The report the government doesn’t want you to read

The introduction of the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which documents the more than 100 year history of an Indian residential school system designed to achieve the Canadian government’s policy objective of cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, includes this observation:

Too many Canadians know little or nothing about the deep historical roots of these conflicts. This lack of historical knowledge has serious consequences for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and for Canada as a whole. In government circles, it makes for poor public policy decisions. In the public realm, it reinforces racist attitudes and fuels civic distrust between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.

Last week, a bunch of powerful people in Canadian media tweeted that they were raising money for an “Appropriation Prize” to reward cultural appropriation, with Indigenous cultures specifically targeted. The Canadian media industry is small enough that the participants in this “fundraiser” represent a large chunk of the organizations you get your news from. There are also so few paid columnists in Canada that when one of them went on TV to tell Indigenous people they were over reacting, another one who responded was his mother, who tweeted this:

This is a staggering thing to say for at least three reasons. One, in the context of a genocide program (Kay objects to the use of the word “genocide,” so as a compromise let’s call it a “take children from their families and steal their personal items and beat them for speaking their own language and, when they die at unusually high rates, bury them in unmarked graves” program), asking “why don’t you talk about the good parts” is, to be very generous, facile.

Two, the TRC did report on positive experiences! As Melissa Martin points out, positive “stories are included throughout” the report volumes, and there’s even “a whole chapter called Warm Memories.” (!!) That is something Kay would know if she had read (or even skimmed the table of contents of) the report. Which brings us to number three:

It is a failure of a market economy that there are so many people willing and able to write opinion in Canada while the few who occupy those scarce positions can be so lazily ignorant.

I think paid opinion writers deserve to be held to a high standard when stating opinions. But, as noted by the passage of the TRC report I quoted above, being more informed than the general population wouldn’t even be that hard. Most Canadians know little to nothing about their country’s long history with residential schools, which is why, when the TRC released its final report, many argued that “every Canadian should read it.”

That phrase makes me think of the annual CBC Canada Reads competition, which, once a year, selects a book that “every Canadian should read.” If you’ve ever listened to Canada Reads and decided to read any of the books mentioned, it’s incredibly easy to do so. Even if you don’t physically travel to your nearest bookstore, you can order a copy online or, in many cases, download the audio book. (For reference, this year’s winner is available for about $12, or $10 as an audio book.)

Now let’s say you decide you want to read the TRC’s final report, if not the full 6 volumes then at least the summary.

The good news is, aside from the difficulty of the subject matter, it’s very readable. You don’t need to be a policy wonk, fluent in governmentese. I think most Canadians would find the writing compelling (and eye-opening, and shameful) if they got their hands on a copy.

That’s an unfortunately big if. Professionally, I work in website and software development, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about how to design “user experiences” that maximize the number of people who do the thing I need them to do. And it turns out, people will bail in huge numbers at every extra step you require of them. Even a couple extra seconds to load a webpage causes a surprisingly high number of people to say “never mind” and leave before the page has even loaded.

So if you want to get someone to do something, you have to make it as easy and as “frictionless” as possible. And based on this I’m tempted to conclude the government doesn’t actually want people to read about the TRC.

The most prominent banner image on the official TRC website is a promotion for an event that’s coming up in… 2015. Below that is a button that says “TRC FINAL REPORT” which takes you to a list of 14 links without any explanation of where to start or how they relate to each other. Each link opens a PDF of somewhere between 100 and 1000 pages.

If you’re tenacious enough to have made it this far, and you’re able to find the link to the summary, you are now the proud owner of a 536 page PDF. If instead you decide to really go for it and start with Volume 1, it’s split across 2 PDFs totaling 1884 pages.

Everyone’s reading habits are different, but I doubt there are many people who are willing to read that many pages of a PDF on their computer screen. You’re now hoping that a prospective reader has the ability to print this many pages themselves (still inconvenient and expensive), or the technical knowhow to get the PDF onto an e-reader, which, even then, won’t be a very pleasant reading experience formatted as-is.

To get reasonably readable formatting, you have to be savvy enough to know that the e-reader format you really want is called EPUB, and you need some other volunteer to have already taken pity on you and converted the report into EPUB so that when you go looking for it you’ll find it. Thankfully, Andrew Kurjata has done that for you. Now you can read the TRC summary report on your e-reader, assuming you have one, and have made it this far, and know how to get an EPUB file onto your e-reader.

Or maybe you’ve already given up on reading it electronically and just want it in book form already. Well, the TRC website won’t help you out, so again, you’re going to need to be dogged. If you search Amazon or Indigo you can find some copies, both new and used, for around $25, twice as much as a regular paperback.

Of course, some libraries also have copies. If you’re lucky enough to live near one that does, this could be a good option for you. For me, for something like this, I tend to read slowly (getting distracted by family and life) and want to take notes, so a library copy isn’t a great option. For others the library probably is a great option, but that still means this book is less accessible than all the other books vying for attention.

The point is that if your objective is for as many people as possible to read the report, this is asking way too much. The “user experience design” of getting and reading the report is so poor that the fact that few Canadians have done so feels “by design.”

Instead, if I were in charge of making sure as many Canadians read the report as possible, here are some of the simple things I’d do. The government could easily do this at minimal cost:

  • Create a simple, clear website with links to download professionally formatted versions of the summary report in all major e-reader formats.
  • Send a free print copy of the report to anyone who requests one through a form on the same website.
  • Place the electronic version of the report in major e-reader stores (Kobo, Kindle) for free or $1, depending on what each store allows, so that it’s easily discoverable there.
  • Produce an audio book of the report and podcast it for free, chapter-by-chapter, through iTunes and other major podcast directories for convenience and discoverability. Make it available in full through Audible for as little as the Audible store allows.

If you want to go wild you could even run a modest social and search marketing campaign to make sure people know the reports are available. It would cost a fraction of what the government is accustomed to spending on self-promoting TV campaigns for topics of much less importance. Together, all these steps would guarentee at least some increase in how many Canadians read the report, and begin to chip away at the “racist attitudes” and “civic distrust between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians,” including major figures in Canadian media.

The only problem with this plan is, more people might actually read the report. Those people might learn about “the deep historical roots” of current inequities and conflicts. Public policy might have to start changing, shifting from one of assimilation to decolonization. So for now, the report stays where it is.


A new piece of Canadian history in your inbox, every week.

As much as I believe the report should be easier to read in order to maximize how many people actually do so, it’s far from impossible. If you do want to read it, this is a good place to start.

More people should know this:

One Reply to “The report the government doesn’t want you to read”

  1. Great ideas! Our class would also like you to consider sending your readers to KAIROS Canada and checking out “The Blanket Exercise” which is essentially Canadian history from an indigenous perspective. We did it with parents and even the mayor and some councilors of our town – the sentiment remained the same, “How didn’t we know?” And this was from political leaders and even a parent with a degree in Canadian History from a Canadian university that included Native Studies as part of the program. It’s stunning really. And you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why this ignorance continues. Thank you.

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