A conference poster shows an image of an Indian residential school classroom.
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.
“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.”
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.
The TRC is part of a revised residential schools agreement which took effect September 2007. It is intended to provide former students and their families with a chance to share their experiences in a culturally-appropriate, safe environment.
“Reparation policy that goes beyond a transfer of funds, and incorporates 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 last June 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.”
Mr. Nadeau asked: “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 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 June 11, “should be seen as a staging point for reconciliation,” while the TRC “is about writing the missing chapter in our shared history.”
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.