The Truth and Reconciliation Commission wraps up its inquiry into residential school abuses, but Canada still has a long way to go in reconciling with First Nations people. Photo by Michael Swan

Long way to go to First Nations’ reconciliation

  • May 31, 2015

The truth is we’re not reconciled, even as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concludes its five-year inquiry into the legacy of 150 years of Indian residential schools with the release next week of its final report.

The report, to be issued in Ottawa June 2, follows four years of public hearings held in more than 300 Canadian communities under Justice Murray Sinclair. The $60-million commission heard thousands of victims testify to harrowing experiences in residential schools. Most of those testimonies were videotaped and will become part of a permanent record.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children went through the Church-run, government-mandated school system before the last one closed in 1996. More than 60 per cent of the schools were Catholic. Children were taken great distances from their families, forbidden to speak their languages and prevented from learning about their culture.

Today, there are about 80,000 former students still living. Many grew up in an almost entirely institutionalized environment where they learned little about normal family life and the skills of parenting. In some cases brothers and sisters grew up as strangers to one another. Many returned as strangers to their parents. Students often suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of school staff and fellow students.

Most graduates found themselves caught between worlds — never fully accepted in white, mainstream culture and no longer comfortable or fluent in their own.

The federal government set up the schools with the express purpose of assimilating the children. The TRC was promised in 2008, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the government for the damage done.

It was never realistic to expect a five-year government commission to create reconciliation over the whole painful chapter of Canadian history, said Andrea Chrisjohn of Toronto’s Council Fire Native Cultural Centre.

“I don’t think the world ends because the TRC ends. The responsibility (for reconciliation) is really upon you and me,” she said.

Chrisjohn is one of the organizers of a May 31 Toronto walk for reconciliation to mark the close of the TRC. About 1,500 people are expected to join the march on Queen’s Park. Tens of thousands are expected for a series of larger-scale events in Ottawa to mark the wrap-up of the TRC from May 31 to June 3.

“I know what making things right means. It’s important that we look at opportunities for programming, services, engagement, partnerships — making things right for one another, making sure our relationships with one another are based on a better appreciation of people, a better understanding,” Chrisjohn said.

For retired Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber it’s the truth part of the truth and reconciliation formula that has been most successful.

“It gave the First Nations people an opportunity to talk about this and to be heard,” said Weisgerber. “The rest of the country was given an opportunity to listen and to hear.”

Weisgerber is painfully aware the vast majority of Canadians, particularly those in big cities, never took that opportunity.

“There’s a huge amount of racism in the country. Basically we’re still blaming them without understanding why,” he said. “It takes a long time to change the culture around that.”

As a bishop in Western Canada, home to the largest number of residential schools, Weisgerber found himself involved in the TRC right from the beginning. As he listened to gut wrenching testimony from survivors, his understanding changed completely.

“I thought (before the TRC) they were good ideas, but bad things happened. But in fact I think they were very bad ideas and some good things happened there to some people,” he said.

Though the commission and its hearings are over, Canadians still have a responsibility to seek reconciliation, Weisgerber said.

“You have to understand what the issue is, but then you’ve got to do something about it,” he said. “The difficulty is that the federal government is the chief protagonist in this and they don’t seem to have much energy around this. It’s certainly not going to be an issue in the election.”

For some it is already too late. Jesuit-educated Anishnabe author Basil Johnston did more than almost anyone to raise the issue of Indian residential schools with his 1990 book Indian School Days. Twenty-five years on, he hasn’t been following the TRC and has no thoughts on what it might have accomplished.

“I put that thing behind me many years ago,” Johnston told The Catholic Register. “I don’t particularly care.”

Historian James Miller doesn’t blame Johnston for turning his back.

“But there are many others who haven’t given up on us yet,” Miller said.

Miller is the author of Shingwauk’s Vision, a 1996 history of the residential schools that has become a basic text for the study of Canadian history.

“We all hoped for more when it started, but probably our hopes were unrealistic,” he said. “It was such a huge job. The vast majority of the population is still really not engaged either with the history or the need to bring about reconciliation over the damage done.”

The history matters. Today it matters that Canadians don’t know their own history — how this colony colonized a vast land that was home to more than 50 distinct languages and cultures.

“Canadians have to get over the comforting delusion they have about their history of relations with aboriginal people,” Miller said. “Somehow Canadians have got the idea that just because we weren’t as bad as the Americans in dealing with aboriginal people we actually were very good. That’s not the case at all.”

Even if only a minority have participated, the TRC has given the Catholic community a solid start in a genuine desire for reconciliation, said Catholic native issues consultant Gerry Kelly. Kelly has advised the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic parties to the residential school settlement process over the last decade.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated that the TRC would create reconciliation,” Kelly said. “Reconciliation isn’t a product… Reconciliation is kind of in that classic zone between work and grace.”

Before the TRC began, a 2008 survey found that despite the fact Catholics ran most of the schools Catholics were among those least aware of the history. That’s no surprise given how immigration has constantly changed the face of Catholicism in Canada. Recent immigrants concentrated in large cities have struggled to identify with a chapter of history that unfolded long before they arrived.

But as the TRC made its way across the country there were more and more representatives of immigrant Canada present and the Catholic Church was among the leading participants. In some Catholic dioceses First Nations councils for reconciliation remain in place.

In Saskatoon and Winnipeg the Church has become involved in the issue of murdered and missing aboriginal women. The Returning the Spirit program for spiritual encounters between native and non-native Christians has gained momentum because of the TRC, Kelly said.

The challenge now is to go beyond the painful history, to make reconciliation about more than saying sorry for the past.

“Make the connections to the questions of today,” Kelly said. “The questions of free and prior and informed consent (to mining and other natural resource projects), the questions of well-funded commitment to education in First Nations communities, the question of the vitality of First Nations communities.”

Canada ignores those questions at its peril, said Weisgerber.

“We better start moving forward. Aboriginal young people simply are not willing to accept being second-class citizens.”

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