We took away your past, present and future’

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published March 4, 2011

Advocates, archivists and abuse survivors convened in Vancouver this week to examine the challenges of documenting and preserving the stories of abuse victims in countries around the world. Called “Sharing the Truth,” the conference was organized by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Part of the mission of theTRC is to gather the experiences of survivors of Canada’s notorious residential schools and to help establish a lasting centre where these stories will be preserved and made accessible to all.

The object is to prevent society’s collective amnesia, which, after settlements have been made, tends to relegate the sufferings of abused groups to the sidelines of public consciousness.  “We need to make this a permanent legacy,” said Justice Murray Sinclair, a TRC commissioner who  gave the opening overview. The TRC was established in 2009 after an out-of-court settlement on the residential schools and will finish its work by 2014. “This will be an accessible vehicle for the experience of our ancestors,” said Justice Sinclair.

More than a dozen expert speakers outlined human rights abuses in countries such as Serbia, Rwanda, Chad, Francoist Spain, Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. Dr. Doudou Diene, a Senagalese advocate for human rights and a former UN special rapporteur, told attendees that memorializing abused groups for the purposes of truth and reconciliation is not enough. “While memory is a dimension of justice, we must record the truth in the ethical context,” he told delegates. “We need to examine the human values that were the basis of these abusive practices.” This important question of the ethical context of atrocities is the link between the past and future and the way to prevent recurrence—and a way to move from passive knowledge to societal transformation, said Dr. Diene.

He reminded delegates that the removal of children from their families by so-called more civilized countries in the interests of giving them a better life is still very much alive, although the last residential school in Canada closed in Saskatchewan 15 years ago. He cited the illegal removal of 100 children from Chad to France by the French organization Les Enfants de Zoe.

Freddy Mutanguha, director of Aegis, a Rwandan NGO that campaigns to prevent genocide worldwide, described the creation of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, while Catherine Kennedy, director of the South African History Archive, outlined her group’s often thwarted attempts to trace and open up the archive of the South African Truth Commission. Marijana Toma, coordinator of a group seeking to establish the facts on war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, spoke about documenting atrocities and bringing those responsible to justice in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Several First Nations delegates also shared their experiences. One man accused experts of “making an industry out of his suffering.” He also lamented the fact that no one in Canadian churches and government will be punished under the law for their involvement in the residential schools. “No one will be held accountable for what I suffered–the sexual, mental and physical abuse,” he said.  Another survivor noted that any permanent repository of experience must remain in the hands of indigenous people. “We have to retain ownership of our ancestors’ experiences,” she said.

Briton Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles and a leading Holocaust educator, apologized for the U.K.’s complicity in Canada’s residential schools and for the colonialist mindset captured by the American Richard Pratt’s comment made in 1892: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” He stressed the need for accountability. “We must challenge and change our conscience,” he said. “We took away your past, present and future and we need to be accountable for what we did in the past.”


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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