Truth and Reconciliation commissioners worry about how the history of residential schools will ever reach new Canadians crowded into the country’s largest cities. Photo by Michael Swan

Residential schools are relevant to all Canadians

  • June 5, 2012

TORONTO - “Canadians from before have done a great disservice to Canadians who are new by not telling the story, the true story of this country,” said Estella Muyinda.

Muyinda was born in Uganda. Today she is a lawyer and just as thoroughly Canadian as everybody else in line at Tim Horton’s — and more than some. She’s spent time in Inuvik and Tuktoyuktuk in the Northwest Territories. In travelling the country she has learned about the first of Canada’s three founding nations.

At The Meeting Place, a May 31 to June 1 community-organized event for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Muyinda was there to learn more. She wants a complete picture of how the colonial project that built one of the wealthiest and most progressive democracies in the world also crushed cultures, languages, families and individuals — and ironically used Christian Churches and a school system to do it.

Three years into the TRC’s five-year mandate, the commissioners worry about how the history of residential schools will ever reach new Canadians crowded into the country’s largest cities. Why would these people feel they have to take responsibility for attempted cultural genocide committed before they ever reached Canada? Particularly when their third-, fourth- and fifth-generation neighbours are paying the issue no attention at all?

“How do we engage the other 35 million people in this country who are not indigenous, who think this has nothing to do with them?” asked commissioner Marie Wilson as The Meeting Place opened up at a downtown Toronto hotel.

Many new Canadians know little of the history that gave us 640 reserves from coast to coast, millions of square miles of crown land and the Indian Act. But that hardly distinguishes them from the old Canadians. If for over a century the Anglos and French ran schools designed to kill the Indian in the child, why should an immigrant share the guilt?

“We don’t get to cherry pick our history,” said Wilson. “Wonderful people live here (in Toronto) and they have a right to the truth.”

Muyinda is offended by any suggestion that the legacy of residential schools might be irrelevant to new Canadians.

“The question should be, why isn’t everybody here?” she said. “To hear the stories and to figure out how to remedy this?”

Justice isn’t one of those things that can be applied sparingly to the body politic. Muyinda is convinced that there’s a deep connection between the justice new Canadians can expect and the justice aboriginal Canadians receive.

“Canada will never stop hurting until aboriginal people stop hurting,” she said.

Justice in the strict terms of the justice system is indeed what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is all about. The commission was created as part of the largest class action settlement in Canadian legal history. “It’s a court-supervised obligation,” points out Wilson.

“Canadians have to start being ready for this. It’s not an optional obligation,” she said.

Getting people to own up to a terrible history isn’t just a political problem in Canada. It’s a problem in the Church, said Gerry Kelly. Working out of offices at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Kelly co-ordinates the Catholic response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for 54 separate Catholic entities – dioceses, religious orders and corporations.

“The awareness is very thin within the Catholic community,” Kelly said.

The trouble is that when a religious order or the bishop of a diocese issues an apology it seems rather remote from parish life. It’s something that happens at the clerical level, Kelly said.

“Because of the clericalism, Catholics have a hard time owning this,” Kelly told a Meeting Place workshop on “How Can Churches Talk on Reconciliation.”

But sooner or later we all have to be involved in what Blessed Pope John Paul II called the healing of memories, said Jesuit provincial superior Fr. Peter Bisson.

“The Christian mission is about reconciliation – with God, with creation, with each other,” said Bisson. “You can’t do one without the other.”

And healing has to start where the wounds are deepest.

“We’ve done wrong, not simply made mistakes,” said Bisson. “For which we’re trying to make reparation. We’re all affected by this.”

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