truth and reconciliation, past and present: why this matters to all of us

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has just completed its week-long closing event in Ottawa. The Commission was part of the historic settlement between the Canadian Government and the survivors of the former Indian Residential Schools.
Its mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS). The Commission will document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience.

This includes First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School students, their families, communities, the Churches, former school employees, Government and other Canadians.
I don't know if this is well known outside of Canada, or outside of people who take a special interest in indigenous issues.

The divide between natives and non-natives in Canada is vast. Environmental activism - opposition to the tar sands, pipelines, fracking, and Canadian mining globally - offers prime opportunity for cooperation and engagement, but that generally involves only front-line activists.

No (normal, thinking, breathing) non-native person defends the brutality of the Residential Schools. No sane person can feel anything but grief, sorrow, and rage when learning about such a system. Some people experience disbelief that such a system was ever conceived, let alone built and maintained, not unlike our feelings about slavery or the Holocaust. Some non-Native people who grew up in Canada wonder why they didn't learn about Indian Residential Schools in their Canadian history class.

Despite this easily-activated sorrow, many non-Native Canadians wonder: "What does this have to do with me?" I have heard very sympathetic people note that their ancestors had nothing to do with the Residential School system: "My family were peasants farmers in Poland/Italy/India/China."

What does this have to do with us? We are Canadians. Whether through birth or by choice, we live in this country. We accept its laws, its culture, and its history. And like the history of so many places the world over, Canada's history includes the cultural genocide of its original people.

As non-Native people, we enjoy rights and privileges that were systematically and utterly denied to those original people. Indeed, this modern country of ours was created and built at their expense.

We cannot take pride in what's good about Canada, and not accept - or even acknowledge - the pain and loss embedded in its history. Every Canadian who celebrates Canada - its beauty, its tolerance, its diverse cultures; the humour, the music, the health care, the Charter - must know this Canada, too.

It doesn't matter if we personally or our direct ancestors were responsible for this. We are part of Canada, so this is part of us.

What does this have to do with us? We are human.

Promotional poster from TRC South Africa
I am fascinated by Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in general. I followed the hearings as best I could as they unfolded in both South Africa and Ireland. It's easy to be cynical about this process, especially when the current Government of Canada has a truly abysmal record on aboriginal issues (which, of course, goes hand-in-glove with its environmental record). But how else to move forward?

The course followed by dominant cultures and ruling classes the world over has been to bury, whitewash, and pretend. And when the issues continue to surface - when the past continues to poison the present, as it always will - those ruling classes either obstruct and imprison, or shrug and pay lip-service. Ignoring the past guarantees that it will never be past.

This is the societal equivalent of what each of us must go through to heal from our own past. A person who has not truly faced their past - whether in formal therapy, or through writing or art, or some other personal journey - will continue to be haunted by it. Only after an honest and full acknowledgement of their own anger and sorrow can a person move forward. Without that, we are forever trapped in, stymied by, prisoner of, our past.

The same goes for societies. Only through a honest, full, and public accounting is it possible to heal and move forward. Whether the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will be effective for individual Native people and for First Nations, Inuit and Métis cultures as a whole, only those directly involved can determine, and only time will tell.

For more about Indian Residential Schools, in Canada and elsewhere, I recommend:
- Indian Horse, a novel by Richard Wagamese (wmtc review here)
- "Rabbit-Proof Fence," 2002 Australian movie
- "We Were Children," documentary about Indian Residential Schools (Available on Netflix; I have not seen it yet but intend to.)
- Broken Circle: the Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools: A Memoir, by Theodore Fontaine (and a list of related titles here on Amazon.ca)

No comments: