Recently I had the privilege of sitting in a two-day circle that included residential school survivors, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) officials and United Church and local Kairos members. Several aboriginal men spoke of their ordeals as children in residential school and what is being done to facilitate the healing process. Anger, addiction, abuse and violence all intensified from this grave historical injustice. As I sat in the circle I was struck by how different were our experiences of growing up in Saskatchewan. And I wondered whether the TRC may actually help overcome the large chasm between aboriginal and settler populations? Could it help lay the ground for Canada becoming a more just and sustainable society?
WHAT IS THE TRC?
Formed in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the TRC continues until 2013. It is headed by Justice Murray Sinclair who became known after co-chairing Manitoba’s precedent-setting Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in 1988. The other commissioners are Marie Wilson, with broad experience in Canada’s north, and Chief Wilton Littlechild, who chaired the Commission on First Nations and Métis Peoples and Justice Reform in Saskatchewan in 2001.
Many still don’t know much about Residential Schools and their legacy. Starting in the 1870s and growing to over 130 schools they affected 150,000 First Nations, Métis or Inuit children. The TRC motto is, “For the child taken, for the parent left behind”; children were taken from their families, often by the RCMP, with the aim of “killing the Indian in the child”. After being separated from family, language and custom, children were used for menial labour; many faced physical and some sexual abuse. Some risked or lost their lives trying to escape; some died prematurely while in these prison schools. Three generations suffered directly under the brunt of this colonial system of kidnap and abuse, and inter-generation trauma continues to this day.
We barely know the depth of the harm. The TRC is collecting statements, now in the thousands, to be housed in the National Research Centre. Being taken from their family has made some aboriginal people embarrassed about their culture, and remembering what it took a lifetime to forget is never easy. Opening up to childhood traumas is unsettling; until the TRC there were many family members who hadn’t heard the stories of their own kin. Disclosing always carries some risks. The effects of “lateral violence”, such as addiction and abuse, stemming from the shock of residential schools, can resurface and re-traumatize.
In June 2008 Stephen Harper apologized for a century of government-funded residential schools. This was an important symbolic gesture, but his Conservative government hasn’t made reconciliation a priority. It’s ironic that TRC Commissioner Chief Littlechild worked on the draft UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Harper government refuses to sign. Meanwhile, the United Church, one denomination that ran residential schools, not only apologized in 1986 and again in 1998, but is calling on Canada to endorse the Declaration and supports aboriginal rights across the country.
SASKATCHEWAN’S BIG LEGACY
One-third of those affected live(d) in Saskatchewan and the last school to close in Canada was the Catholic-run school at Lebret. Catholics ran 9 of the 17 schools in the province, Anglicans ran 5; the rest were operated by the United and Presbyterian churches. One survivor in our circle credited all the churches except the Catholic for “manning-up” to their role in the harms of residential schools. The sex abuse scandal continuing in the Catholic Church perpetuates the distrust. Distrust for the government and its settlement package also continues. It’s ironic that the federal Ministry of Northern and Indian Affairs has to approve TRC funding.
It’s been difficult to initiate the reconciliation process. Stigma kept many survivors from using the first federal program, in 2003. The TRC is trying to address this by hosting seven events across the country. The first, held at the Forks in Winnipeg this past June, drew an unexpected 40,000 people over five days. This stretched support services to the breaking point; some had trouble coping with the scale of survivors and their stories. While a lot of money was spent on entertainment some elders had to sleep on the river banks.
An event will be held in Saskatchewan in 2012, and settler as well as aboriginal persons will hopefully be directly involved. There are some practical programs underway. In 2008 the United Church began forming “Right Relations Home groups” where persons of aboriginal and settler background commit to a five year process of reconciliation. Another is “Returning to Spirit”, a non-profit “community of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people dedicated to generating reconciliation of the Indian Residential School legacy in Canada.” It provides learning opportunities for aboriginal and settler persons, who meet in separate groups for 5 days prior to coming together. Sessions highlight how to “create your future rather than be stuck in the past; move beyond ‘healing’ and experience reconciliation; bridge the differences between yourself and others; discover how Residential Schools show up in your life today and impact Canadian society” and more.
FACING OUR COLONIAL LEGACY
Will TRC events set a new tone between aboriginal and settler populations? One good outcome would be a wider awareness that we are all parties to the Treaties. We also need to better understand why the policy of forced assimilation occurred. While aboriginal people faced the greatest crimes from residential schools, a similar approach was used with Doukabour families, whose children were taken away for compulsory education. Also when you go into British colonial history you find that Scottish and Irish, Africans and East Indians also faced similar colonial practices, for “re-education” was a major tool of the British Empire.
It’s one thing to look back and see the injustices and failings of the past; it’s quite another to stop present practices that will have traumatic effects in the future. And the cycle of neo-colonial abuse continues. With 70 percent of Saskatchewan inmates of aboriginal background, we have the highest rate of aboriginal incarceration in all Canada and in the world. The poverty rate among urban aboriginal people is among Canada’s highest. In spite of, and partly because of, the resource boom, Northern Saskatchewan remains one of Canada’s poorest regions. Saskatchewan’s Children’s Advocate reports that the children in care continues to rise and a large proportion are of aboriginal background. Meanwhile housing programs that provide family stability are being neglected. Further, the percentage of children who died while “in care” who were aboriginal is very high; e.g. twenty of the twenty-three child deaths reviewed from 2000 and 2001 were aboriginal.
Many problems leading to over-incarceration and child apprehension are rooted in the inter-generational trauma from the residential schools. Many were addressed in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples report in 1996, but, for the most part, its comprehensive recommendations gather dust on government shelves. We have a lot to face to be ready when the TRC holds its event here in 2012. Any meaningful reconciliation will require much more than “politics”; small circles, like the one I sat in, are a good place to start.
TRC toll-free crisis line: 1(866) 925-4419