Ceremonies in Ottawa today wrap up five years of work by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it’s not the end of the process, just the beginning. And where that process goes depends on actions, not mere words, by Canadians and their governments.
Pressure must be maintained on the federal government, in particular, to ensure the commission’s recommendations are heeded.
The commission, born in part from lawsuits on Vancouver Island, was formed to examine and bring to public consciousness the darkest chapter in Canadian history, when official policy set out to erase aboriginal cultures and languages, to “kill the Indian in the child.” For more than 100 years, First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their families and sent to government-funded, church-run residential schools, some of them hundreds of kilometres from their homes.
The schools were established, as noted by the commission, “with the purpose to eliminate parental involvement in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual development of aboriginal children.”
The first day of school is often portrayed as a happy moment, but for thousands of aboriginal children, it was terrifying. They were forcibly taken from their families and thrust into a bleak, unfamiliar world, kept like prisoners in residential schools until they were teenagers. Many knew no language but their own, and they were punished, often harshly, if they spoke their own tongue.
Physical, sexual and verbal abuse were all too common. Food was often poor; hygiene conditions inadequate. The commission determined that more than 6,000 children died as a result of the residential-school experience, some buried in unmarked graves.
The process destroyed families, erased languages, damaged cultures irreparably.
“The cumulative impact of residential schools is a legacy of unresolved trauma passed from generation to generation,” says the commission website, “and has had a profound effect on the relationship between aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.”
This was not some inconsequential moment in some disconnected past. The last residential school closed in 1996. About 150,000 children went through the schools; about 80,000 of those are still living. They do not bear scars, but gaping wounds.
The commission heard and recorded the experiences of about 7,000 residential-school survivors, some of whose stories have been too long unheard.
While those who attended the schools still deal with the trauma, the experience affects all Canadians. The colonial mindset that saw Canada’s native peoples as primitive savages in need of civilizing persists, but perhaps in more subtle forms — in cruel humour, in stereotyping, in prejudging.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper initiated the reconciliation process in 2008 when he stood in Parliament and delivered a formal apology. But the process should not be seen as a magnanimous gesture on the part of the government — it was brought into it grudgingly.
Much of the impetus came from B.C. in the form of a series of lawsuits started in the 1980s by residential-school survivors, including a 1995 suit filed by former residents of the Alberni residential school, in which the court found the federal government and the United Church responsible for sexual abuse of children by dorm supervisor Arthur Plint.
In 2007, on behalf of living former students, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, which was born in B.C., successfully sued the government and the churches that operated the schools. It is the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history. Those former students insisted on a truth commission, which is funded by money from that settlement.
It was the federal government that formed the residential school system; the federal government should lead the way in efforts to repair the damage, not reluctantly, not forced by lawsuits, but in measures that reflect a willing spirit of reconciliation.