Evan Habkirk and Janice Forsyth

Truth, Reconciliation, and the Politics of the Body in Indian Residential School History

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" In March 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada completed its six-year investigation into the experiences of Indian residential school students who had survived years of neglect, abuse, and trauma at these institutions. More than 6,000 witnesses testified at hearings held throughout the country. The purpose of the Commission was to collect and document the history of these schools from the perspectives of former students, bringing a voice to a group of people whose issues and concerns had long been neglected by the federal government and religious organizations, the two main institutions responsible for the establishment and maintenance of the schools. The 527-page Executive Summary was clear in its aim to help Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians move forward from a traumatic past by starting another, somewhat different, conversation: “Now that we know about residential schools and their legacies, what do we do about it?”[1]

From our perspective, as researchers who study the physically active body at Indian residential schools, the Executive Summary brought much needed attention to sport and recreation as important elements of the residential school experience, as well as the reconciliation process. Indeed, sport and recreation are discussed in three distinct sections of the Summary: “Sports and culture: It was a relief”; “Public memory: Dialogue, the arts, and commemoration”; and “Sport: Inspiring lives, healthy communities.” Each section makes it clear that attempts to address the legacies of the school system must include detailed examinations of the different types of sport and recreation opportunities that were provided at specific institutions, as well as how former students understood those opportunities. It was exciting to see an official document acknowledge the significance of this part of Indian residential school history – a history that has affected the lives of so many, across multiple generations.

But having said this, we also found the discussion somewhat inadequate. Our concern stems primarily from the lack of a theoretical approach to understanding the role of physical activity culture in the residential school system. Statements in the Executive Summary, such as sports “helped them make it through residential school”[2] or “[sport] made their lives more bearable and gave them a sense of identity, accomplishment, and pride,”[3] while certainly true, glosses over the distinct and diverse ways to understand the role and significance of physical activities in these schools. We wonder, for instance, to what extent did school officials, including instructors, missionaries, and government agents, use physical activities to exploit the students for social, political, and economic gain? And how did the students transform the meanings that were attached to these activities to “make it through” these highly oppressive environments, especially since many of the activities were intended to eradicate and replace traditional Aboriginal values and practices? ..."

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