At the end of March 2014, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada held its last national gathering in Edmonton, Alberta. It now has one more year to finish poring through mountains of documents and to compile its report. It seems an apt time to pull together some online resources that can help in understanding this process with its implications for our national identity and our future.
First a look at the Big Picture
A Wikipedia article says “A truth commission or truth and reconciliation commission is a commission tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government (or, depending on the circumstances, non-state actors also), in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past. … As government reports, they can provide proof against historical revisionism of state terrorism and other crimes and human rights abuses.” The process can be seen as a form of restorative justice which can be defined as “a growing social movement to institutionalize peaceful approaches to harm, problem-solving and violations of legal and human rights.” These commissions are a creation of the last half of the twentieth century; possibly the most well-known is the South African TRC set up in 1995 to help deal with what happened under apartheid. For those interested in digging deeper into the international experience, the Truth Commissions Digital Collection contains decrees establishing truth commissions and similar bodies of inquiry worldwide, and the reports issued by such groups. Strategic Choices in the Design of Truth Commissions has organized the leading research on past Truth Commissions in a manner that is oriented towards decision-making, to enable designers of future Commissions to identify the critical factors relevant to their societies. Any scholar who wants to get a sense of the scope of the burgeoning literature, its depth and thematic concerns may enjoy “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: A Review Essay and Annotated Bibliography” by Kevin Avruch and Beatriz Vejarano.
What’s happening in Canada?
A helpful overview is provided by this timeline of residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission created by the Edmonton Journal. The three main goals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada are: to prepare a complete historical record on the policies and operations of residential schools; complete a public report including recommendations to the parties of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement; and establish a national research centre that will be a lasting resource about the IRS legacy. At the TRC website you can access videos of statements made to the Commission, find FAQs and resources about Indian Residential Schools and read about the mandate and process of the Commission. The Commission has produced a 124-page, plain language history titled “They Came for the Children”. In the preface they say, “For the child taken, and for the parent left behind, we encourage Canadians to read this history, to understand the legacy of the schools, and to participate in the work of reconciliation.”
The Indian Residential Schools section of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada provides a look at the reconciliation process from the point of view of the Government of Canada. It includes information on the Settlement Agreement, Canada’s Gestures of Reconciliation, and the creation of a commemorative stained glass window in the Centre Block of Parliament.
Where do we go from here?
Reconciliation Canada is one organization that is working to create opportunities for learning and dialogue focused on understanding our shared history beginning with the stories of Aboriginal people and the Indian residential school system. Check its website for ways to participate.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation has created three publications and a reader of selected essays to help people explore the history and where we go from here. They can be freely loaded as either PDFs or e-book reader files at Speaking My Truth.
The Living Language Foundation, a non-profit organization in B.C., has developed a Truth and Reconciliation Project to continue the momentum of the TRC by insisting that non-Aboriginal Canadians and their elected representatives talk openly about Canada’s colonial legacy and begin to think about ‘What’s next?’
As major players in the Indian Residential School history, the churches have also been major players in the process of reconciliation. The United Church of Canada has invited their congregations “to ‘live out’ the church’s apologies through education and action that leads to reconciliation and right relations with First Nations peoples.” To this end it has created a workshop to help groups respond to the question from the Commission, “Reconciliation: What Does It Mean to Us?” The materials could well be adapted to any group that may want to engage with this question.
It seems appropriate to conclude with words from Justice Murray Sinclair in an April 18, 2014 article for the CBC, “It is an opportunity for everyone to see that change is needed on both sides and that common ground must be found. We are, after all, talking about forging a new relationship, and both sides have to have a say in how that relationship develops or it isn’t going to be new.”