Truth and Reconciliation Commission: which path will Trudeau take?

The new prime minister has promised to implement all 94 recommendations made by the Commission
Photo: Larry Chen

This is a translation of an article that originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet in June, after the release of 94 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the legacy of Canada’s residential schools. Justin Trudeau, the newly elected prime minister, has promised to implement them. How far will the Liberal government move towards reconciliation?

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has released a two-million word report with 94 recommendations, as well as the testimony of thousands of survivors of residential schools and other witnesses to the abuse and brutality inflicted on over 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada from the late 19th century until the last school closed in 1996.

The Truth was to be found in the voices—or silence—of 80,000 still living students who, through their public or privately given statements, were able to exorcise a still painful past that was completely unknown to the Canadian public and, in most cases, to their own families. The Truth is also to be found in the lived experience of the survivors’ children—we who could not even imagine the extent of the impact on our lives because what had happened to our parents was often hidden from us.

The intergenerational impact has been so great that, according to Statistics Canada, 48 per cent of the 30,000 children in foster homes today are Indigenous even though Indigenous people account for only 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population. The residential schools may not have killed the Indian in the child, but they certainly killed the child in the Indian, which came with consequences when he or she became a parent.

The testimony given to the Commission is vital to our collective history. Historians have not done justice to this facet of our history, but now the survivors are allowing us to correct that history and finally take ownership of the way we are represented in the history books. The century-old truth of the matter is hard to accept, and for many Canadians it is far from uplifting.

Reconciliation won’t be easy

It’s no secret that relations between Canada and Indigenous peoples are at an all-time low. Since the official apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008, we have seen the rise of Idle No More across the country as well big mobilizations against the exploitation of resources on Indigenous territory, omnibus bills affecting First Nations, the proposed First Nations Education Act, the demand for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, Bill C-51, and so on. What did Mr. Harper say? “Um it, it isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest….” That was his response to the demand for a national inquiry.

So, reconciliation? Commissioner Murray Sinclair put it this way: “Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem, it is a Canadian problem. It involves all of us.”

We can’t simply heal each other. Healing will require political, legal and institutional changes as well as a thorough change in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Five years ago, most Canadians knew nothing at all about the residential schools, their policy of assimilation, or their sombre history. Often, an incredulous reaction would be followed by a statement like “I had no idea this was being done in my name!” Perhaps ignorance is bliss, but ignorance of the law is no excuse. Reconciliation cannot be put off or set aside. “The cost of doing nothing is worse than the cost of doing something,” said Mr. Sinclair at the Commission’s closing ceremony.

Happily, the new awareness of those who attended the hearings had a positive effect on witnesses, many of whom heard people commit to sharing what they’d learned with their entire families.

For the time being, most of the work of reconciliation is being carried out by members of the public, who are speaking out about the residential schools as part of Canadians’ common history, or revisiting preconceived ideas based on biased, incomplete knowledge. Why are they doing this? Perhaps to avoid finding themselves in the position of the Conservative government: the wrong side of history.

Genocide-splaining: “That genocide was a lot worse than yours, don’t you see?”

It was an earthshaking day in Canada when Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin described government policy in Sir John A. Macdonald’s time in the following words: “In the buzzword of the day, assimilation; in the language of the 21st century, cultural genocide.”

It’s not that no one had ever used this expression or that the idea was new. Indeed, “genocide” could be used without “cultural” in view of the number of children who died at the residential schools as a result of criminality or neglect. But what woke the country up was that no one in such an elevated position had ever used such strong language about Canadian history, certainly not a chief justice of the Supreme Court, who hears many cases concerning Indigenous peoples and whose decisions become law. It was a big surprise, because in law, words are everything. Prime Minister Harper rejected the use of “cultural genocide,” preferring “forced assimilation.”

The reactions to Judge McLachlin’s statement in the newspapers and comment sections featured “genocide-splaining,” a method used by individuals or groups to condone actions, deny responsibility and avoid their duty to remember and make recompense.

“Splaining,” as in “mansplaining” and “whitesplaining,” is what happens when a member of a privileged group condescendingly explains away an injustice when it is pointed out by a member of an oppressed group. In a society that claims to be just and democratic, no one likes to be confronted with the idea that they are benefiting from the harm done to others. As long as you don’t know, everything’s fine, but the minute you’re faced with the facts, there are just two options: remedy the situation or resort to “splaining.”

One possibility is outright denial: “The only absolutely clear case of genocide is the Holocaust,” “There was no cultural genocide in Canada,” or “There’s genocide everywhere,” at which point words lose their meaning. Another possibility is to say that everything at the residential schools wasn’t bad, thus drawing on the statements of those who had no problems at the schools to discredit those who did. Would anyone say that the Nazi camps can’t have been that bad because there were survivors? A third kind of splaining is to compare different kinds of genocide, judging whose genocide was the worst, whose less bad: “If it was so awful, why don’t we hear about it?” and “The schools brought them out of prehistory and taught them to read and write.”

But I prefer to think that acceptance of the truth, and the process of reconciliation, are now too far advanced to allow backsliding. We shouldn’t pay attention to those who are tilting at windmills or writing in the comment sections of newspapers. Reconciliation won’t come from those places. We may have more luck with the coming generations.


To see how reconciliation really begins, take a look at the tweets initiated by Christi Belcourt under the hashtag #MyReconciliationIncludes, where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people speak out about what reconciliation means to them.

Translated by Brian Mossop.

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