Reconciliation at School: Understanding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Physical Education

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its six-year investigation in 2015 into the Canadian Indian residential school system, it released a series of reports that documented how to move forward to address Canada's colonialism. Physical education and sport were important components of the reports, as well as the Calls to Action, raising important questions about how physical education and sport are implicated in Canada's colonialism, past and present. For instance, how are physical education teachers to understand the TRC reports? How is physical education tied to colonialism? And what can physical education teachers do to address the Calls to Action?

At the 2017 Ophea Conference, Dr. Janice Forsyth offered insights about physical education and colonialism, and how physical education teachers might go about addressing the Calls to Action in their everyday practice. She spoke at length about the historical role of physical education in Canadian Indian residential schools as well as how schools, and specifically Health and Physical Education can contribute to the advancement of Truth and Reconciliation.

PARC and Ophea were very excited to have Dr. Janice Forsyth speak at the 2017 Ophea Conference. Her keynote presentation provided us with a lot to think about as we move forward with our programs and services. We look forward to continuing these conversations, with our stakeholders, over the coming years.

To extend the learning beyond the Conference, Janice’s presentation was recorded (link below) and we asked her to share some of her key takeaways, learnings, and next steps from the conference.


Interview with Dr. Janice Forsyth:

What are the main take-away points that you hope delegates left the session with?

There was a very awkward moment at the end of my presentation at the 2017 Ophea conference where no one did anything. I mean absolutely nothing at all. I was standing on the stage surrounded by two grand screens looking into a sea of frozen faces of over 200 people who were staring straight at me, utterly silent. Then, Ophea’ s Curriculum Consultant Joanne Walsh hurried up the stairs onto the stage to thank me for my time and turned to the audience clapping, prompting them to follow along, which they did graciously.

But I have never left an audience speechless before. It was an extraordinary experience. I’m used to speaking to my own students who have been primed to discuss the history of Aboriginal physical culture in Canada, and to people in government and the non-profit sport and physical activity sector that already have some understanding of this history. So this awkward moment was genuinely informative for me because it highlighted the need for a broader educational campaign that spells out and demystifies how physical education, as a specialized field of knowledge, is entangled with Canada’s colonialism. It is important to understand the connection between the two because it shows how physical education was involved in the subjugation of Aboriginal people, especially in the Indian residential school system, which privileged European understandings of physical culture, and the different ways Aboriginal people responded to those efforts to keep their cultures and identities alive.
This historical backdrop sets the stage for understanding the present, that is, how physical education is helping and/or hindering Aboriginal people from being who they want to be as people. There are all sorts of implications that stem from this struggle, including impacts to individual and community health and wellness, education, justice, culture, tourism, and economic development. I’m sure other impacts can be added to this list.

How can educators and administrators use and interact with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports?

The release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports, published in 2015 (available to download), offer important starting points for having this conversation. As an educator, I encourage everyone in the physical education sector to read, at the very least, the Executive Summary Report (The History, Parts 1 and 2 offer an expanded view of the Summary) – and not just look for the bits having to do with sport, recreation, and physical activity, but to read them in their entirety for the broader context that imbued the physical education sector with a sense of power, and ask: How is our field implicated in Canada’s colonialism? How can (and should) our field be a productive space for Canada’s decolonization?

These are big questions to consider. To help reflect on those, I offer three take-away points for “how to” read and think about the TRC reports in relation to physical education (as well as sport and physical activity):

  1. The TRC reports are not about the Indian residential school system in as much as they are about Canada’s colonialism. They provide insight into how settler and Aboriginal people differed in terms of their understandings and approaches to physical culture – and how, over time, the settlers institutionalized their beliefs in policies and practices so that their views on what was appropriate physical behaviour affected Aboriginal peoples’ relationship to land, culture, identity, education, and health. Useful questions to ask while reading these reports are: What Aboriginal physical practices were targeted by settlers, and why? How did Aboriginal people respond to these pressures, and to what effect? I like the term physical culture because it offers a wider lens to examine a range of practices, from hunting and fishing, to religious customs, to physical education. You can see we are talking about much more than the Indian residential school system here, and that to understand the history of physical education, it is necessary to step back and understand the broader context in which the field was gaining a foothold in Aboriginal lives.
  2. The issues addressed by the TRC reports and the 94 Calls to Action stemming from the reports are best viewed as an interconnected whole, not discreet elements operating as silos. In other words, issues related to health are tied to education, which are tied to child welfare, etc. But to say “everything is related” is not particularly instructive for our purposes. It is better to ask: How is physical education tied to the key issues identified in the reports and the 94 Calls to Action? Furthermore, how do physical education programs help and/or hinder those issues? Thinking critically about how physical education is tied to the issues identified in the reports is a good basis for deciding how to address those issues.
  3. Do a word search in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports. Use any one of the documents, including the 94 Calls to Action. Better yet, perform the search on all of the documents and see how many times “physical education” comes up. Now, repeat the process for “sport,” “recreation,” and “physical activity.” What does the TRC say (or, equally important, not say) about physical education? How do you interpret the results? You might try this word search activity with your students to see what their take-away messages are. What implications does the TRC have for people who work in the physical education sector and who want to contribute to reconciliation?


How would you like the conference delegates to use the information 6 months from now?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports contend that education is the key to understanding what happened, and that understanding what happened is the basis for change. An important first step is for people in the physical education sector to learn how their field contributed to (and remains implicated in) Canada’s colonization of Aboriginal people, and how Aboriginal people responded in return. I would encourage physical education teachers to think about the questions posed herein. Reading and reflecting on these questions and other related questions is action – so that’s where I would start. I would also encourage them to talk to their students about these issues. Use the questions raised here as a starting point for those conversations. In doing so, students will come to understand the deeply theoretical side to physical education – that this field has much more to offer than learning how to be active for life. Rather, they learn that physical education is what some researchers refer to as a “contact zone” where different cultural values, beliefs, and practices sometimes clash and struggle for legitimacy and survival. Reconciliation aims to change that power dynamic, but that can only happen when people know the history of their field. So, 6 months from now, I hope a conversation about this history has been started in all schools across Ontario, and ideally throughout Canada. That would set the stage for identifying how physical education can contribute towards reconciliation, whatever that looks like in each school and district.

Reference Materials:

To access Dr. Janice Forsyth’s keynote presentation from the 2017 Ophea Conference, visit, Ophea's YouTube page.

To learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, visit,

To access the reports created by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, visit,

PARC and Ophea remain committed to the advancement of Truth and Reconciliation through health and physical education as well as the promotion of healthy active living for all children and youth in Ontario. We would like to acknowledge that we are at the early stages of these conversations and learnings and thank all those that have contributed to our learning so far. We look forward to increasing our own knowledge and capacity to contribute to reconciliation in Ontario over the coming years.