To my shame, I have not yet read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Reports. Despite the fact they’ve been available for 7 years. Despite the fact that I edit this website, that is dedicated in essence to reconciliation. Despite the fact that I have opened the website many times, and left the tab open, meaning to get to it. Despite the fact that every urging in response to the “what can we do? where do we begin?” says to begin with this. Did it actually take the bones of babies to shake me from my comfort?
Perhaps, you have also been meaning to read the report, and when the day was over and you had some quiet minutes, you found yourself reaching for your phone, or a light-hearted novel, or a puzzle, or a glass of wine instead.
Perhaps, we could approach it together, slowly, absorbing one piece at a time.
Perhaps, we could start today, here, with the Preface to the Summary, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.
There is a quirky podcast that I heard about recently, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, in which a couple of divinity students applied the theory they’d learned about reading sacred texts from world religions, to reading Harry Potter. My understanding of their approach is that essentially, they approach the books with reverence, and use the chance to explore what comes up as a way to deepen community. One of the practices in the podcast, from what I’ve gleaned, is that of offering a blessing to a character. I’m really intrigued by this reclamation of something that has been co-opted formally by the church. Like, when you think of “blessing”, who do you think of? Who has the authority to do this? Images of popes and priests pop into my head immediately. And yet, every time someone sneezes around me, I instinctively say “bless you.”
I was intrigued by this idea… of offering a blessing. I did some googling and found a post that described the art of blessing as “the ability to both give and receive love.” Then I listened to a favourite storyteller, Martin Shaw, speak about how he was mentored by the legendary Roberty Bly. He said, “When I was younger, I longed to be blessed. I didn’t receive it at school. I certaintly didn’t receive it in the factory. I didn’t really receive it through music. But Robert did it. And the reason I knew I’d been in the presence of a blessing was that suddenly, finally, I was full and at peace. And I realized what I’d looked for before was an affirmation which has no medicinal quality. But the blessing is different because the blessing has specificity attached to it. The blessing says ‘I saw that thing you did and I name it and I raise you up and I bless you with it.'” In Martin’s telling, the blessing was in being seen, in his own glory, brokenness and potential, and being honoured for that.
When I read this preface below, I learned that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not a forward-thinking, proactive initiative on the part of Canada, to move towards a greater state of healing. No. It was a reaction, a response, to revelations that were coming forward through the law courts. Survivors of the system had had to litigate their way towards some form of acknowledgement. What a huge burden they shouldered. We are here, because of their effort. Blessings to the survivors.
Blessings to you for your effort to say, these things must be brought into the light.
Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society, led by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The schools were in existence for well over 100 years, and many successive generations of children from the same communities and families endured the experience of them. That experience was hidden for most of Canada’s history, until Survivors of the system were finally able to find the strength, courage, and support to bring their experiences to light in several thousand court cases that ultimately led to the largest class-action lawsuit in Canada’s history.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was a commission like no other in Canada. Constituted and created by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which settled the class actions, the Commission spent six years travelling to all parts of Canada to hear from the Aboriginal people who had been taken from their families as children, forcibly if necessary, and placed for much of their childhoods in residential schools.
This volume is a summary of the discussion and findings contained in the Commission’s final multi-volume report. The Final Report discusses what the Commission did and how it went about its work, as well as what it heard, read, and concluded about the schools and afterwards, based on all the evidence available to it. This summary must be read in conjunction with the Final Report.
The Commission heard from more than 6,000 witnesses, most of whom survived the experience of living in the schools as students. The stories of that experience are sometimes difficult to accept as something that could have happened in a country such as Canada, which has long prided itself on being a bastion of democracy, peace, and kindness throughout the world. Children were abused, physically and sexually, and they died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country, or in the world.
But, shaming and pointing out wrongdoing were not the purpose of the Commission’s mandate. Ultimately, the Commission’s focus on truth determination was intended to lay the foundation for the important question of reconciliation. Now that we know about residential schools and their legacy, what do we do about it?
Getting to the truth was hard, but getting to reconciliation will be harder. It requires that the paternalistic and racist foundations of the residential school system be rejected as the basis for an ongoing relationship. Reconciliation requires that a new vision, based on a commitment to mutual respect, be developed. It also requires an understanding that the most harmful impacts of residential schools have been the loss of pride and self-respect of Aboriginal people, and the lack of respect that non-Aboriginal people have been raised to have for their Aboriginal neighbours. Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one. Virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered. This summary is intended to be the initial reference point in that important discussion. Reconciliation will take some time.