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Truth and Reconciliation report riddled with clichés and factual errors

Residential schools
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No Stampeding for this cowboy last weekend. I spent it reading the 382 pages (including 1,210 notes) of the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), called “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.”

The central chapter of the Truth and Reconciliation report, “The History,” was crucial. It looks like a scholarly discussion of relations between Europeans and North Americans. Its purpose, however, was to establish the context for “the legacy,” namely the “integral part” of residential schools in “a conscious policy of cultural genocide.” Already we have a problem.

First, the reality of genocide is not to be qualified by adjectives. Second, the individuals who raped children in residential schools were sufficiently evil that humans can neither forgive nor punish them. Jesus of Nazareth said of such persons “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”

The TRC received testimony from over 6,750 former students whom they call Survivors (always capitalized) and from 96 former staff and their children. They made no effort to contact the 70 per cent of aboriginals who never set foot in residential schools, and they made no reference to existing scholarship about this defunct institution. With terms of reference confined to documenting “individual and collective harms” inflicted by residential schools, why look beyond the self-selected Survivors?

At the centre of “the history” lay the long and complex process of European expansion. European empires, they said “were established militarily,” as such organizations have been for thousands of years: the Europeans energetically explored then conquered and colonized the continent; the Iroquois did not invade Ireland. So far, so good.

Central to the TRC argument was that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 “in effect” ruled that land transfers “would take the form of a Treaty between sovereigns.” Why that “in effect”? Because the plain words of the Proclamation say no such thing.

The only alternative to such “Treaties,” the TRC said, was “to subdue the First Nations militarily,” which was too expensive. Fair enough: as Machiavelli observed, fraud is cheaper than force. But why was such fraudulence accepted? Apparently because aboriginal Canadians were unlike all other human beings in the history of the world: they always trusted because they never lied, exaggerated, or took bribes. They were Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms.

The TRC report is silent about the responsibility of the victors and nothing is said of the glory won by European courage. There is no sense that, while European guns and smallpox may have reduced aboriginal populations, Christianity may have reduced the genocidal violence of aboriginals – to say nothing of slavery. Have the commissioners never read of Samuel Hearne weeping at the “barbarous” and “savage” massacre of Inuit by Dene at Bloody Falls in 1771?

Instead of genocide or slavery, Canada offered education in the hope of forming future citizens. Because aboriginals were dispersed, residential schools were a prudent response.

Granted, reconciliation “is not possible without knowing the truth,” but the story of residential schools is not the whole story, even when it includes accounts of helpful priests, decent teachers, and successful graduates. According to the TRC, however, they all “shared the common experience of being exploited.” Do they not understand how such remarks insult the thousands of independent and strong aboriginal Canadians?

Worse, the hectoring tone and imperative voice will persuade no one of anything. Badly deficient in terms of evidence, context, and logic, riddled with clichés and factual errors, the result of the Truth and Reconciliation report brims with half-truths. Expect more grievance, impatience with the aggrieved, and reconciliation deferred. Again.

Barry Cooper is a professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.

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