Quick Comments on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission mid-term Report

Posted: February 24, 2012 in Marc Pinkoski, News/Updates

Tonight the CBC released a leaked copy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mid-term report. The following is an introduction to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was struck on June 1, 2008, and is scheduled to complete its work by 2014. It is important to stress that reconciliation, in a broad sense, is conflated with the important but narrow apology to victims of residential schools. The TRC states that it

will build upon the “Statement of Reconciliation” dated January 7, 1998 and the principles developed by the Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation and of the Exploratory Dialogues (1998-1999). These principles are as follows: accessible; victim-centered; confidentiality (if required by the former student); do no harm; health and safety of participants; representative; public/transparent; accountable; open and honourable process; comprehensive; inclusive, educational, holistic, just and fair; respectful; voluntary; flexible; and forward looking in terms of rebuilding and renewing Aboriginal relationships and the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

They go on to state, claiming that

Reconciliation is an ongoing individual and collective process, and will require commitment from all those affected including First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School (IRS) students, their families, communities, religious entities, former school employees, government and the people of Canada. Reconciliation may occur between any of the above groups.

Specifically, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The Commission will document the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.”

The TRC states that “the Commission hopes to guide and inspire First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples and Canadians in a process of truth and healing leading toward reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.” And that “the Commission views reconciliation as an ongoing individual and collective process that will require participation from all those affected by the residential school experience. This includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis former students, their families, communities, religious groups, former Indian Residential School employees, government, and the people of Canada.” 

As a directive, the TRC will:

  • Prepare a complete historical record on the policies and operations of residential schools.
  • Complete a public report including recommendations to the parties of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
  • Establish a national research centre that will be a lasting resource about the IRS legacy.
  • Host seven national events in different regions across Canada to promote awareness and public education about the residential school system and its impacts.
  • Support events designed by individual communities to meet their unique needs.
  • Support a commemoration initiative that will provide funding for activities that honour and pay tribute in a permanent and lasting manner to former residential school students.

The CBC reports that the mid-term report offers the following recommendations:

The commission calls for all provinces and territories to develop residential school education materials for public schools. Provinces and territories should hold education campaigns about the history and impact of residential schools in their jurisdictions, the commission says.

The report also asks the federal government to distribute a framed copy of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s historic formal apology to residential school survivors, saying it should be displayed prominently in every secondary school in the country. The commissioners want the apology delivered to every known residential school survivor.

They recommend setting up a mental-health wellness facility in Nunavut or the Northwest Territories, saying such a centre is “critically needed by residential school survivors and their families and communities.”

The federal government and the churches involved in residential schools should establish what the commission calls “an ongoing cultural revival fund” to pay for projects related to the cultural, traditional and spiritual heritage of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

According to the CBC, some other recommendations are:

  • Provinces and territories should review what is taught in public schools about residential schools and develop new materials to address any shortfalls.
  • The federal government should set up centres for grief and trauma counselling and treatment.
  • The concerns of former students who feel unfairly left out of compensation programs should be addressed.
  • The federal government should work with the commission to make sure it has adequate funds to complete its mandate on time.
  • All levels of government and those party to the settlement agreement should use the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for ongoing reconciliation work between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.
  • The federal government, churches and other agencies should hand over all relevant documents to the commission so that it can continue its work.

I have been reflecting on these recommendations and I want to raise a few points. I find the idea of delivering Stephen Harper’s framed apology to every residential school survivor a poignant token.  And, I find the delivery of the apology to every secondary school in the country a wonderful idea. The prospect is haunting and provocative. But this token, sent to these schools, all of these schools, has to be part of a meaningful public education campaign. How will these plaques be received and displayed? How will they be taught and understood?

In this way, I raise a challenge to the first recommendation that “all provinces and territories to develop residential school education materials for public schools. Provinces and territories should hold education campaigns about the history and impact of residential schools in their jurisdictions.” To me, it seems much more important to know about the conditions that permitted the logic and action of the state and its citizens to create residential schools and maintain them for more than a century. The history of residential schools is highly important but not sufficient to begin to deal with the issues that created them. It might be part of the path of reconciliation, but it does not address the underlying problems that created the schools in the first place.

Why were young Indigenous people taken from their homes and families and institutionalized? I will raise two points. First, the schools were conceived of as a civilizing project. That is, the state in consort with church missions took themselves to rooting out what was considered savage and instilling what was considered proper. In the realm of thinking savagely, it presupposes that there are gradations of human social groups and the level of Indigenous peoples is one characterized by lack, want, and need. How that story plays out is interesting and important, but it is crucial to stress that the civilizing projects that permitted the institutionalization of Indigenous children continue to this day. In fact, the very definition of aboriginal rights in current Canadian law is a project for assimilation.

Secondly and closely related, children were taken because of demonstrations of power, acts of sovereignty, and claims to jurisdiction. In places like the coasts of what is now called British Columbia, colonial powers led with cannons and small armies, clearing village after village after village. And soon thereafter many people from the remaining communities were infected with smallpox, a process that seems less than accidental and not entirely natural.

The residential schools and the civilizing projects were set up because it was claimed and then attempted to be maintained that Indigenous communities did not have sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over their lands and resources – nor could they as savages. The state could fill the void of the lacking humanity of the common savage Indian by taking control of all resources, limiting those who had come before it by claiming that none had come before it.

The Commission recommends that an on-going cultural revival fund be established. If we understand cultural here to mean something like taught and practiced way of life, it behooves us all to understand that a way of life has a relationship to sovereignty, jurisdiction, control, relations, and freedom. It is one thing to apologize; it is quite something else to make  changes to affect the relationships. I believe we need a more daring and robust notion of reconciliation.

Marc Pinkoski

  1. tomswanky says:

    Yes, it is more important to understand the conditions which gave rise to residential schools and permitted their maintenance for over 100 years. It would be a mistake to couch all this proposed education as though residential schools were a one-off policy.

  2. Johnb73 says:

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