2 Introduction to the Learning Materials

The focus of these learning materials will primarily be the impact and legacy of Indian residential schools. However, residential schools were just one of countless ways that colonial powers attempted to dismantle Indigenous cultures and appropriate land and resources. It is important to understand the impact of residential schools within the larger legal, political, and historical context.

The Memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier describes what it was like when European explorers and settlers first arrived in Secwepemcúl’ecw:

When they first came amongst us there were only Indians here. They found the people of each tribe supreme in their own territory, and having tribal boundaries known and recognized by all. The country of each tribe was just the same as a very large farm or ranch (belonging to all the people of the tribe) from which they gathered their food and clothing, and so on, fish which they got in plenty for food, grass and vegetation on which their horses grazed and the game lived… All the necessaries of life were obtained in abundance from the lands of each tribe, and all the people had equal rights of access to everything they required.[1]

Life for Indigenous Peoples in Secwepemcúl’ecw changed drastically after the enforcement of colonial law. The resource rich land and discovery of gold in the Fraser River brought many newcomers to the area. Indigenous communities were essential to the survival of early explorers, as they traded goods with them and shared their deep knowledge of the land.[2] The initial mutually beneficial relationship between Indigenous Peoples and traders did not last and Indigenous Peoples were “marginalized and even terrorized on their own lands” by the new arrivals.[3] In fact, there was a high degree of conflict between prospectors and miners throughout British Columbia. In the Summer of 1858, a war broke out in the Fraser Canyon between American gold miners and the Nlaka’pamux peoples, which is now known as the Fraser Canyon War.[4] The discovery of gold in the Fraser River triggered a mass influx of miners from the United States. These miners disrupted Nlaka’pamux communities, and some committed acts of sexual violence against the women, prompting the Nlaka’pamux to defend their territory and people.[5] The Secwepémc also came to their aid and together they defended indigenous territories and drove the American miners out, while Governor Douglas retreated his gunboat from Hope and just tried to collect permits. It is a clear sign that at the time the province did not have effective control of these territories, Indigenous Peoples did. Still the date for establishing Aboriginal Title for Indigenous Peoples in Canada remains 1848 – which is before effective control was established, which is the point in time to which Metis rights have to be established. There are clear contradictions in the legal tests and colonial timelines.

The arrival of settlers also meant the arrival of new diseases. Diseases, such as smallpox, influenza, and measles, were brought in by people of European descent who had immunity. Since these diseases were foreign to Indigenous peoples, they had no immunity to them and they spread quickly through Indigenous communities. Populations of entire communities were severely reduced, with mortality rates ranging from 50% to 90%.[6] There is also evidence that diseases were intentionally spread to Indigenous communities in order to weaken resistance to colonial rule.[7] The high mortality rates left a small portion of the Indigenous culture to carry forward 100% of the culture and history. One can imagine what kind of impact such a colossal loss would have on a community and society. Some traditional knowledge and stories were also lost forever with the mass death of elders and knowledge keepers during the epidemics.[8]

Despite the 1763 Royal Proclamation that recognized Indian land and Aboriginal title rights, the Canadian government, which was established in 1867, displaced Indigenous communities from their traditional lands and established a reserve system. The population collapse brought about by disease epidemics weakened Indigenous communities; colonial authorities capitalized on the opportunity to expand land use and resource extraction.[9] : In a number of cases throughout Secwepemcúl’ecw original larger reserves agreed with the first Governor of British Columbia, the Douglas reserves, were unilaterally reduced by his successors after epidemics hit the communities. A number of these areas are now subject to specific claims for unilateral reserve reduction. The land allotted for reserves often did not contain traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds, this meant that communities could no longer be self-sufficient. Indeed, Indian reserves were purposefully confined to small areas within straight lines, to allow for colonial settlement.[10] At the same time, settlers introduced processed sugar and alcohol, both of which had not been a part of a traditional diet, that had negative health outcomes.[11]

In 1876, the Indian Act was first introduced. The Act was a collection of numerous colonial laws which aimed to “eliminate First Nations culture in favour of assimilation into Euro-Canadian society.”[12] It regulated the lives of Indigenous Peoples in a manner that repressed their rights and outlawed their way of life.[13] Traditional systems of government were replaced with elected band councils, traditional ceremonies and dance, such as potlaches and the Sun Dance,[14] were prohibited, Indigenous Peoples were barred from making land claims, and hiring lawyers from working on land issues. Indigenous communities that had been severed from their traditions ways of living became dependent on the colonial government.[15] The residential school system was established to “kill the Indian in the child” by forcibly removing them from their communities and indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living.[16] Communities became devoid of children and hope; parents and grandparents were overcome by grief. And thus, a culture of trauma and loss was created.

The history and legacy of residential schools serve as an important starting point for students’ learning experience related to the TRC Calls to Action. It provides an opportunity to shine a light on the colonial underpinnings of the mainstream legal system. Canadian laws compelled the attendance of First Nations children in residential schools and parents who did not comply were vulnerable to legal sanctions. So, for the first year of TRC related learning, students will visit the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which currently houses Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s band and other offices and is located just 15 minutes from TRU. We are deeply grateful to Tk‘emlúps te Secwépemc for hosting this annual learning day in their community in cooperation with TRU Law since its inception in 2011/12, due to the Covid-19 pandemic the 2021 TRC 1L learning learning experience had to go online, with students spending a full day learning from residential school survivors and others. We connect what students are learning to indigenous teachings to provide them with a (coping) mechanism to process the learning experience. It becomes clear that the physical element of both the residential school and the land (tmícw); the emotional dimension of the experiences (púsmen) shared by residential school survivors, are equally as powerful if not more powerful than what you learn on the mental level (sképqin), realizing the role the law has played in implementing the system. This experiential learning opportunity puts in question many assumptions about legal system and Indigenous Peoples. This relates to the element of self-actualization (súmec) and students are asked to reflect on what they can do with what they have learned.

Please see below a brief video from it with Councillor Jeanette Jules speaking at the TRC Hearings that were conducted in the same space:



Please note that this resource involves material that can be triggering and retraumatizing. The material deals with difficult subject matter and has been written in such a way to present the history in a sensitive manner without minimizing the experiences of survivors. Remember when you hear elders speak about those experiences, they have to go back to very troubling experiences they lived as children. They are reclaiming their childhoods; these experiences were lived by Indigenous children – all we are asked to do is respectfully learn and reflect.


  1. Shuswap Nation Tribal Council, “The Memorial to Sir Wilfrid Laurier: Commemorating the 100th Anniversary, 1910-2010” (2010), online (pdf): Shuswap Nation Tribal Council <shuswapnation.org/files/2012/09/137543_ShuswapNation_MemorialBro.pdf> [perma.cc/2H3N-YY9E].
  2. “History” (accessed on 21 July 2021), online: Gold Rush Trail <https://goldrushtrail.ca/history/>.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Fraser Canyon War” (10 September 2019), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/fraser-canyon-war>.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Our History, Our Health” (accessed on 21 July 2021), online: First Nations Health Authority <https://www.fnha.ca/wellness/wellness-for-first-nations/our-history-our-health> [FNHA].
  7. “Smallpox in Canada” (12 February 2020), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/smallpox>.
  8. FNHA, supra note 4.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Joseph Despard Pemberton becomes Colonial Surveyor” (accessed on 23 July 2021), online: Union of BC Indian Chiefs <https://www.ubcic.bc.ca/joseph_despard_pemberton_becomes_colonial_surveyor>.
  11. Ibid.
  12. “Indian Act” (16 December 2020), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indian-act> [Indian Act].
  13. Ibid.
  14. “Potlatch Ban: Abolishment of First Nations Ceremonies” (accessed on 23 July 2021), online: Indigenous Corporate Training <https://www.ictinc.ca/the-potlatch-ban-abolishment-of-first-nations-ceremonies>.
  15. Indian Act, supra note 11.
  16. Hanson, Eric, Daniel P. Games, and Alexa Manuel ,“The Residential School System” (September 2020), online: Indigenous Foundations <https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_residential_school_system/>.


Implementing Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action Copyright © by Nicole Schabus (academic lead). All Rights Reserved.

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