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Canada’s Truth Commission on Residential Schools Is Coming to a Troubling Close, Far from Reconciliation

It appears that the commission is ending just as it was gaining speed.

Photo by Patrick Slobodian

On a little island off the north end of Vancouver Island, there used to be a large brick building, standing close to the beach. Four stories high and painted gleaming white, it was the first thing you saw from the ferry as it approached the village of Yalis.

The second building you noticed was the Big House, a traditional gathering place for potlatches and other important ceremonies. Sitting up on hill above the shore, its wide front is emblazoned with a bold, staring face, with eyes gazing directly down at "St. Mike's."

Between 1929 and 1974, St. Michael's Indian Residential School was home to thousands of kids enrolled in often year-round boarding school. Under the watchful eye of RCMP officers, aboriginal parents were forced to give up their children as young as four-years-old to Indian agents, or face possible fines or imprisonment. From tiny communities across the coast of BC, the children were brought into the cold, brick rooms of St. Mike's. Run by the Anglican church under the authority of the Indian Act, St. Mike's was where those little kids learned that their hair and bodies were disgusting, that their families were demonic, and that no amount of work, physical and sexual abuse, or distance from their backwards communities would cure them of the stain of Indian-ness.

I took that ferry recently, and someone asked me if I noticed that the paint was peeling on the bricks of the old residential school. "See, they tried to make us white," he chuckled, "But it didn't work—we're still red."

The last residential school in Canada closed its doors in 1996, in Punnichy, Saskatchewan. With it ended a system that ran over 100 years—one that was touted, in 1931, as "the final solution of our Indian problem." Over 150,000 children attended residential schools between the 1860s and the 1990s, half of whom are still alive.

Many have urged the UN to classify the residential school system under the 1948 Genocide Convention. It seems to fall squarely within the boundaries, not only of the softer cultural genocide, but also as straight-up genocide, the definition of which includes "forcibly transferring children... with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

It was not lost on the architects of the residential school system that no aboriginal people meant no troublesome treaties or aboriginal title. As much as it was about cultural assimilation, it was about destroying the economic and political basis of Indigenous existence.

By the start of the '90s, the apologies had already begun flowing in. In 1991, the Catholic Church apologized for their part in running the schools with the federal government. The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches quickly followed suit. Mostly they adhered to the Anglican Archbishop's model: "I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity. I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally, and emotionally."

A decade and a half later, in 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established as "a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing."

The TRC was partly set up in response to the fact that, at that time, almost half of Canadians (49 percent) reported never having heard or read anything on the subject of Indian residential schools. This May 31, the commission will finally come to an end and many will be asking whether it has made a dent in that statistic.

Between 2009 and 2014, the bulk of the TRC's public work consisted of gathering witness testimony from residential school survivors and their families. This happened in community "Statement Gathering" events in all the provinces and territories, as well as seven large National Events in provincial capitals. Statements were given confidentially, in recorded "Sharing Circles," or directly to commissioners in front of audiences of up to 2,000 people and a webcast. By all accounts, these events were profoundly moving.

Photo by Arthur Dayu Dick

Though all events were open to the public, attendance varied. In Vancouver, CBC News reported that 10,000 people showed up in the rain for a Walk for Reconciliation. The last national event, hosted in Edmonton, boasted the highest turnout yet and ended in an Idle No More–led march on the legislature. It may be that the commission is ending just as it was gaining speed.

Next week, the Delta Ottawa will host the closing events of the TRC, and on June 2, its much-anticipated final report will be released. However, with the dates only recently announced, and most of it taking place between nine and four on Monday and Tuesday—workdays—it is unclear how many people will actually show up to this one.

One of the biggest questions will be whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be one of them. At previous events, Harper was repeatedly criticized for, among other concerns, his remark that Canada has "no history of colonialism," his lack of regard for missing and murdered indigenous women, and Canada's internationally condemned coercive attempts to get First Nations communities to participate in oil and gas development. Indeed, the final ceremonial close to the TRC takes place at Rideau Hall on June 3 and is listed in the program as open only to "invited guests."

It is an appropriate end to a troubled commission. From the start, the TRC has been plagued by confusion, particularly regarding its relationship with the federal government. One of the most common misconceptions about the TRC is that it was initiated by the government of Canada. In fact, it was part of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. But what is that?

In 2007, on behalf of the approximately 80,000 living former students, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society successfully sued the Government of Canada and the churches that operated the schools on their behalf. It took six years of negotiation, and remains the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history. While the government agreed to the compensation, it was the former students themselves who insisted on a truth commission. In 2008, the TRC was established, drawing its budget from that overall settlement. In other words, as TRC Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair put it, "The Commission functions with survivor money."

The relationship between Ottawa and the TRC has remained tense from the start. By 2009, all three original commissioners had stepped down. They cited, among other concerns, an objection to ongoing meddling from the federal government. When Sinclair took the helm, along with commissioners Marie Wilson and Wilton Littlechild, one of their first acts was to move the headquarters from Ottawa to Winnipeg.

The TRC's Interim Report, released in 2010, was openly critical of the federal government, which it was forced to take to court twice over access to archival documents (it won both times). The commission described the federal government's "reluctance to cooperate" as "unacceptable." Last year, Commissioner Sinclair delivered a lecture actually titled, "If you thought the truth was hard, reconciliation will be harder."

As the years passed, the questions persisted even as the events drew larger crowds: What was this truth commission? Who did it belong to? Who was it for?

Photo by Arthur Dayu Dick

Some looked to the South African TRC as a model for understanding our truth commission, and found that they look very different.

The image most of us have of the South African TRC is of black and white people embracing each other in the spirit of forgiveness and the world-historical glow of the end of apartheid. Leaving aside the dubious accuracy of this image, in South Africa, the TRC followed the end of a racist system of dispossession and oppression. In Canada, Indigenous people had to sue to the government to get a truth commission, and they're paying for it themselves.

The South African TRC also had both the powers of subpoena and immunity. The commission could compel, for example, former apartheid police officers who had summarily executed black political leaders to tell their families where the bodies were buried, without the threat of criminal charges. In Canada, the TRC has neither. That means that while in theory, the TRC gives space for victims and perpetrators to meet, it hasn't really looked like that.

In some ways, our truth commission is like any other truth commission: it has spent much of its time recording endlessly gut-wrenching testimony about the experience of living under a structurally racist institution. But mostly it has been aboriginal people speaking. Survivors, children of survivors, family members. There were periodic "Expressions of Reconciliation," statements from provincial and municipal levels of government, as well as from representatives of churches.

For its part, the federal government has been conspicuously and ironically absent. Its formal presence at the national event was limited to an information table, which seemed to be primarily giving away little Canadian flag pins and stickers. There were also copies of the government's widely criticized official apology to residential school survivors. These were printed in cursive typeface on aged-looking paper and rolled up, like treaties.

On February 18 of this year, a group of former residential school students gathered at the crumbling steps of St. Mike's in Yalis, on the unceded territory of the 'Namgis First Nation. They held a healing ceremony employing the very language, culture, and spirituality that staff and government administrators laboured for decades to erase from their minds. They sang and danced, sharing stories and crying.

Chief Robert Joseph of the Gwawaenuk First Nation described how he arrived at St. Mike's as a six-year-old, carrying only a small suitcase. He wouldn't return to his isolated Kingcome Inlet community until he was 19. After years of sexual, spiritual, and physical abuse, he returned, in his words, "a broken person."

The former Executive Director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and head of Reconciliation Canada explained why the event was named l'tustolagalis. "It means 'Rising Up, Together' in Kwak'wala," he explained. "It's a testament to our culture, to our resilience."

"The other reality is, of course," he added, "that we have many people who have come to join us in this country, and they are never going away. Somehow we need to find a way to coexist."

At the end of the ceremony, survivors and their families stood together and hurled rock after rock at the building's still-imposing brick walls, until a backhoe came to begin the demolition in earnest. It would be days before St. Mike's, one of the last residential schools still standing, was finally reduced to rubble.

Up on the hill, the Big House looked on.

Follow Mayana C. Slobodian on Twitter.