This has been an historic week in Canada. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report after six years of hard work. They listened to the heart–breaking stories of survivors of residential schools as they recounted how their families had been torn apart, as children were removed from their homes and sent to residential schools, as they suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse. They were painful and horrific stories about a systematic attempt to “beat the Indian out of us” and “make us into little copies of white people.”
Justice Murray Sinclair, the Chair of the TRC, described this shameful episode in Canadian history as “cultural genocide”. He noted that any who would engage in these horrific activities today would be subject to prosecution at the World Court.
The goal of the Commission is to repair the relationship between aboriginal people and the rest of Canada. This is not an aboriginal problem. It is a Canadian problem, and the TRC noted that Canada needs to move from “apology to action” if reconciliation with Aboriginal Peoples is to succeed.
The final report of the TRC includes 94 recommendations for change in policies, programs and the “way we talk to, and about, each other.” In a brief video about what he means by reconciliation, Justice Sinclair notes, “Seven generations of children went through the residential schools, and each of the children in those generations were told that their lives were not as good as the lives of the non–aboriginal people of this country. They were told that their languages, their cultures were irrelevant, that their ancestors and their people were heathen and uncivilized and they were told that they needed to give up that way of life and come to a different way of living. Non–aboriginal children were being told the same thing about the aboriginal people.
“We need to change that. It was the educational system that contributed to this problem in this country, and it is the educational system that’s going to help us get away from this. We need to look at the way that we educate children; we need to look at the way we educate ourselves; we need to look at what our textbooks say about aboriginal people; we need to look at what it is that aboriginal people are allowed to say within the educational system about their own histories.”
It will take lots of time and lots of work. The road to reconciliation is long and painful, and fraught with difficulties.
The recommendations include the creation of a National Centre and Council for Truth and Reconciliation, as well as asking the government to draft new and revised legislation for child welfare, education, health care, and aboriginal languages (including an Aboriginal Languages Act which will preserve and promote aboriginal languages).
Representatives of the churches who ran the state–sponsored schools were present. They include the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada and the Jesuits of English Canada.
In their response, they noted that “Indian Residential Schools, in policy and in practice, were an assault on Indigenous families, culture, language and spiritual traditions, and that great harm was done. We continue to acknowledge and regret our part in that legacy. Those harmed were children, vulnerable, far from their families and communities. The sexual, physical, and emotional abuse they suffered is well-documented.”
The churches have made a public commitment to pursue reconciliation. “We are committed to respect Indigenous spiritual traditions in their own right. As individual churches and in shared interfaith and ecumenical initiatives — for example through Kairos, through interfaith groups, and through the Canadian Council of Churches — we will continue to foster learning about and awareness of the reality and legacy of the residential schools, the negative impact of such past teachings as the Doctrine of Discovery, and the new ways forward found in places, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We will continue our commitment to financial support for community-controlled initiatives in healing, language and cultural revitalization, education and relationship-building, and self–determination.
My hope and prayer is that we can begin to foster some of these actions here in Cranbrook. This is a Canadian issue. This is an issue for Cranbrook.
In the closing words of the prayer “Remembering the Children” written in 2008 as the TRC began its work, “Great Creator God who desires that all creation live in harmony and peace, Remembering the Children we dare to dream of a Path of Reconciliation where apology from the heart leads to healing of the heart and the chance of restoring the circle, where justice walks with all, where respect leads to true partnership, where the power to change comes from each heart. Hear our prayer of hope, and guide this country of Canada on a new and different path.
May it be so.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook