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Canadians are divided on history and impact of residential schools


The public remains divided in opinion about Canada’s dark history when it comes to Indian residential schools, according to a recent opinion poll.

Just over half of Canadians (54%) said the legacy of colonialism is still a problem today in Canada, with two in five disagreeing, according to the results of a survey by the Angus Reid Institute released today, Oct. 5.

The poll showed many Canadians are still divided on whether the residual trauma and harm from residential schools has been resolved or if it continues to effect Indigenous lives and communities.

Women, more so than men, tended to believe the issue has still not reached a resolution.

When asked if they believe the harm has been largely resolved, almost half of young male participants aged 18 to 34 agreed. Older men tended to disagree, with this only 37% saying this statement was true. 

Meanwhile, most young women (65%) said that the harm from residential schools will continue for many generations and the government will need to continue to provide support from all levels. Half of women over 35 also agreed.

Indigenous participants tended to agree with 56% saying the trauma of residential school will continue for many generations.

“In recent years, discussion and debate has emerged among some populations about conditions within residential schools, and the ultimate aims of their construction,” the Angus Reid Institute media release said. “Some have called this residential school denialism, the idea that schools had positive goals and that children who died there were just as likely to have died in other settings.”

When asked what they thought caused the of death of children in residential schools, the majority of Canadians said neglect. One in five think that Indigenous children were purposefully killed in a cultural genocide and 13% said it was due to uncontrollable factors. 

Those who identified as Indigenous answered similarly, with 38% saying it was because of neglect, one third believing they were killed purposefully and 13% saying it was uncontrollable factors.

Two in five of the Caucasian group said neglect was the cause of death and just under a third said they weren’t sure.

The issue was also divisive across the political and cultural spectrum.

Just under half of those who identified as “zealous activists” said neglect, while 37% said it was purposeful.

Two thirds of “defiant objectors” claim the deaths were uncontrollable and 35% of the “conflicted middle” said they didn’t know.

When asked whether the names of historical figures associated with residential schools should be removed or changed in public places, the public was less divided.

Close to a third of Indigenous participants said that names of historical figures associated with residential schools should be left unchanged and two in five Caucasian participants agreed.

“In recent years, statues of John A. MacDonald, the first prime minister of Canada, have been toppled or vandalized, and the names of MacDonald, Egerton Ryerson, and others have been removed from public buildings and institutions in favour of more inclusive monikers,” the media release read.

Generally, the Canadian public is in agreement with 45% saying that context is important and that communities should look at these on a case-by-case basis, and 39% saying that names should not be changed.

However, there was not a definite consensus among participants on whether the impacts of colonialism can be seen today in our modern culture.

In the poll it was clear that both women and younger Canadians were much more likely to say that the impact of colonialism is still a modern problem. Contrary to this, half of men older than 34 believe the legacy of colonialism is not an issue today.

Three in five of Indigenous respondents said that they believe colonialism is still a problem. Close to a third of this same group (27%) said that it is a huge problem.

Just over half of the Caucasian respondents said they agree that the legacy of colonialism lives on, but they are more likely to disagree (43%) than Indigenous respondents (34%).

The question became even more divisive among cultural and political groups.

Almost all of the participants (94%) who identified as a “zealous activist” were in agreement that colonialism is a problem today. The “conflicted middle” were more divided, with close to two-in-five saying that colonialism isn’t an issue.

Meanwhile the “frustrated sceptics” (55%) and “defiant objectors” (84%) were far more in agreement that Canada’s colonialist past poses no problems in modern day.

It has been 15 years since the Truth and Reconciliation committee was established and more than eight years since their findings were shared.

The vast majority of British Columbians believe that the situation of Indigenous Peoples has improved in the province (82%) since then. However, that sentiment is much lower in Manitoba (39%) and Saskatchewan (39%), the provinces with the largest and second-largest proportion of Indigenous Peoples in the country.

For those that identify as Indigenous, half said that their situation has improved a bit or a lot of the past 10 to 15 years, while a third believe their position has stayed about the same.

“Indigenous Peoples in Canada have access to social programs, non-insured health benefits, tax exemptions and other rights and benefits not available to non-Indigenous Peoples. More than half (55%) of Canadians believe this should be the case, as Indigenous Peoples ‘have an inherently unique status because their ancestors were here first,’” the Angus Reid Institute said on its website. “Two-in-five (45%) disagree, saying that there should be no special status conferred to Indigenous Peoples in modern Canada.”

Those who identified as “zealous activists” were almost all in agreement that Indigenous Peoples deserve a unique status. Meanwhile, the “conflicted middle” were close to evenly split and most “defiant objectors” said that Indigenous Peoples should have the same status as other Canadians.

In BC this opinion is fairly evenly split, with 55% saying that Indigenous Peoples in Canada have an inherently unique status because their ancestors were here first, before Europeans settled here.

Most young people (71%) agree, while 56% of people aged 65 or older said that, in modern Canada, Indigenous Peoples should have no special status that other Canadians don’t have.

Most Indigenous participants (62%) said that they fundamentally believe Indigenous Peoples have a unique status and even more in the Visible Minority group (65%) said the same.

To find out more about the poll, visit the Angus Reid Institute website here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Georgina Whitehouse or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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