Truth, Reconciliation and Canada’s ‘Cultural Genocide’: Notes from a Truth Commission

Andrea Russell joins JiC this week for a timely post on the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which is examining the impact and legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system in Canada. Andrea recently attended one of the TRC’s national events in Montreal and offers an insider perspective into its work and the challenges ahead. 

(Photo: speakingmytruth.ca)

(Photo: speakingmytruth.ca)

Even the greatest of transitional justice fans might be excused for not knowing what atrocities Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks to address. In fact, until recently, the atrocities in question were sadly unknown even to most Canadians. Thus, in an address on Friday evening to the TRC national event, ‘Honorary TRC Witness’ and former Prime Minister of Canada Paul Martin voiced the question that many Canadians have not had the courage to ask: Why were Canadians so long unaware that their government had, for a period of over 100 years, compelled 150,000 Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit children to attend residential schools, where they lost their identities, their culture, and their language, and were subjected to physical, sexual, and psychological assaults of the most appalling nature?

Canada’s ‘Indian’ Residential Schools are, as Martin and current Prime Minister Harper have acknowledged, a deeply shameful part of the country’s past. And yet few knew of the schools’ existence, let alone the colossally destructive impact that they had on Canada’s first peoples, until very recently, when in 2006, class action lawsuits launched by survivors of the school systems were settled by the Federal government and the churches that operated the schools. The $1.9 billion settlement agreement entered into by the federal government and the churches mandated the creation not only of the TRC, but also an independent assessment process and a common payment claims process wherein former students could receive direct financial compensation for their experiences at the schools.

At the Montreal TRC event, former Prime Minister Martin, a strong advocate for Aboriginal rights and education, did not hold back in employing legal concepts to describe the effects of the schools. This forced assimilation of Aboriginal children and youth, he said in a well-publicized address to survivors, entailed “cultural genocide”.

Some may counter that while Raphael Lemkin did indeed formulate the concept of cultural genocide, the Genocide Convention that he inspired did not ultimately include this concept; later attempts to enshrine the idea into indigenous rights conventions were similarly defeated. The intent to destroy ethnic and racial groups lies of course at the heart of the Genocide Convention. Few who attend Canada’s TRC hearings would deny that evidence of the destructive impact of the policy on Aboriginal groups—if not necessarily evidence of a government intent to destroy– is being systematically documented by the TRC.

A hockey team from a residential school in Maliotenam, Quebec, in 1950 (Photo: Archives Canada / PA-212964)

A hockey team from a residential school in Maliotenam, Quebec, in 1950 (Photo: Archives Canada / PA-212964)

Government planes flew into remote Aboriginal villages without notice and departed mere minutes later with all of the village children on board, heading to new lives at the residential schools. Children as young as five were severely beaten for speaking their native language at the schools, or for refusing to eat food that was completely foreign to them. Students taken from their parents and who returned home up to twelve years later were completely changed and unable to communicate with their families. Many other children never returned at all, with at least 3,000 of them dying of disease or during ill-fated escapes through wintry northern landscapes. Young people grew up in the schools without ever receiving a hug or words of love or kindness from a parental figure. The underfunded system of ‘schools’ was staffed by unscreened and untrained teachers and guardians, a frightening number of whom regularly sexually molested and physically assaulted the children. Corporal punishment and sexual abuse in the schools was so horrific that it drove many former students to alcohol and drug abuse and, in many, cases suicide.

Variations on these personal narratives were tearfully recounted by dozens of witnesses at the TRC’s latest hearings. Some now elderly former students were publicly telling their story for the first time in their lives. Most had learned to repress memories of their years at the schools, and many had never shared their horrific pasts—even with their own family members.

The real truth regarding Canada’s residential schools, it would seem, was known until very recently only to the victims and the perpetrators. This TRC thus faces unique challenges. It must seek out the truth regarding these schools, and reveal it to a Canadian public — many Aboriginal people included—that has no knowledge of what happened to past Aboriginal generations. Public education in a context in which so few know even the most basic of details of the atrocities is a formidable task.

For this reason, the risk of traumatization and retraumatization— concepts so familiar to students of transitional justice—is also particularly high for this TRC. Learning the truth, so long buried and so rarely discussed, risks traumatizing many children and grandchildren of former students. Anyone who doubts this real risk should listen to the tears of one woman who testified last weekend. Her gradual realization of the horrors of the schools attended by her parents sent her into a six-year long breakdown that has endured since the TRC commenced its work.

Tiles commemorating the victims of Indian Residential Schools (Photo: ProjectofHeart / ICTJ)

Tiles commemorating the victims of Indian Residential Schools (Photo: ProjectofHeart / ICTJ)

Chief Commissioner of the TRC Justice Murray Sinclair acknowledged at the hearings that the second component of its mandate– reconciliation– might be slow in coming. And he emphasized that reconciliation did not necessarily require forgiveness. For one thing, he emphasized, forgiving a government or a church, much like forgiving an enemy nation, is unfeasible for most.

This TRC is thus different from many of its more famous TRC cousins, but is at the same time inspired by the best practices of TRCs the world over. The details both big and small of last week’s national event were truly inspired, and indicative of a real intention to acknowledge the past and support the survivors, as well as to commence the ever-elusive process of reconciliation.

‘Tear tissues’ were placed strategically and distributed by volunteers throughout the venue, and were used by the boxful— so much so, that the Commission intends to collect and burn the tear tissues used at its events in a symbolic attempt to move beyond the sorrow. Simultaneous translation of survivor testimony in five different languages– Mohawk, Cree, and Innu among them—was offered, and the public testimonies were streamed live over the Internet to witnesses in 24 countries over the course of the weekend. Those who preferred to testify privately could secure appointments of up to an hour-and-a-half to have their statements privately recorded. A ‘reconciliation lunch’ for survivors was held, as was a morning of education about the schools for Montreal students. A memory box was created, into which survivors, representatives of the churches that operated the schools, and ordinary Canadians placed tangible symbols of reconciliation and remorse. The Commissioners also insisted on panels and workshops offering historical context to the residential schools era and Canada’s development of a colonial approach towards Aboriginal peoples. And concerts and talent shows were held in the evenings to applaud and recognize the strong Aboriginal culture of which Canada’s government once sought to deprive Aboriginal children across this country.

Witnessing the truth is as important as speaking the truth, the Commissioners emphasized in Montreal. I am deeply moved by the courage of survivors to educate Canadians and indeed their own families about this tragic chapter in Canada’s history, and I am hopeful that voicing these truths will begin to set survivors free from this dark past.

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About Mark Kersten

Mark is a PhD student in International Relations at the London School of Economics. His work focuses on the nexus of international criminal justice and conflict resolution. Specifically, he is examining the effects of the ICC on peace processes and negotiations in northern Uganda and Libya.
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2 Responses to Truth, Reconciliation and Canada’s ‘Cultural Genocide’: Notes from a Truth Commission

  1. Chris Tenove says:

    Thanks very much for the observations, Andrea. A few transitional justice scholars have been writing on the Canadian TRC, including Matt James (University of Victoria), Rosemary Nagy (Nipissing), and Kim Stanton ( http://opencanada.org/features/the-think-tank/comments/truth-and-reconciliation-in-canada/ ). I’m sure there are others.
    It would be a great blog post for someone who knew this topic to do a round-up of scholarship that has been published to date!

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