Residential school truth must be heard

  • April 13, 2011
Marie WilsonTORONTO - An apology is not the end of it and treaties are not dusty history for Canada’s native people is the message Marie Wilson has for Canadians who would rather not talk about what happened in residential schools.

Wilson is one of three commissioners who make up the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The trio have five years to document the history of the national network of schools mandated by the government but mostly run by churches.

There may be truth but there won’t be any reconciliation if mainstream, urban Canadians don’t acknowledge the legacy of the schools, Wilson told about 70 people at Toronto’s Regis College April 6, where she delivered the annual Martin Royackers Lecture.

From the 1870s through most of the 20th century, the Canadian government forcibly removed native children from their families and communities and sent them to church-run schools in an effort to erase their Indian identity, culture and language. Various Catholic religious orders and dioceses ran about 60 per cent of the schools, with the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada taking up most of the remainder. From the 1857 Gradual Civilization Act on, the purpose of the schools was to turn aboriginal children into English-speaking farmers who could be easily assimilated, eventually eliminating the need for native reserves.

“We’re all treaty people. We’ve come to think of aboriginal people as treaty people. Well, it takes two to treaty,” she said.

Elaine Cameron, an environmental assessment co-ordinator from the Saugeen First Nation in Southhampton, Ont., said she’s seen little evidence that mainstream Canada is paying attention to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“The rest of Canada, the majority, the white population, has to understand,” she said. “That comes down to education.”

Canada’s Jesuits, who ran a residential school not far from Saugeen in Spanish, Ont., want the history fully documented, said Jesuit provincial superior Fr. Jim Webb.

“We want truth and we want reconciliation, too,” he said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology on behalf of the government of Canada has been too easily forgotten, said Wilson.

“What does the apology mean in everyday living? How are we living the apology as Canadians?” she asked.

For the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be successful it has to reach mainstream Canadians and forge a new relationship between Canadians and the first of Canada’s three founding nations, said Wilson.

“Reconciliation is about change. Healing relations is also about change. Something has got to change. Something and someone has got to give.”

Christians ought to recognize truth and reconciliation as basic, essential parts of their faith, said Wilson.

“Truth is both painful and redemptive of the spirit. The work of the TRC is, at its core, about healing wounded spirits.”

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