September 30, 2021

By Aline Coutinho

Today marks the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a statutory holiday to honour Survivors, their families, and communities. The day seeks to ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remain a vital component of the reconciliation process. This is a day of facing uncomfortable truths and of deepening our reflection about the impacts of our history, while reflecting on the best way to move forward.

This blog invites a discussion about the environmental legacy of residential schools, and questions how we can design environmental policies to advance reconciliation, sustainability, and inclusive economic growth.


The legacy of residential schools: confronting hard truths

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada presents a harrowing description of the continuous humiliation and abusive forms of discipline, punishment, and deprivation that Aboriginal[1] children endured in residential schools. This system was set in place to discount, erode, and destroy Indigenous cultural traditions and language, which has left a complex and long lasting legacy.

Residential schools have not only inflicted an immense amount of suffering on Indigenous children, their parents and communities, but they have created, reproduced and exacerbated significant educational, income, and health disparities. Residential schools have lasting intergenerational effects both on the physical and mental well-being of Indigenous populations in Canada. A systematic review of empirical literature indicates that some of these health outcomes are poorer general health, increased rates of chronic and infectious diseases, mental distress and depression, substance addiction and mis-use, suicidal ideation, and stress. These effects are felt not only by Survivors, but also by their descendants and larger Indigenous communities, something scholars and advocates refer to as intergenerational or historical trauma.


The less-discussed environmental legacy of residential schools

Indigenous Peoples have developed complex and sophisticated knowledge systems that integrate the material, semiotic, and spiritual life. Although Indigenous Peoples and communities have diverse languages, kinship and governance systems, and cultural traditions, a common worldview is the understanding of nature as the source of all creation, existence, and survival. Nature, in this case, is framed as animate and inanimate entities and their spirits. John Grim refers to this commonality as Indigenous lifeways, the relationship with the land that is not driven by profitability and ownership, but stewardship, deference, and subsistence. These lifeways encompass human-Earth relationships that are responsible and respectful to the environment.

Residential schools severed much of the transmission and acquisition of traditional Indigenous knowledge, which relies on role modelling, storytelling, and ceremonies, as reported by Anishinaabe-Kwe (Ojibwe woman) writer, Cheryle Partridge. Residential schools were a vector of cultural genocide, destabilizing the Indigenous relationship with the land and the environment. Indeed, the history of residential schools is deeply connected to environmental history. Residential schools were a central mechanism to secure land for non-Indigenous peoples and communities, as well as to impose Western land-use patterns and practices by forcing Indigenous children to become farmers and farmers’ wives.


Designing inclusive environmental policies rooted in Truth and Reconciliation

It is not enough to learn about hard historical truths. We must confront their continued influence on the way we interact with nature, address environmental problems, and design environmental policies. With this blog post, we invite a deeper conversation about the environmental legacy of the residential school system, as well as Canada’s broader colonial history, in the hope that this can stimulate the co-design of reconciliatory and inclusive environmental policies. What follows are some considerations that have been informing the Smart Prosperity Institute’s research agenda on inclusion and justice in the green economy.


Incorporate decolonizing principles in environmental research and policies

Organizations and representatives that have been involved in the redress and healing movements use a wide range of approaches and methods to address the legacy of residential schools. Despite these differences, a fundamental similarity is the call to incorporate decolonizing principles in practice, research design, knowledge making and sharing, and policies. It is important to recognize that the residential school system was a narrow slice of a broader colonial system that favoured Euro-Western knowledge systems. Some have argued that it is important to move beyond reconciliation towards decolonization. While the former involves repairing damages, providing reparations, and other concrete actions, decolonization involves dismantling oppressive structures and decentering Western knowledge systems. Neither reconciliation nor decolonization can be performed perfunctorily. Both should involve a transformative, ongoing process that includes the recognition of systemic and historical injustices, and efforts to acknowledge and centre Indigenous perspectives.


Advance procedural justice

Efforts to make environmental policies more inclusive must not engage in tokenism. It is important to avoid symbolic efforts to include Indigenous perspectives or recruit Indigenous Peoples only to give the appearance of fair treatment. Tokenistic processes of “participation” can further alienate Indigenous Peoples and communities. There is nothing intrinsic in consultations and consented participation that can guarantee adequate levels of dialogue and engagement.

Environmental research and policy-making processes should advance procedural justice by considering who gets to participate in their design, implementation, and evaluation. This can take many forms; what is important is to respectfully and meaningfully engage with Indigenous communities.


Incorporate traditional ecological knowledge in the advancement of place-based environmental policies

Indigenous knowledge systems revolve around oral traditions, accumulated experience and wisdom, and know-how that is unique to each Nation or group and the environment they inhabit. Indigenous groups have accumulated an acute understanding of the characteristics, changes, challenges, and potential of particular biomes and ecosystems. Incorporating traditional ecological knowledge (i.e. the body of knowledge that Indigenous Peoples generated over a long period of time and transmitted by oral accounts) is an important step towards Reconciliation. Additionally, co-designing place-based environmental policies with Indigenous Peoples can improve the development of environmental policies by making them more attuned to each context and its challenges.

Today is a day to honour Survivors. But it is also a day that invites a reflection on how environmental policies may exacerbate or reproduce historical inequities; how to better design community-based, culturally appropriate, and inclusive environmental policies; and how to co-design policies that can reconcile sustainable economic prosperity with supporting Indigenous communities and meaningfully contributing to Truth and Reconciliation.



[1] Both the Constitution of Canada (Section 35) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports use the terminology “Aboriginal”. Some writers and activists use the term interchangeably with “Indigenous”, but several Indigenous groups have reported their preference to the latter because it acknowledges the international legal right to both participate in decision-making in matters that affect their right, and to offer or withhold consent in adopting or implementing legislative measures under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (cf. Articles 18 and 19). For this reason, hereafter, the text will use “Indigenous Peoples and communities” as an umbrella term to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.