critical for moving forward, said Littlechild.
“What were the consequences of health from the residential school? Cancer, homelessness, diabetes, obesity, the suppressed anger of survivors who haven’t dealt with their pain — which causes different kinds of addictions and can translate into violence,” he said.
Referencing several existing international legal standards, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Littlechild told the audience that the framework for reconciliation exists — what is needed now is leadership to put it into action.
Dr. William Ghali participated in a listening panel made up of Cumming School leadership after Littlechild’s talk.
“I’m excited about the opportunities that the calls to action bring,” said Ghali, scientific director of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. “In public health there is a tremendous need for us to be attentive to all of the calls to action and I’m really keen to work with others in the institute (on their implementation).”
The way forward
After the final report was released, the federal government made a commitment that not only would the UNDRIP be adopted, but that all the TRC calls to action would be implemented in Canada, a commitment that Littlechild said makes him hopeful for the future.
“National reconciliation is crucial to addressing the wrongs of the past, improving health outcomes of today, and restoring the self-sufficiency and independence of Indigenous communities,” he said.
In Cree, Littlechild’s language, Miyowahkotowin, is the word for “having good relations” — something he says that, for him, sums up reconciliation. Meaningful relations and taking action while working in partnership — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike — to address the detrimental legacy of residential schools and move forward together.
The Guenter Lecture was hosted by the Indigenous Health Dialogue, an initiative within the Cumming School of Medicine that works with communities, internally and externally, on strategic directions for engagement in Indigenous health. This event was made possible through support from the Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement (SPaCE) team.