Truth and Reconciliation Commission to fight injustice against Aboriginal peoples

Reconciliation Canada and the University of British Columbia are gathering support and planning for a week of dialogue and community building

St Michael's residential school in Alert Bay
St Michael's residential school in Alert Bay. The building is now the property of the 'Namgis First Nation. Photo by iwona_kellie via Flickr.

It's been less than two decades since the closing of the last Indian Residential School, but the most Canadians usually hear about the residential school in this country is that it's ancient history. But for generations of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their homes by government and placed into church-run schools -- where many faced physical and sexual abuse -- that history remains a vivid living memory.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the result of residential school survivors taking the federal government and the churches to court in 2006. The commission has been travelling the major cities in Canada collecting survivors' stories and creating opportunities for others to hear them. The goal is to build a dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across the country and find ways to facilitate healing.

With just over a year left on the TRC’s mandate, Vancouver is already preparing to host the next national reconciliation event in September.

In addition to the TRC’s main event, a public forum for residential school survivors to speak about their experiences and for members of the public to come and listen, the Vancouver-based organization Reconciliation Canada will host a week of events from September 16-22, culminating in the Walk for Reconciliation on the 22nd. The four-kilometre walk around downtown Vancouver will include performers and food, as well as opportunities for fundraising.

Reconciliation Canada’s executive director Karen Joseph said the organization is looking at the event as a historic call to action to explore what reconciliation really means for all Canadians.

“It’s about being focused on moving the dialogue beyond just gathering stories and taking it to a place of action.”

Reconciliation Canada will also be hosting an All Nations Canoe Gathering at False Creek on September, inviting First Nations canoes as well as dragon boaters, kayakers and canoes from all across Canada 

Joseph said the events are designed to find ways to move beyond apologies and monetary compensation and build understanding and healthy relationships between Canadians.

Justice Murray Sinclair is the lead commissioner for the TRC on the Vancouver event, and he said the city's diversity puts it in a unique position in terms of educating the public about the history of residential schools.

“This one will also have a particular focus on including conversation with multicultural community leaders, giving the opportunity to learn and discuss what their communities might be able to bring to the conversation.”

Getting immigrant Canadians on board with reconciliation  

While Canadians for the most part have at least heard of residential schools, Sinclair said, newcomers to the country don’t feel invested in the history of a country they weren’t born in.

“One of the question we often get from the immigrant community is: what does this have to do with me?”

Statistics show that the percentage of the population born outside of Canada is growing rapidly, making it even more important to find ways for newcomers to connect with Canada’s history and become part of the dialogue moving forward.

“They may not have a responsibility for the past, but they have a responsibility for the future.”

He said the commission has tried to strike a balance between making space for survivors to tell their stories and members of the public at large to learn and discuss the issues.

The TRC’s mandate will come to a close in July of next year after one more national event following Vancouver. Sinclair says that date will arrive far too soon.

The project has stalled several times, with the federal government and some of the churches involved causing the biggest hold up by refusing to release some of the documents the commission required. The dispute returned to court in January, and the judge ruled in favour of the commission.

“This country is just too big, and the time frame that we were given was just too small to be able to do as full a job as we could have done.”

Dr. Linc Kesler, director of the First Nations House of Learning at the University of British Columbia, also believe Vancouver has a unique role to play in the commission’s mandate. He points to successes such as city programs that bring together newcomers and First Nations people, and also to the disproportionate numbers of disenfranchised First Nations people living in the city.

“Thinking about the residential schools and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a way to think about some of the real difficulties we have in the city,” he said. “And that’s a key to understanding how we can approach them more effectively.”

Battling collective amnesia about Aboriginal history

The university will be suspending classes on September 18 to give student, faculty and staff the chance to attend the opening of the TRC event and learn about other reconciliation activities. Kesler said both students and faculty have taken it upon themselves to spread the word about the event.

In light of the failings of the Canadian public school curriculum when it comes to First Nations issues, Kesler said, it’s especially important for the university to participate in the education aspect of reconciliation.

“For instance, students arrive at the university and have very little background or understanding of Aboriginal history,” he said.

“We are working quite hard to change that, changing the way Canadian history is taught in Canadian universities and working to include it in teacher training that will affect K-12.” He said he believes Canadians share a kind of collective amnesia when it comes to the issue of residential schools.

He also hopes to highlight the role government policy plays in the marginalization or integration of different cultural groups and hopefully open up discussions about ways to influence that policy for the better.

“If it’s possible to do that much damage the policy decisions, it’s possible to have better policies that move in a better direction. I think that’s where we’re seeing a lot of positive possibilities in thinking about the residential schools and the work of the TRC and what we hope to add to that at the university.”


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