Chief commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair Photo by Michael Swan

Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks more government co-operation

  • February 27, 2012

Churches need to define how they're going to help repair the damage residential schools did to aboriginal culture in Canada and the federal government must cough up the millions of documents that future historians will need to tell the story of Canada's effort to assimilate First Nations' people, says the interim report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The report marks the halfway point of the five-year mandate of the commission. It warns that government reluctance to provide full and meaningful access to Library and Archives Canada records threatens the mandate of the commission. The TRC intends to go to court to force greater government co-operation.

"Canada has not provided any proposal or signalled any intention of fulfilling its obligation to identify, organize and produce the Library and Archives Canada documents," said the report, issued Feb. 24. "These issues have placed the commission's ability to fulfill its mandate in jeopardy."

The 2008 class-action settlement that set up the commission mandated the TRC to create a permanent depository of all relevant documents so survivors and future generations of researchers can examine Canada's history of residential schools. The commission estimates there may be anywhere from five million to 50 million archived documents that tell the story of about 150,000 aboriginal children who were shipped off to residential schools over a 130-year period.

"Document collection has proven to be a challenging experience for all of us," chief commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair said in a conference call with media. "The magnitude of the documents, the numbers of documents, has proven to be much more significant than we were originally led to believe."

While the government has told the commission it has no obligation to create an inventory of documents for it, the TRC "has received helpful co-operation from most of the churches," said the report.

"Everybody thinks it is the Catholic Church that is giving us trouble, but actually some of the best co-operation we've got to this point in time is from some of the Catholic Church archives," Sinclair said.

Though not an official recommendation of the interim report, the commissioners do urge churches to be specific and forthcoming about what contributions they can make to rebuilding and restoring aboriginal culture, language and spirituality.

"What role did the churches play in undoing (aboriginal culture)? And where does that lead in terms of considering what role the churches might play?" asked commissioner Marie Wilson.

Teachers in church-run schools often ridiculed, belittled or denigrated traditional spirituality and belief systems, said Wilson.

"There were very, very negative messages children were given about their own parents, about their parents' beliefs and belief systems," she said.

As aboriginal people seek to reassert their own identity, many people perceive a conflict between reclaiming traditional spirituality and membership in Christian churches, said Sinclair.

"Many aboriginal people's connection to the churches remains strong," he said. "If an individual is going to remain connected to his Church, the question arises about how you reconcile your return to tradition, language and culture — and in particular your traditional belief systems — while at the same time practising your Christian faith."

It's up to churches to say how they will help people reconcile aboriginal spiritual traditions with active participation, he said.

The report makes 20 recommendations based on the 25,000 statements it has received so far from residential school survivors. Those that demand church action include:
- participation in a fund to support cultural and linguistic revival;
- help identifying former students unfairly left out of  the 2008 settlement agreement;
- greater co-operation in providing relevant documents and records from archives; and
- funding and creation of public monuments and commemorations that pay tribute to residential school survivors before the commission's mandate runs out in 2014.

Most of the recommendations are aimed squarely at the federal government. The major demand made of Ottawa is for sufficient funding for the TRC to complete its mandate on time.

"We're not at a point where we're out of funds," said Sinclair. "At the same time ... we will come to a point where we have to make some crucial decisions about how we will spend the remaining money that we have and it will have implications for mandate compliance."

Properly funded and staffed mental health services available to residential school survivors close to where they live is the responsibility of Health Canada working with provincial and territorial governments, says the report.

The federal government should also fund public education campaigns that inform the general public about the history and impact of residential schools, the TRC said.

"We've found a considerable lack of knowledge existed within the Canadian population, many of whom do no know what went on in the schools and a significant number of whom aren't even aware that there were residential schools in Canada," said Sinclair. "A public education campaign is necessary."

The commission also wants Ottawa to distribute copies of the 2008 "Statement of Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools" to all survivors and to every high school in Canada to be prominently displayed.

The interim report asks provincial governments to get involved in reconciliation by retooling their education systems so Canadian students cannot graduate without knowing the history of residential schools and the culture of aboriginal Canadians.

The TRC's final report is due 2014.

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