For six years, the Indian Residential School (IRS) system has been on trial. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has listened to thousands of witnesses, hearing their stories in an effort to uncover and make known the truth.
There can be no doubt that the IRS system was an assault on human dignity. The government-mandated and church-run schools were designed to tame the savage, Christianize the heathen, and eradicate the languages and culture of Canada’s first peoples. Described as cultural genocide, the policies behind the creation of the IRS system were an expression of the ‘white man’s burden’, of European attitudes of racial, cultural, and spiritual superiority.
The Commission came about as a result of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the largest class action suit in Canadian history. Concerned that the out-of-court settlement would have the effect of relegating their stories to oblivion, survivors of the residential schools pushed for a commission.
We now know that many of the children in the custody of the schools died from abuse, neglect or disease. Others bear the scars from emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Some were guinea pigs for medical research.
Chief Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair has said that the IRS educated seven generations of aboriginal children to believe that they were no good, their languages and cultures were irrelevant, and their ancestors were heathens. At the same time, non-aboriginal children imbibed the same negative messages about aboriginals.
The legacy of abuse and negative messages of the IRS system continues to influence the present. While the work of the Commission can help us understand the reasons behind social problems that plague some aboriginal communities and attitudes that shape public policy, I have some reservations about its 94 calls to action for reconciliation.
Touching upon most facets of Canadian life – political, educational, social, recreational, cultural, judicial and spiritual – the calls to action are broad and far-reaching. Does reconciliation require, for example, all law students in Canada to take a mandatory course on aboriginal people and law or an increase in funding to the CBC so that it can support reconciliation or funding for public education to tell the story of aboriginal athletes? The recommendations, in my view, try to accomplish too much, and implementation would be costly, which could very well be the nail in the reconciliation coffin.
The calls to action also create the impression that very little has been done to reconcile the ugly past of the IRS system with the present. Moving beyond symbolic apology, for example, dioceses have been actively pursuing reconciliation, most notably perhaps through Returning to Spirit workshops. Schools of theology have been teaching social justice curriculum that honestly exposes the evils and harms of the IRS. And in some communities, symbols and practices of aboriginal spirituality are being integrated into churches and worship. There is always work to be done, but the process is underway.
Although not part of the Commission’s mandate, I would like to hear about aboriginal communities that have successfully navigated the negative affects of colonization, and whose peoples are prospering. The success stories, such as the Osoyoos Indian Band and their award-winning Nk’Mip winery, could inspire real change and provide a template for both aboriginals and non-aboriginals in best practices for getting along, and in sharing the land and resources that we all depend upon.
Without a doubt, the residential schools were a blight in Canadian history, and its wrongs need correction. The Commission has exposed its evils, and despite my reservations, the calls to action draw our attention to historical wrongs and present-day injustices that contradict the dignity of the individual and the importance of culture in establishing identity.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.