Truth and Reconciliation: Canadians see value in process, skeptical about government action

Truth and Reconciliation: Canadians see value in process, skeptical about government action

Seven-in-ten agree with the TRC’s characterization of residential schools as “cultural genocide.”

July 9, 2015 – Many Canadians believe the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a worthwhile process for their country, and most support its key recommendations, but that doesn’t mean they anticipate the federal government taking action.

Additionally, a large majority of Truth and reconciliationCanadians agree that the treatment of Aboriginal children under the residential schools policy amounted to a “cultural genocide,” and they feel this way regardless of whether they know any Indigenous people personally.

These are among the main findings of a new Angus Reid Institute public opinion poll on the TRC, its recommendations, and Aboriginal people in Canada.

Key Findings:

  • Almost half (48%) of Canadians say the process has been worthwhile for Canada as a whole, and larger numbers believe the process has been worthwhile for Aboriginal people, generally, and residential school survivors, specifically.
  • There is widespread support for many of the Commission’s key recommendations, and majority support for all but one of those canvassed, but two-in-five (43%) say they expect the federal government to take less action than they believe it should.
  • Seven-in-ten (70%) Canadians agree with the use of the term “cultural genocide” to describe the residential schools policy.

Widespread support for key TRC recommendations

For more than 100 years, Canada’s residential schools policy forcibly removed Aboriginal children from their communities and placed them in church-run boarding schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their native languages and from practicing indigenous traditions in order to try to assimilate Aboriginals into Euro-Canadian culture.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created as a result of the settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by residential school survivors against the federal government and the various churches that ran the schools. For five years, the TRC travelled the country meeting with survivors, gathering their testimony, and holding public events aimed at helping Canada heal.

News about the TRC and Aboriginal issues has the attention of roughly half of Canadians (51%). Some 17 per cent are following the story closely and discussing it with friends and family, and another one-third (35%) are seeing some media coverage and having the odd conversation it.

Those who are paying attention to the TRC story tend to be older and more highly educated. They’re also more likely to have close relationships with Aboriginal Canadians, or to be Aboriginal themselves:

truth and reconciliation

At the beginning of June, the TRC released a summary of its final report, which included 94 “calls to action” aimed at changing the way Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians “talk to, and about” each other.

The Angus Reid Institute asked Canadians whether they would support or oppose some of the Commission’s key recommendations. All of the eight measures receive majority support, except one: creating public monuments to residential schools in Ottawa and all provincial/territorial capitals.

Two recommendations have the backing of a strong majority (80%) of Canadians:

  • Creating a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women – this represents an increase since last year, when an Angus Reid Institute poll found three-quarters (73%) of Canadians in favour.
  • Adding Aboriginal history – including residential schools – to the standard curriculum for all Canadian students.

Support for the eight measures surveyed is summarized in the following graph:

first nations poll canada

This narrative of wide-ranging support for the TRC’s recommendations doesn’t hold true in all parts of the country, however. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba – and to a lesser extent Alberta, feelings are more muted.

In Saskatchewan, most are actually opposed to five of the eight measures. The only measures supported by a majority of residents there are the three that are most popular with the general population:

  • “Have Aboriginal history – including residential schools – part of the standard curriculum for all Canadian students in kindergarten through grade 12” (69%)
  • “Create a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women” (63%)
  • “Increase federal funding for on-reserve education” (55%)

Manitobans’ views of the recommendations are somewhat less negative, but their opposition to most measures is still markedly higher than that of people living in other provinces – especially Ontario and Quebec.

Will the TRC make life better for Aboriginal people?

The best phrase to describe Canadian views about the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on First Nations might be “cautiously optimistic.”

Just under two-thirds of Canadians (63%) say they’re optimistic the TRC process will result in “a better situation for Canada’s Aboriginal people”; only seven per cent say they’re “very optimistic.” A majority (56%) is “moderately optimistic.”

truth and reconciliation

Again, prairie residents – and on this question especially Albertans – as well as past Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) voters, take a more negative view. Among the most pessimistic are:

  • Fully half (50%) of Alberta residents
  • Almost half (48%) of Saskatchewan residents
  • 43 per cent of Manitobans
  • 48 per cent of past CPC voters

Women and younger Canadians are more likely to take the opposite position. Two-thirds each of women (68%) and those aged 18-34 (67%) are optimistic, compared to 56 per cent of men and 59 per cent of those over 55, respectively.

aboriginal truth and reconciliation

Were residential schools ‘cultural genocide’?

As the TRC’s five-year mandate drew to a close at the end of May, both its chairman Justice Murray Sinclair and Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin each described the residential schools policy as a “cultural genocide.”

As it turns out, a strong majority of Canadians (70%) agree with this characterization:

first nations poll

Those paying closer attention to news about the TRC are even more likely to agree: 77 per cent of those following the issue closely and 74 per cent of those who have seen a few stories and had the odd conversation.

Even among segments that tend to be less sympathetic to Aboriginal causes in their responses to this survey – prairie residents, past Conservative voters, and those without any personal connection to First Nations – majorities agree that Canada committed “cultural genocide” in carrying out the residential schools policy. This includes:

  • 54 per cent of Manitobans and 57 per cent of Saskatchewan residents
  • 57 per cent of people who voted for the Conservative party in the 2011 federal election
  • 71 per cent of those who don’t know any Aboriginal Canadians.

Has the TRC been worthwhile? And for whom?

With the Commission’s nationwide information gathering process now completed, most Canadians believe the TRC has been worthwhile for survivors of residential schools. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say this (see detailed tables at the end of this release).

An almost identical portion of the population believes the TRC has been worthwhile for Aboriginal Canadians generally, and a 48 per cent plurality believes it has been worthwhile for Canada as a whole.

public opinion

Canadians are much less certain about the value of the TRC process to their own communities. Fully half (50%) are uncertain of whether the Commission has been worthwhile for their hometown, and among those who have an opinion, more say the process has not been worthwhile (29%) than say it has (20%).

This finding speaks to a disconnect many Canadians may feel from this issue; while supporting the TRC and thinking it’s been a good thing for other people, they struggle to see the process affecting their communities or themselves directly.

This is especially true in rural areas, where 16 per cent feel the process has been worthwhile for their communities and twice as many (34%) say it has not. That said, half (50%) of rural Canadians are unsure how worthwhile the TRC has been.

On TRC recommendations, many expect government will do less than they say it should

The Angus Reid Institute also asked Canadians about the impact of the TRC on governance – namely:

  • what they think the federal government should do about these recommendations
  • what they think it will do about them.

On what the government should do, Canadians would like to see action. Three-in-ten (31%) say the government should move to implement most of the recommendations, and another third (34%) say it should address some of the main ones.

These percentages are notably higher than those for what people think the government actually will do:

truth and reconciliation

Looking at these two questions together, it becomes apparent that many Canadians believe their government will do less than they feel it should do on this file (see detailed tables at the end of this release).

Many say not enough attention paid to Aboriginal issues

In a similar vein, Canadians are more likely to say “not enough” attention is being paid – by government and others. This finding mirrors the result when ARI asked the same question last year.

public opinion

The roughly one-quarter (26%) who say too much attention is being paid to Aboriginal issues skews older, more Conservative, and includes a higher proportion of prairie residents.

Is this an election issue?

Though many Canadians are underwhelmed by the amount of attention Aboriginal issues receive, most are unlikely to base their vote in the upcoming federal election on this fact.

Asked to indicate how much of a factor Aboriginal affairs and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be for them in the 2015 election on a scale from 1 to 10, with a one meaning the issue is “not a factor at all” and a ten meaning “it’s the deciding factor,” most Canadians are closer to the former than the latter.

More people choose a one than any other individual option (23% do so), and just 2 per cent choose a ten. Looking at the numbers in aggregate, 87 per cent of Canadians choose a 7 or less on the scale:

residential schools canada

For comparison, on Bill C-51 and domestic terrorism, for example, more than one-in-five (21%) chose one of the top three numbers on the scale, as did 16 per cent of Canadians when asked about the Senate expenses scandal.

Which federal party leader is best on the issue?

If the TRC and Aboriginal issues were to define the campaign, Canadians are split on which of the three main party leaders would handle it best.

A plurality (38%) choose New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair, giving him an edge over Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau (31% each).

aboriginal truth and reconciliation

Each leader’s support is strongest among those who voted for his party in 2011. Regionally, Harper is the most popular choice in Alberta (where he gets 42% support), Saskatchewan (44%), Manitoba (42%), and Ontario (37%), but a full majority in Quebec (55%) choose Mulcair as the best to deal with the issue.

Support for party leaders is also correlated with the degree of government action Canadians would like to see on the issue.

Those who favour less action (i.e. studying the recommendations before doing anything else) or no action at all are more likely to say Harper is the best leader on the issue.

Those who favour implementing some or all of the Commission’s recommendations are more likely to choose Mulcair or – to a lesser extent – Trudeau.

Historical context

Skepticism about the relationship between the federal government and First Nations improving has been reflected in Canadian polling on Aboriginal issues for decades.

In 1991 – roughly a year after the Oka crisis in which the Canadian Armed Forces were sent to deal with a month-long standoff between Mohawks and local authorities near the town of Oka, Que., over plans to expand a golf course on land that included a Mohawk burial ground – an Ipsos-Reid poll found that three-quarters of Canadians (74%) felt that little or no progress had been made on addressing Aboriginal Canadians concerns’ after the crisis.

Similarly, after the 20th anniversary of the crisis in 2010, nearly four-in-five Canadians (79%) told Angus Reid Public Opinion they believed Oka could happen again.

In 2013, 43 per cent of Canadians said they felt relations between the federal government and First Nations had worsened since the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) came to power in 2006. Slightly fewer (38%) said relations had stayed the same, and only seven per cent said they had improved.

Seen in this context, the findings of this ARI poll reflect a continuation of Canadians’ long-held desire for change in both the government’s handling of Aboriginal issues and in the situation of Canada’s First Nations themselves.

Click here for the full report including tables and methodology

Click here for the questionnaire used in this survey

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