Canadians urged to ‘buy in’ to truth and reconciliation process

Published October 3, 2008


Academics who gathered here recently for an international conference on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have cautioned Canadians against looking at the TRC as the final stage in the reconciliation with aboriginal people harmed by the 150-year legacy of forced assimilation through the Indian residential schools.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission "is about writing the missing chapter in our share history,"says Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission “is about writing the missing chapter in our share history,”says Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“This (reconciliation) is a process that will take a long time,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, deputy director for the Americas at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). “It necessitates looking that scary question straight in the eye: ‘Will we ever trust each other again? Will we all, at some point, overcome our mutual perceptions and see each other as citizens?'”

Mr. Gonzalez said the first step in the process of reconciliation is “accepting to discuss the nature of the past crimes and their consequences.” He added that “nobody can be reconciled by decree; similarly, nobody can be forbidden to forgive.” What society can do collectively, he said, is “invite everyone to share a view on what is needed to trust each other and institutions we have created.”

Mr. Gonzalez, who served as a commissioner of Peru’s Comision de la Verdad y Reconciliacion (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), was one of more than a dozen academics at Breaking the Silence, a two-day conference on the TRC held Sept. 26 to 27 at the University of Montreal. (Mr. Gonzalez now works for the New York-based ICTJ, which helps societies emerging from repressive rule or armed conflict as well as established democracies “where historical injustice or systemic abuse remain unresolved” deal with issues involving truth-seeking, reparations, criminal justice and reconciliation efforts.)

“The TRC should be a step in a much longer process,” said Cynthia Milton, a history professor at the University of Manitoba. “It should act as a wedge that opens up a space to push issues, including taboo truths.”

Sue Campbell, a professor at Dalhousie University’s department of philosophy, cautioned against applying the “Western conception of memory,” which dictates that the past must be forgotten in order to move forward. “For the First Nations, the past can’t be forgotten because the past is in the present, and the effects linger,” she said. “Unless we make a connection between past and present, we can’t understand the full harm of residential schools and assimilation.”

Several academics said the TRC will be challenged by the varying interpretations of reconciliation.

“To what degree do we share the view of reconciliation?” asked Jeff Corntassel, assistant professor at the University of Victoria’s indigenous governance programs.

“Is reconciliation possible at all? What do we want? What expectations do we have?” added Christian Nadeau, a professor at the University of Montreal’s philosophy department.

The conference also heard that the now-defunct federally-financed, church-run residential schools, which were created to force aboriginal people to assimilate with the dominant culture, cannot be viewed in isolation from issues such as self-determination and land rights.

Mr. Gonzalez said that Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recognized 12 years ago that “the victimization of children and families in the residential schools was only part of a wider set of policies, seeking to remove aboriginal peoples from their homelands, suppress their nations and governments, undermine their culture and identity.” The TRC, said Mr. Gonzalez, “will have a powerful guide in the Supreme Court jurisprudence, which has addressed the question of reconciliation as directly related to the affirmation and recognition of aboriginal rights.”

Mr. Corntassel said that truth-telling “must be bridged by self-determination, justice and restitution.” Reconciliation, he added, “must involve a process of renewing relationships, otherwise it becomes a rhetorical reconciliation.”

Mr. Nadeau added that no reconciliation is possible without obligation. He wondered: “How is the TRC’s work going to matter if it doesn’t lead to socio-economic and political change for the aboriginal population?”

Several academics also shared the view that criminal justice was a necessary element for addressing the injustice committed against former students; they lamented the fact that the TRC has no prosecutorial powers and has no mandate to conduct a public inquiry.

“Reparation policy that goes beyond a transfer of funds, and incorporate explicit acknowledgment of wrongdoing recognizes the dignity of victims and the responsibility of the state,” said Mr. Gonzalez. “Criminal justice shows that the suffering of victims has not been forgotten, and sends the message that everyone, even the most vulnerable, the smallest among the small, the weakest among the weak will be protected.”

Mr. Gonzales said a challenge for the TRC would be how to “remove the veil of silence, but also of euphemism” about the residential schools. He noted that while the government’s apology spoke of abuses that took place in the schools, they have been made “in general terms and without clear acknowledgment of the criminal nature of those acts.” Not only are the abuses “unaddressed,” but they also deny Canadians the opportunity to hear about those abuses “in a credible, exhaustive investigation,” he said. “Without an opportunity for the victim to speak directly to the country … weaving their narrative, the abuses will still be seen as probable exaggerations.”

Added Mr. Nadeau: “What is the proper role of apology? I see it as part of recognition of wrongdoing. But it is nothing without punitive response to wrongdoing.”

Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine said, however, that the TRC “was structured not to concede to Canada’s legal framework,” but to adapt to the needs of the former students. “We were thinking of the survivors. The ADR (alternative dispute resolution) experience was painful for them,” said Mr. Fontaine, who spoke at the conference. Kathleen Mahoney, the AFN’s lead negotiator, added that former students “didn’t want a court room setting,” which allows for cross-examination of both complainant and accused.

Mr. Fontaine added that most the perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse against the students are now dead.

“I urge caution, especially to those who see this as limited. It’s not. We support the TRC’s work 100 per cent” said Mr. Fontaine, himself a former residential schools student, who helped negotiate the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between the government, churches and former students.

“The TRC is so important because once all the money is gone, this will be the lasting legacy,” said Mr. Fontaine, adding that the apology made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last July 11, “should be seen as a staging point for reconciliation,” while the TRC “is about writing the missing chapter in our shared history.”

The TRC is part of a revised residential schools agreement which took effect September 2007. The TRC is intended to provide former students and their families with a chance to share their experiences in a culturally-appropriate, safe setting, and to set the historical record straight about what happened at the residential schools.

Also at the conference, academics grappled with the issue of “how to engage the unengaged” in the TRC process.

“We’re not likely to see spontaneous societal interest,” said Matt James, a political science professor at the University of Victoria. Mr. James theorized that “the greater the societal complicity and the longer the time frame for the abuses committed, the more the barriers” towards participation in the process. He said that in El Salvador, there was a high level of public participation in the truth-telling process because the perpetrators were clear. “The guys with guns, the death squads did it and it was seen as a temporary period of madness.” In Canada’s case, he said, the perpetrators included governments “that were elected by a majority, who also comprise the faith groups (that took part in the residential schools system), so there was a huge level of societal complicity.” And since the system operated for over a century “the temporary period of madness doesn’t apply,” he said.

Paige Arthur, ICTJ deputy director of research, stressed the importance of having “a dedicated staff and resources” for the educational component of the TRC’s work. She cited a survey conducted in South Africa after its truth commission completed its work, which looked into the degree to which various racial groups (white, black, South Asian) accepted the narrative that apartheid was a crime against humanity and that both sides in the conflict had committed abuses. All racial groups’ acceptance correlated, she said, adding that the commission’s work succeeded in creating “uncertainty and doubt about the goodness of one’s cause,” and “provided a basis for dialogue; people became less dogmatic.”

Robina Thomas, assistant professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Social Work, said there must be “reciprocity” at TRC events. “Canada also needs to tell its own story … We’re asking survivors to share their past and Canada has to do its share. We’ve already had so much taken away from us.”

Roger Simon, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, expressed concern about how the stories of the students would be received and how they will be distilled in writing the public history.

“There are assumptions that the narratives will lead to empathy,” he said, adding that since the stories of abuse may sound the same, people might think “there’s nothing new to know.” Many will also be grappling with the question of what to do with the stories that they will hear. “What kind of pedagogy will the narratives produce?” he wondered.

Ms. Thomas also warned against “problematizing and pathologizing the survivors instead of looking at their stories also as stories of resistance and resiliency.”

Former students attending the conference raised concerns about the commission process, among them, how the testimonies of former students would be taken since there are concerns about language and cultural protocols in communities.

Commissioner Claudette Dupont-Smith said the TRC is currently looking at various methods for people to express themselves, adding that its work will be guided by a committee comprising former students.

“The health and safety of the participants is paramount,” said Ms. Dupont-Smith, adding that Health Canada has already set up a support mechanism that includes 24-hour counselling services and referrals to traditional support for those who might need them during the process.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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