The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has concluded its painstaking and pain-filled exposition of the misery inflicted by the Canadian policy of enforced residential schooling on Aboriginal children and has issued its final report. In its evidence is the truth part: Canadian democratic governments legitimated genocide and human rights abuses against children. In our names. That’s what democracy does: it mandates governments to act in the collective name of citizens, who then in theory assess the action through the electoral system.
Bear in mind “Indians” (an artificial category that erases the particularity of Indigenous people in all our diversity) were not considered citizens till 1956 but, despite serving in high numbers in both Great Wars, could not vote until 1960 when Prime Minister Diefenbaker ‘gave’ Indians the vote.
The residential school policy was not for the benefit of “Indians” but for settlers: it was intended to de-Indianize the youngest generations so that there would be “no Indians and no Indian problem”, in the crystal-clear words of Duncan Campbell Scott, the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. It actually wasn’t much of an education program at all (note that the federal government still spends thousands less per student in reserve schools than provinces do in the public school system, and ask yourself if there is a thread of continuity here). The residential school policy was part of Canadian colonialism, along with land theft and genocide. Colonialism has inflicted incalculable damage on Indigenous peoples of every generation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard the testimony of many who attended the residential schools subcontracted by the state to various Christian denominations and produced the Final Report, the Executive Summary, and the Calls to Action so that all Canadians may know the Truth. They are available in digital form for all who are interested. All should be interested.
The TRC and the state were also to attend to the healing of those who have been damaged in ways that are best understood as child abuse and PTSD. Yet we are lurching toward ‘reconciliation’ ahead of healing, and really, without most Canadians or our elite political institutions having grappled with the truth. Truth-telling in a reconciliatory process is meaningless if it is not heard by those who have benefited from the damage – by those who enjoy what for shorthand we’ll call white settler privilege – and for those who have laid their truths bare, the exercise is unsatisfying unless there is some positive consequence that can produce a measure of change. What to do?
Too many seem to think that by virtue of the colonized having told their truths, reconciliation is attained as we all just ‘get over it’ ‘going forward’. Not so quick: in between truth and reconciliation there must be recognition of what happened in our collective name; recognition of the damage done by the democratic state to those who have been oppressed by definition since occupation; recognition of the illegal and immoral nature of this continuing state of affairs, and recognition of the requirement for remediation of all of these things. The state acted for Canadian citizens, who have obtained all the goodies the state has to offer, at the expense of Indigenous people who have been stripped of virtually all of their: sovereignty, autonomy, cultural corpus, language, children, elders, health, wealth and opportunities.
This recognition was surely withheld by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, which refused to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Moreover, that same government acted in ways that prima facie violate the UNDRIP and the Constitutional law of Canada by, for example, making resource development the Prime Directive despite the lack of meaningful consultation with and the absolute lack of consent by Aboriginal nations whose territories and communities are affected by that development. The Harperites refused to recognize the intergenerational damage consequent to colonialism in the suffering demonstrated by outrageous levels of incarceration of Indigenous peoples; disintegration of Indigenous families marked by the loss of children into the largely incompetent and indifferent child welfare systems; the under- and un-employment of Indigenous peoples in their own communities and elsewhere; the lack of access to basic incidents of human rights and citizenship such as education, clean water, health care and housing; and the rising barometer of pathology in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women body count.
Indigenous people voted in unprecedented numbers to get rid of the Harperites and bring in a federal government that will pay some attention to Indigenous concerns. Prime Minister Trudeau is making all the right gestures to date, and the Opposition New Democrats and Green Party are supportive of these. This is evidence of some measure of recognition.
Recognition is a necessary though insufficient condition for reconciliation. Recognition must be accompanied by restitution. Unless and until the colonial state returns at least some of the land, negotiates shared jurisdiction over resources and tax room and makes other compensatory amends, there will be no reconciliation. Saying ‘sorry’ – as then-Prime Minister Harper did — just isn’t enough without actions that make amends.
And only then can we anticipate the possibility of Right Relationship – a state of being that is constantly negotiated, beneficial to all, and is the manifestation of reconciliation. The model exists in Indigenous understanding of treaty frameworks which contemplated ongoing adaptable relationships with the capacity to carry us all into a positive future.
Until we have the preconditions for reconciliation, the truth will not make us free of the reality of colonialism – not only historically, but right now, across Canada, in Indigenous communities and everywhere else as well. And only reconciliation can take us into the future together.
Joyce A. Green is Professor at the Department of Politics and International Studies University of Regina, currently living in Cranbrook