Truth and reconciliation a long road

By Craig Spence, May 2012

The horrors of the residential school system come perilously close to genocide.

An individual apology might seem woefully inadequate in the face of gut-wrenching statements being gathered from “survivors” of Canada’s residential school system by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which met for two days at the Victoria Conference Centre in April.

But getting non-aboriginal Canadians to acknowledge the truth and apologize for it is one of the commission’s objectives. Giving survivors a chance to unburden themselves by telling their truth is another. 

So here’s my first step: As a Canadian, British Columbian and Victorian, I apologize to people of aboriginal decent for the horrendous damage inflicted on them by the residential school system, and for the institutionalized racism that characterized my nation’s historic policy of assimilation.

Canadians need to know that what happened to First Nations in this country comes perilously close to meeting the unsavoury definition of genocide under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that says “any form of forced assimilation or integration” is illegal under international law.

They need to know that what “witnesses” heard and saw at the sharing panels, circles, town hall meetings, workshops and exhibitions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the dark underbelly of a disastrous policy that wreaked untold havoc on First Nations communities across the land.

They also need to know that aboriginal leaders and people are determined to overcome, and to reassert their culture.

Esquimalt Chief Andy Thomas opened the Victoria Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings—one of seven stops the commission will make during its mandate—by reminding a packed Crystal Garden that the ceremony was taking place on traditional land of the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations. He hoped the sessions would establish an environment where people would feel safe saying “words you’re going to be leaving behind.”

Then he turned toward the future, declaring that First Nations people remain determined to preserve their culture and their connection to the land. “We have that sacred responsibility to the land and to each other,” he said. “We have a right to be human beings, a people.”

That such an assertion would have to be made in the country that coined the phrase “multiculturalism” may seem shocking to many Canadians, but then many still don’t understand the depth of the cruelties perpetrated in residential schools, where it was policy to “take the Indian out of the child”—a misguided experiment that degenerated into beatings, rapes, disappearances, and untold psychological carnage.

Chief Thomas lamented his loss of the Esquimalt tongue, indigenous languages being one of the key cultural traits the residential school system set out to eradicate. To understand his sadness, you have to understand that his people’s language was the matrix of cultural expression and transmission, a vessel handed down by The Creator. “You know, when I leave this Earth, when I get to the other side, I don’t even know if I’ll be able to communicate with my own grandmother,” Chief Thomas said.

TRC Chair Justice Murray Sinclair noted in his opening remarks that the $60 million commission is not a government entity. It acts independently, funded as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, which was established to compensate the estimated 80,000 surviving students of the residential school system. The settlement also provides at least $1.9 billion for payments of between $5000 and $275,000 “or more” to former students of residential schools; $125 million for an Aboriginal Healing Foundation; and $20 million for national and community commemorative projects.

Sinclair pointed out that one of the main objectives of the Commission is to ensure that the kind of abuse that was perpetrated in Canada’s residential school system is not forgotten. “We consider that part of our obligation—to create a national memory around this issue,” he said, “…so that future generations will know that this, in fact, did occur.” The information and artefacts gathered by the commission will be stored in a national archive.

Thousands of victims have made statements to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Every statement provides an individual focus on a nation’s crime. At a town hall meeting moderated by Shelagh Rogers, one man recounted some of his experiences at the Kuper Island Residential School, beginning with punishment for having spoken his native tongue on day one of his incarceration. For that unwitting infraction, he was denied food for 24 hours.

It was just the beginning of the process of “civilizing” him.

He talked of being strapped on his bare buttocks in front of an entire class. Of a cemetery where aborted fetuses fathered on young girls by the school’s priests were buried. Of students who simply went missing. Sinclair had to gently intervene because the speaker could have continued for the rest of the session and not run out of horror stories.

One story in particular captured the depravity of a system that gave unchecked institutional power over children to administrators and teachers. A boy returned to the school one day with a puppy he had found. He and the speaker hid the dog and fed it food they had scrounged from the school’s kitchen.

Inevitably their subterfuge was discovered. The priest who collared them made the two boys fetch a sack, place the puppy inside, tie the sack to a rock, then drop it into the ocean off the end of the school’s dock. He made them watch until the “bubbles stopped” coming to the surface.

There are countless stories of physical, mental and sexual abuse that are even worse. One speaker recounted how students would huddle in their blankets at night, hoping it would not be their turn to be sexually molested by the very people assigned to watch over them. “At night I used to hear students crying,” she said.

Geraldine Manson recalled how when she became rebellious, her keepers threatened to take revenge on her younger sisters. Her childhood was stolen from her. “I don’t have a memory of my parents, I don’t have a memory of my younger years. I only have a memory of my fears,” she said.

Now a mother of three, a grandmother of nine and a great-grandmother of one, she vows to “let them know that they do have parents, and they do have grandparents because that was taken away from me, and from my parents, and from my grandparents.”

Ron Martin, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations said the bigotry and abuse did not stop when the last residential school was shut down in 1996. Years before, he had been removed from his family to the Port Alberni Residential School, a place where his grandmother had her tongue pulled out and poked with needles for speaking her native language, and where he was punished as a 12-year-old by being locked in a closet so small he could not sit down for 18 hours.

Mr Martin has been confined to a wheelchair for two-and-a-half years after he was arrested by police in Nanaimo and then left for 12 hours in a jail cell while he suffered a debilitating stroke. He recalled one of the arresting officers saying: “You shut the fuck up, Martin. You’re going to the drunk tank where all of you belong.” Mr Martin also recounted how he’s been called a “drunk” and a “stinking Indian” by health care workers.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the report of the commission when it comes out, and the response of Canadians, because we really do need to change,” he said. “I told them [the commission] it’s really simple: All you have to do is look at me as a human being, not an Indian, or a drunk, or whatever.”

 Of the truth being revealed in the commission, Justice Sinclair said, “This is a problem that all Canadians must embrace as theirs…Part of your responsibility will be to carry it forward to your children and your grandchildren as well.”

Which brings me back to my personal apology. As Canadians, we cannot simply say: there has been an official apology offered by our government, there has been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there has been compensation. We have to understand that a true apology encompasses more than words and cash; a true apology also includes a deep change of heart.

Craig Spence is a freelance writer and novelist with a 30-year background in community journalism and communications. His website is at