In 2008, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in Canada. It was a result of a legal settlement. Its purpose was to deal with the legacy of the residential schools to which Aboriginal children were mainly forcibly sent in the 19th century and beyond.
As we see it:
- There have been more than 40 Truth and Reconciliation Commissions worldwide, mainly in countries where colonizing and/or autocratic/despotic governments have perpetrated atrocities.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are viewed as alternatives to criminal proceedings (although criminal charges may follow in some cases), and as means to dispel potential acts of vengeance or rebellion once the “genocidal” regime has been displaced.
- By virtue of their name, they are seen to promote new relationships (“reconciliation”) by documenting the experiences under an old regime.
- Given the grandeur of the ambitions associated with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, it is not surprising that they attract criticism. Many have been seen to be failures at best, deceptions at worst.
- However, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are simply inquiries, whether or not formally mandated as such. They are creatures of government and can only make recommendations.
- Seen as inquiries, Commissions can accomplish only four things: (1) change public discourse and bring issues to the forefront of public debate. (2) provide people with opportunities to document their experiences and express their views, (3) provide a sense (genuine or not) that action is being taken (usually by government) and (4) offer both specific and general recommendations for governments and civil society bodies.
- How should the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission be understood?
- No one seriously disputes the tragedy of the Canadian Indian residential schools, and their legacy of social and personal consequences for Aboriginal children, their families and their culture/community and way of life.
- A significant portion of the students died while in residence, abuses were commonplace, overcrowding was extreme, enrolment and separation of families were forced and enforced, and the goal was explicitly the extinguishment of the indigenous way of life and livelihood.
- The residential schools were not a Canadian tragedy exclusively, but reflect policies that recur time and again wherever there are indigenous peoples. The residential school model (“civilizing”) was adopted in Africa, Australia, and of course the USA.
- The history of residential schools more or less everywhere is, in the first instance, about churches and missionaries and about strong competition and conflict among and within the denominations.
- Governments have been deeply involved, partly by law, and because governments shared the churches’ mind-set and have settler interests at stake.
- In the Canadian case, let no one doubt either the role of the Hudson Bay Company (the government pre-Confederation) in opening up territories for the missionaries.
- The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the second of the three recent inquiries into issues concerning the relationship between governments and Aboriginal peoples. The first was a full-scale, government-mandated Royal Commission. Among its “calls for action” was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the residential schools issue.
- But before, during and after this first Royal Commission (1992-6), there were direct actions (e.g. blockades). Court cases were brought and won by Aboriginal groups* establishing rights. By then and certainly now, Aboriginal groups were well-organized nationally and in each province and territory.
- Three years after the first Royal Commission, the Canadian government issued a report (“Gathering Strength”) outlining its proposed response. Some Aboriginal groups saw this report as another example of governments dictating the terms of the debate. Others used its words to strengthen their case in negotiations for land claims and self-government.
- Then (2005-7), a successor Federal Government and most provincial/territorial governments, in genuine consultation with Aboriginal groups, drew up a series of Accords, which became law (2007), although without (for legal reasons) provision for funding for implementation.
- A Conservative government was elected in 2008. The then Prime Minister (Harper) issued an apology apparently without consultation with the residential school survivors (2008) but intentionally did not follow through on either the spirit or the details of the Accords.
- The Liberals came back to power (2015). Since then, the Canadian government and some but not all provinces, have shown a willingness to think differently and in some cases act accordingly with respect to Aboriginal peoples.
This Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
- After the first Royal Commission, survivors of the residential schools took their case to court. The result was a court-approved settlement agreement providing for individual financial compensation and the second inquiry, that is, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The cost were to be borne by Government and the churches.
- How much was contributed by the churches is not public information, but churches were closing or said to be financially troubled at this time. It is likely that the Government “backstopped” much of the process.
- The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formally mandated in 2008, but it did not unfold smoothly, with its critics saying at the time that initially it was still government-originated and directed initiative.
- Finally, in 2009, it got underway with extensive community hearings, and an office/centre in Winnipeg (continuing today) and with a serious commitment to historical documentation and on-going support for survivors. It reported in 2015.
Calls to Action:
- The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued 94 “calls to action” (recommendations). The great majority of these were directed to governments. The churches (they were a party to the settlement agreement) were treated as one among several civil society organization.
- By our count, approximately 23 of the calls to action were specific, that is referring to particular actions that governments could adopt and implement without major changes of policy.
- Approximately 34 called for governments and civil society organizations to adopt policy guidelines (and presumably to implement them) to reflect a different mind-set and changed relationships.
- Approximately 37 are in the nature of general exhortations about justice.
- In terms of the specifics: it has been crucially important to get the history of the residential schools and the experiences of their “students” written into the record of Canada, well documented and properly archived. Not only did the Commission do this, but its work on documentation and with survivors continues today. About half of the specific “calls to action” have been implemented.
- In terms of “mandating” recommendations, some, but certainly not all governments and several civil organizations (including some church bodies) have issued general policy statements, and some have taken steps to implement them.
- In terms of general exhortations, no one would claim that this Commission could, in its own right, accomplished the broader goals.
How does this add up:
- Aboriginal groups today powerfully exert influence on policy-making. Land claims and self-government agreements have been signed. Revenue-sharing and co-ownership agreements have been signed with companies proposing developments. Legal cases are frequently brought Aboriginal groups to a mainly responsive Supreme Court. A third inquiry is in process on the missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
- But to other Aboriginal groups, justice means more than these instances of sharing power and decision-making over resources and meaningful consultation. Justice does not involve what they see as piecemeal settlements and agreements. It means starting with full-scale “nation to nation” relationships and renouncing all forms of colonialism.
- From the right, criticism has been that the government took the issues out of context. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions should and usually do deal with mass murders by governments.
- Our own assessment pertains to dangers lurking in the manner in which all Truth and Reconciliation Commissions or their equivalents proceed:
- First is the potential for “memorial-izing”; creating monuments (such as are found in European cities to Jews) without, and in some cases in place of, sustainable living communities, as if somehow guilt can be assuaged by names carved in stone or documented in reports and media.
- Second is the danger of potentially accepting of the notion that recognition of the tragedy produces, in itself, a significant realignment of the relationships (church, government and corporate) then and since.
- Third is a notion, firmly rooted in both church doctrines and mass media self-help literatures, that confession on the part of perpetrators (with remorse?) constitutes atonement, and that apologies suffice to undo damage.
- Fourth, there is a danger that so called closure will follow from the necessary telling of people’s experience, as if telling were enough.
- Fifth, there is a danger that all will be seen as history, as today there are no more Canadian Indian residential schools. Or that this particular history of “cultural genocide” (the Canadian Supreme Court’s terminology), which only indirectly contributed to the deaths of many, is of a different significance than mass murder regimes that more commonly attract Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a danger is that history will be recounted without recognition of Aboriginal Groups’ significant resistance, politics and self-governance, which existed despite all efforts at “missionizing” and colonizing on the part of church and state then and now.
- All that said, this Commission has had an impact by providing opportunities to document the record and people’s experience. It has been one ingredient in changing public discourse and thus potentially changing policies of governments and some civil society groups. Like all inquiries, it barely accomplished the goal of persuading people that change has occurred and that justice has been restored.
* “Aboriginal groups” refers here to First Nations, non-status Aboriginal people, Metis and Inuit.
Sources: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996, especially Executive Summary; The Truth and Reconciliation Reports 2015 (especially the historical reports, calls for action and The Survivors Speak, The Globe and Mail, (Bill Curry) May 2016, “What is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission”; Wikipaedia; Government of Canada (various documents); Canadian Bar Association, March 2016, “Responding...” ; University of Waterloo policy statement; Canadian Encyclopedia: windspeaker, October, 2016,; uwaterloo.ca “Residential Schools Resolution Canada – Annex,”; Government of Ontario, May 2016, “The Journey Together”; Citizens for Public Justice, March 2016, “Statement”; City of Toronto, April 2016, , “Fulfilling..”; University of Saskatchewan, December 2016, “Post Secondary Education...”; Northern Public Affairs, December 2013, “Profile: Glen Coulthard and the 3Rs”; Financial Post, June 2016, Rubenstein and Clifton: Truth and Reconciliation report tells a skewed and partial story of residential schools”; The New Inquiry, November 2016, “Fires of Resistance” (Jarrett Martineau); Decolonization, Indigeneity and Society, Vol .1, No 1, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor” (Eve Tuck and K Wang Yang); Red Skin, White masks: 2014. (undated review)