A journey of six years reached its climax on June 2 when the summary of the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was presented to a crowded audience in the Grand Ballroom of Ottawa’s Delta hotel.
“The eyes of the world and the gaze of history is upon us,” said the TRC’s chair, Justice Murray Sinclair. “What we do now and in the years ahead matters a great deal.”
“Cultural genocide” was the term Sinclair used to describe what had happened in the Indian residential school system, and while he celebrated the residential school survivors and their “courage, conviction and trust in sharing their stories,” he did not mince words in giving his analysis of the ways in which “imperialism, colonialism and a sense of cultural superiority linger on.”
Sinclair and his fellow commissioners Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild all stressed that the work of reconciliation is just beginning, and that there remain many cultural, social and political barriers.
Sinclair specifically mentioned the importance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and how vital a tool it is for reconciliation, and decried the objections the Harper government raised last year when the UN attempted to implement the declaration throughout the world-a pronouncement that was met with sympathetic boos from the audience.
“The Canadian government’s rejection of the implementation work with respect to the declaration sends an unfortunate message to Aboriginal people in Canada at a very sensitive time, as well as to all Canadians and the world,” he said.
“We believe the current government has yet to make good on its claim that it wishes to join with the Aboriginal people in Canada in ‘a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together’ as promised nine years ago in the prime minister’s apology. Words are not enough.”
But Sinclair was clear-eyed about the difficulties that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people face going forward.
“Reconciliation requires deliberate, thoughtful and sustained action. Political action will be required to break from past injustices and start to journey towards reconciliation.”
He went on to list a number of actions the final report called on the government to take, including a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown and the institution of an annual “State of Aboriginal Peoples” report to monitor progress toward reconciliation-announcements that were met with enthusiastic cheering, drumming and, in some cases, standing ovations from the audience. The longest and greatest ovation was for the TRC’s call for the establishment of a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. The Harper government has repeatedly rejected demands for such an inquiry.
“We must work together. We must speak the truth. At its heart, reconciliation is about forming respectful relationships,” said Sinclair in closing. “The sacred fire lit at sunrise a few days ago will be extinguished soon, in the coming days, and now we must light a fire within ourselves. We must let our conviction, our courage, our commitment and our love keep this fire burning.”
Commissioner Marie Wilson took the podium following Sinclair, and reminded the audience that residential school survivors are precisely that: the ones who didn’t die.
“At least 3,200 students sent to residential schools never returned home,” she said. “In almost a third of those cases, the student’s name wasn’t even recorded,” Wilson noted. “A quarter of the time, the student’s gender was not recorded. For almost half of students who died, the cause of death was not recorded. The indignity of this, the utter sadness of this, the parental devastation of this, many of you can imagine.”
Wilson explained that part of the commission’s work involved setting up a National Residential School Student Death Register, which will record the names of students who died while at residential school and try to contact their surviving families.
She also stressed the direct connection between the way Aboriginal children were treated at residential schools and the challenges Aboriginal children continue to face.
“Part of addressing the injustices and inhumanities of the past is understanding the present circumstances of Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal children today,” she said, pointing out that Aboriginal children are “eight times more likely to be removed from their home, displaced and put into the child care system than non-Aboriginal Canadians.”
Wilson emphasized the importance of education in reversing these trends.
“A key element of a better future-a future in which true reconciliation is possible-is coming to terms with how we understand and teach others about our past,” she said, arguing that education in Canada continues to be highly Eurocentric and calling on governments to develop new curricula and provide better funding “to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms.”
Chief Wilton Littlechild, the final commissioner to speak, stressed the importance of the treaties-and the co-operative relationship they represent-as a way of realizing reconciliation.
“I believe Treaties are a solution,” he said. “They are a basis for a strengthened partnership that call on us to work together.”
In this spirit, toward the end of his speech Littlechild specifically addressed the non-Indigenous Canadians present or watching the proceedings to extend a hand of partnership.
“We are not calling on you to accept the full brunt of the blame for what happened. We are calling on you to open up your mind, to be willing to learn these stories, to be willing to accept that these things happened,” he said.
“Most importantly, we are calling on you to link arms with us, that all Canadians-Indigenous or not-young or old, first-generation or tenth-generation, that we work together to heal and secure a better future. We need to have good relations.”
After hearing responses from the other parties of the Indian residential schools settlement agreement, the commissioners presented the summary of the final report to the Canadian Parliament, following which they met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with whom Sinclair said they shared a “frank and open dialogue.”
Harper “was open to listening to some of our concerns and inquired about some of our recommendations,” said Sinclair in a statement, adding, “I remain concerned with the Government’s resistance to the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The commissioners offered to meet again with Harper, he said.
The TRC was established in 2008 to explore the history of abuse in Canada’s Indian residential school system as part of the settlement agreement. Its work was delayed for nearly a year when the first appointed TRC chair, Justice Harry LaForme, resigned following disagreements with other commissioners. Sinclair, Wilson and Littlechild were subsequently appointed.
Over 150,000 Indigenous children went through residential schools, which were operated by the Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian Churches, over the course of more than a century.