Reading The Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, p 6-16

We continue our weekly reading of the TRC Final Report, with this extract from the Introduction, on reconciliation.

Reconciliation at the crossroads

To some people, reconciliation is the re-establishment of a conciliatory state.

However, this is a state that many Aboriginal people assert never has existed between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. To others, reconciliation, in the context of Indian residential schools, is similar to dealing with a situation of family violence. It’s about coming to terms with events of the past in a manner that overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people, going forward. It is in the latter context that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has approached the question of reconciliation.

To the Commission, reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.

We are not there yet. The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples is not a mutually respectful one. But, we believe we can get there, and we believe we can maintain it. Our ambition is to show how we can do that.

In 1996, the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples urged Canadians to begin a national process of reconciliation that would have set the country on a bold new path, fundamentally changing the very foundations of Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples. Much of what the Royal Commission had to say has been ignored by government; a majority of its recommendations were never implemented. But the report and its findings opened people’s eyes and changed the conversation about the reality for Aboriginal people in this country.

In 2015, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada wraps up its work, the country has a rare second chance to seize a lost opportunity for reconciliation. We live in a twenty-first-century global world. At stake is Canada’s place as a prosperous, just, and inclusive democracy within that global world. At the trc’s first National Event in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2010, residential school Survivor Alma Mann Scott said,

The healing is happening—the reconciliation…. I feel that there’s some hope for us not just as Canadians, but for the world, because I know I’m not the only one. I know that Anishinaabe people across Canada, First Nations, are not the only ones. My brothers and sisters in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland—there’s different areas of the world where this type of stuff happened…. I don’t see it happening in a year, but we can start making changes to laws and to education systems … so that we can move forward.

residential school Survivor Alma Mann Scott, 2010

Reconciliation must support Aboriginal peoples as they heal from the destructive legacies of colonization that have wreaked such havoc in their lives. But it must do even more. Reconciliation must inspire Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples to transform Canadian society so that our children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace, and prosperity on these lands we now share.

The urgent need for reconciliation runs deep in Canada. Expanding public dialogue and action on reconciliation beyond residential schools will be critical in the coming years. Although some progress has been made, significant barriers to reconciliation remain. The relationship between the federal government and Aboriginal peoples is deteriorating. Instead of moving towards reconciliation, there have been divisive conflicts over Aboriginal education, child welfare, and justice. The daily news has been filled with reports of controversial issues ranging from the call for a national inquiry on violence towards Aboriginal women and girls to the impact of the economic development of lands and resources on Treaties and Aboriginal title and rights. The courts continue to hear Aboriginal rights cases, and new litigation has been filed by Survivors of day schools not covered under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, as well as by victims of the “Sixties Scoop,” which was a child-welfare policy that removed Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them with non-Aboriginal families. The promise of reconciliation, which seemed so imminent back in 2008 when the prime minister, on behalf of all Canadians, apologized to Survivors, has faded.

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. Too many Canadians still do not know the history of Aboriginal peoples’ contributions to Canada, or understand that by virtue of the historical and modern Treaties negotiated by our government, we are all Treaty people. History plays an important role in reconciliation; to build for the future, Canadians must look to, and learn from, the past.

As Commissioners, we understood from the start that although reconciliation could not be achieved during the trc’s lifetime, the country could and must take ongoing positive and concrete steps forward. While the Commission has been a catalyst for deepening our national awareness of the meaning and potential of reconciliation, it will take many heads, hands, and hearts, working together, at all levels of society to maintain momentum in the years ahead. It will also take sustained political will at all levels of government and concerted material resources.

The thousands of Survivors who publicly shared their residential school experiences at trc events in every region of this country have launched a much-needed dialogue about what is necessary to heal themselves, their families, communities, and the nation. Canadians have much to benefit from listening to the voices, experiences, and wisdom of Survivors, Elders, and Traditional Knowledge Keepers—and much more to learn about reconciliation. Aboriginal peoples have an important contribution to make to reconciliation. Their knowledge systems, oral histories, laws, and connections to the land have vitally informed the reconciliation process to date, and are essential to its ongoing progress.

At a Traditional Knowledge Keepers Forum sponsored by the trc, Anishinaabe Elder Mary Deleary spoke about the responsibility for reconciliation that both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people carry. She emphasized that the work of reconciliation must continue in ways that honour the ancestors, respect the land, and rebalance relationships. She said,

I’m so filled with belief and hope because when I hear your voices at the table, I hear and know that the responsibilities that our ancestors carried … are still being carried … even through all of the struggles, even through all of what has been disrupted … we can still hear the voice of the land. We can hear the care and love for the children. We can hear about our law. We can hear about our stories, our governance, our feasts, [and] our medicines…. We have work to do. That work we are [already] doing as [Aboriginal] peoples. Our relatives who have come from across the water [non-Aboriginal people], you still have work to do on your road…. The land is made up of the dust of our ancestors’ bones. And so to reconcile with this land and everything that has happened, there is much work to be done … in order to create balance.

Anishinaabe Elder Mary Deleary

At the Victoria Regional Event in 2012, Survivor Archie Little said,

[For] me reconciliation is righting a wrong. And how do we do that? All these people in this room, a lot of non-Aboriginals, a lot of Aboriginals that probably didn’t go to residential school; we need to work together…. My mother had a high standing in our cultural ways. We lost that. It was taken away…. And I think it’s time for you non-Aboriginals … to go to your politicians and tell them that we have to take responsibility for what happened. We have to work together.

Survivor Archie Little

The Reverend Stan McKay of the United Church, who is also a Survivor, believes that reconciliation can happen only when everyone accepts responsibility for healing in ways that foster respect. He said,

[There must be] a change in perspective about the way in which Aboriginal peoples would be engaged with Canadian society in the quest for reconciliation…. [We cannot] perpetuate the paternalistic concept that only Aboriginal peoples are in need of healing…. The perpetrators are wounded and marked by history in ways that are different from the victims, but both groups require healing…. How can a conversation about reconciliation take place if all involved do not adopt an attitude of humility and respect? … We all have stories to tell and in order to grow in tolerance and understanding we must listen to the stories of others.

Survivor, The Reverend Stan McKay

Over the past five years, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada urged Canadians not to wait until our final report was issued before contributing to the reconciliation process. We have been encouraged to see that across the country, many people have been answering that call.

The youth of this country are taking up the challenge of reconciliation. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth who attended trc National Events made powerful statements about why reconciliation matters to them. At the Alberta National Event in Edmonton in March 2014, an Indigenous youth spoke on behalf of a national Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaboration known as the “4Rs Youth Movement.” Jessica Bolduc said,

We have re-examined our thoughts and beliefs around colonialism, and have made a commitment to unpack our own baggage, and to enter into a new rela- tionship with each other, using this momentum, to move our country forward, in light of the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada in 2017. At this point in time, we ask ourselves, “What does that anniversary mean for us, as Indigenous youth and non-Indigenous youth, and how do we arrive at that day with something we can celebrate together?”… Our hope is that, one day, we will live together, as recognized nations, within a country we can all be proud of.

Jessica Bolduc

In 2013, at the British Columbia National Event in Vancouver, where over 5,000 elementary and secondary school students attended Education Day, several non-Aboriginal youth talked about what they had learned. Matthew Meneses said, “I’ll never forget this day. This is the first day they ever told us about residential schools. If I were to see someone who’s Aboriginal, I’d ask them if they can speak their language because I think speaking their language is a pretty cool thing.” Antonio Jordao said, “It makes me sad for those kids. They took them away from their homes—it was torture, it’s not fair. They took them away from their homes. I don’t agree with that. It’s really wrong. That’s one of the worst things that Canada did.” Cassidy Morris said, “It’s good that we’re finally learning about what happened.” Jacqulyn Byers told us, “I hope that events like this are able to bring closure to the horrible things that happened, and that a whole lot of people now recognize that the crime happened and that we need to make amends for it.”

At the same National Event, trc Honorary Witness Patsy George paid tribute to the strength of Aboriginal women and their contributions to the reconciliation process despite the oppression and violence they have experienced. She said,

Women have always been a beacon of hope for me. Mothers and grandmothers in the lives of our children, and in the survival of our communities, must be recognized and supported. The justified rage we all feel and share today must be turned into instruments of transformation of our hearts and our souls, clearing the ground for respect, love, honesty, humility, wisdom and truth. We owe it to all those who suffered, and we owe it to the children of today and tomorrow. May this day and the days ahead bring us peace and justice.

Honorary Witness Patsy George

Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians from all walks of life spoke to us about the importance of reaching out to one another in ways that create hope for a better future. Whether one is First Nations, Inuit, Métis, a descendant of European settlers, a member of a minority group that suffered historical discrimination in Canada, or a new Canadian, we all inherit both the benefits and obligations of Canada. We are all Treaty people who share responsibility for taking action on reconciliation.

Without truth, justice, and healing, there can be no genuine reconciliation. Reconciliation is not about “closing a sad chapter of Canada’s past,” but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice.

We are mindful that knowing the truth about what happened in residential schools in and of itself does not necessarily lead to reconciliation. Yet, the importance of truth telling in its own right should not be underestimated; it restores the human dignity of victims of violence and calls governments and citizens to account. Without truth, justice is not served, healing cannot happen, and there can be no genuine reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Speaking to us at the Traditional Knowledge Keepers Forum in June of 2014, Elder Dave Courchene posed a critical question: “When you talk about truth, whose truth are you talking about?”

The Commission’s answer to Elder Courchene’s question is that by truth, we mean not only the truth revealed in government and church residential school documents, but also the truth of lived experiences as told to us by Survivors and others in their statements to this Commission. Together, these public testimonies constitute a new oral history record, one based on Indigenous legal traditions and the practice of witnessing. As people gathered at various trc National Events and Community Hearings, they shared the experiences of truth telling and of offering expressions of reconciliation.

Over the course of its work, the Commission inducted a growing circle of trc Honorary Witnesses. Their role has been to bear official witness to the testimonies of Survivors and their families, former school staff and their descendants, government and church officials, and any others whose lives have been affected by the residential schools. Beyond the work of the trc, the Honorary Witnesses have pledged their commitment to the ongoing work of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. We also encouraged everyone who attended trc National Events or Community Hearings to see themselves as witnesses also, with an obligation to find ways of making reconciliation a concrete reality in their own lives, communities, schools, and workplaces.

As Elder Jim Dumont explained at the Traditional Knowledge Keepers Forum in June 2014, “in Ojibwe thinking, to speak the truth is to actually speak from the heart.” 

At the Community Hearing in Key First Nation, Saskatchewan, in 2012, Survivor Wilfred Whitehawk told us he was glad that he disclosed his abuse.

I don’t regret it because it taught me something. It taught me to talk about truth, about me, to be honest about who I am…. I am very proud of who I am today. It took me a long time, but I’m there. And what I have, my values and belief systems are mine and no one is going to impose theirs on me. And no one today is going to take advantage of me, man or woman, the government or the rcmp, because I have a voice today. I can speak for me and no one can take that away.

Survivor Wilfred Whitehawk

Survivor and the child of Survivors Vitaline Elsie Jenner said, “I’m quite happy to be able to share my story…. I want the people of Canada to hear, to listen, for it is the truth…. I also want my grandchildren to learn, to learn from me that, yes, it did happen.”

Another descendant of Survivors, Daniel Elliot, told the Commission,

I think all Canadians need to stop and take a look and not look away. Yeah, it’s embarrassing, yeah, it’s an ugly part of our history. We don’t want to know about it. What I want to see from the Commission is to rewrite the history books so that other generations will understand and not go through the same thing that we’re going through now, like it never happened.

Daniel Elliot, descendant of survivors

President of the Métis National Council Clement Chartier spoke to the Commission about the importance of truth to justice and reconciliation. At the Saskatchewan National Event, he said,

The truth is important. So I’ll try to address the truth and a bit of reconciliation as well. The truth is that the Métis Nation, represented by the Métis National Council, is not a party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement…. And the truth is that the exclusion of the Métis Nation or the Métis as a people is reflected throughout this whole period not only in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement but in the apology made by Canada as well….

We are, however, the products … of the same assimilationist policy that the federal government foisted upon the Treaty Indian kids. So there ought to be some solution…. The Métis boarding schools, residential schools, are excluded. And we need to ensure that everyone was aware of that and hopefully some point down the road, you will help advocate and get, you know, the governments or whoever is responsible to accept responsibility and to move forward on a path to reconciliation, because reconciliation should be for all Aboriginal peoples and not only some Aboriginal peoples.

President of the Métis National Council Clement Chartier

At the British Columbia National Event, the former lieutenant-governor of British Columbia, the Honourable Steven Point, said,

And so many of you have said today, so many of the witnesses that came forward said, “I cannot forgive. I’m not ready to forgive.” And I wondered why. Reconciliation is about hearing the truth, that’s for sure. It’s also about acknowledging that truth. Acknowledging that what you’ve said is true. Accepting responsibility for your pain and putting those children back in the place they would have been, had they not been taken from their homes….

What are the blockages to reconciliation? The continuing poverty in our communities and the failure of our government to recognize that “Yes, we own the land.” Stop the destruction of our territories and for God’s sake, stop the deaths of so many of our women on highways across this country…. I’m going to continue to talk about reconciliation, but just as important, I’m going to foster healing in our own people, so that our children can avoid this pain, can avoid this destruction and finally, take our rightful place in this “Our Canada.”

Steven Point, former lieutenant-governor of British Columbia

When former residential school staff attended public trc events, some thought it was most important to hear directly from Survivors, even if their own perspectives and memories of the schools might differ from those of the Survivors. At a Community Hearing in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Merle Nisley, who worked at the Poplar Hill residential school in the early 1970s, said,

I think it would be valuable for people who have been involved in the schools to hear stories personally. And I also think it would be valuable, when it’s appropriate … [for] former students who are on the healing path to … hear some of our stories, or to hear some of our perspectives. But I know that’s a very difficult thing to do…. Certainly this is not the time to try to ask all those former students to sit and listen to the rationale of the former staff because there’s just too much emotion there … and there’s too little trust … you can’t do things like that when there’s low levels of trust. So I think really a very important thing is for former staff to hear the stories and to be courageous enough just to hear them…. Where wrongs were done, where abuses happened, where punishment was over the top, and wherever sexual abuse happened, somehow we need to courageously sit and talk about that, and apologize. I don’t know how that will happen.

Merle Nisley

Nisley’s reflections highlight one of the difficulties the Commission faced in trying to create a space for respectful dialogue between former residential school students and staff. While, in most cases, this was possible, in other instances, Survivors and their family members found it very difficult to listen to former staff, particularly if they perceived the speaker to be an apologist for the schools.

At the trc Victoria Regional Event, Brother Tom Cavanaugh, the district superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate for British Columbia and the Yukon, spoke about his time as a supervisor at the Christie residential school.

What I experienced over the six years I was at Christie residential school was a staff, Native and non-Native alike, working together to provide as much as possible, a safe loving environment for the children attending Christie school. Was it a perfect situation? No, it wasn’t a perfect situation … but again, there didn’t seem to be, at that time, any other viable alternative in providing a good education for so many children who lived in relatively small and isolated communities.

Brother Tom Cavanaugh

Survivors and family members who were present in the audience spoke out, saying, “Truth, tell the truth.” Brother Cavanaugh replied, “If you give me a chance, I will tell you the truth.” When trc Chair Justice Murray Sinclair intervened to ask the audience to allow Brother Cavanaugh to finish his statement, he was able to do so without further interruption. Visibly shaken, Cavanaugh then went on to acknowledge that children had also been abused in the schools, and he condemned such actions, expressing his sorrow and regret for this breach of trust.

I can honestly say that our men are hurting too because of the abuse scandal and the rift that this has created between First Nations and church representatives. Many of our men who are still working with First Nations have attended various truth and reconciliation sessions as well as Returning to Spirit sessions, hoping to bring about healing for all concerned. The Oblates desire healing for the abused and for all touched by the past breach of trust. It is our hope that together we can continue to build a better society.

Brother Tom Cavanaugh

Later that same day, Ina Seitcher, who attended the Christie residential school, painted a very different picture of the school from what Brother Cavanaugh had described.

I went to Christie residential school. This morning I heard a priest talking about his Christie residential school. I want to tell him [about] my Christie residential school. I went there for ten months. Ten months that impacted my life for fifty years. I am just now on my healing journey…. I need to do this, I need to speak out. I need to speak for my mom and dad who went to residential school, for my aunts, my uncles, all that are beyond now…. All the pain of our people, the hurt, the anger…. That priest that talked about how loving that Christie residential school was—it was not. That priest was most likely in his office not knowing what was going on down in the dorms or in the lunchroom…. There were things that happened at Christie residential school, and like I said, I’m just starting my healing journey. There are doors that I don’t even want to open. I don’t even want to open those doors because I don’t know what it would do to me.

Ina Seitcher

These two, seemingly irreconcilable, truths are a stark reminder that there are no easy shortcuts to reconciliation. The fact that there were few direct exchanges at trc events between Survivors and former school staff indicates that for many, the time for reconciliation had not yet arrived. Indeed, for some, it may never arrive. At the Manitoba National Event in 2010, Survivor Evelyn Brockwood talked about why it is important to ensure that there is adequate time for healing to occur in the truth and reconciliation process. She said,

When this came out at the beginning, I believe it was 1990, about residential schools, people coming out with their stories, and … I thought the term, the words they were using, were truth, healing and reconciliation. But somehow it seems like we are going from truth telling to reconciliation, to reconcile with our white brothers and sisters. My brothers and sisters, we have a lot of work to do in the middle. We should really lift up the word healing…. Go slow, we are going too fast, too fast…. We have many tears to shed before we even get to the word reconciliation.

Survivor Evelyn Brockwood

To determine the truth and to tell the full and complete story of residential schools in this country, the trc needed to hear from Survivors and their families, former staff, government and church officials, and all those affected by residential schools. Canada’s national history in the future must be based on the truth about what hap- pened in the residential schools. One hundred years from now, our children’s children and their children must know and still remember this history, because they will inherit from us the responsibility of ensuring that it never happens again.

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