Canada’s dark past

On Nov. 17, Laurier’s Religion and Culture department hosted a panel for discussion on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) regarding Indian residential schools.

“Canada is generally unaware of this part of its history,” explained panelist Bob Watts, former interim executive director of the TRC.

Few Canadians learn about the schools that were set up across the nation for Aboriginal children by the Canadian government and several churches, in a bid at assimilating the Aboriginal population.

From the 1870s on, more than 130 residential schools operated with the last closing in 1996. Over the course of those years, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their homes and families and placed in schools where they could not speak their native language or practice their traditional culture.

Most Canadians know now of the atrocities and abuses practiced in many of them.

“The damage done to those directly involved is incalculable, and to those indirectly involved, profound,” said panellist David MacDonald, former member of parliament and cabinet minister and now advisor for the United Church on residential schools.

The TRC aims to end ignorance and to healing some of the wounds still felt by survivors and their children.

“Because we have this collective history, it is important we understand what happened in residential schools,” said Watts.

That understanding will not come easily, though, nor will any sort of reconciliation.

“When I think about residential schools, I have more questions than answers,” said Jean Becker, the elder-in-residence for Laurier’s faculty of social work.

Becker goes on to pose some of those questions to the room at large. “What about justice? Why
has there never been prosecution of those who perpetrated abuses at residential schools?”

The panellists, four extremely articulate individuals with close ties to the issue, began the evening by explaining their views on the significance of Canada’s largest class-action settlement, the TRC.

Watts, who explained the purpose of the TRC to the audience in Laurier’s Board and Senate Chambers, went on to say that “In the great Canadian tradition of compromise, [the Aboriginal community] didn’t get some things [they] wanted, and the church and government didn’t get some things.”

But over all, Watts seemed proud of the progress made by the TRC over its brief existence, beginning on June 1st of last year, and hopeful for its future. “There will be an archive [of survivor’s stories] set up as the lasting legacy of the TRC… and that archive will continue to expand even after the TRC’s completion.”

Mardi Tindal, moderator of the United Church of Canada, told those in attendance that “the road [those involved] are on is long.”

Tindal said that the journey “begins at the gates of hope… by telling the truth about the condition of… our nation’s soul,” echoing the 1986 apology of the United Church of Canada to First Nations peoples for the creation of residential schools.

“The biggest challenge is ending the silence [of survivors]. The second biggest is ending the isolation [of survivors],” contributed MacDonald. “The TRC is the enabler of ending [both].”

Each panellist seems to have a different understanding of the TRC, but all bear messages of hope.
“It is important to remember… that residential schools didn’t happen in isolation,” concluded Watts. “The were part of a whole set of policies.”

These policies, according to Watts, have robbed Canada of the contributions of Aboriginal peoples. “Hopefully, the TRC will be a catalyst for change.”