Truth and irreconciliation?

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, November 2013

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, aimed at raising awareness of the impacts of the Indian residential schools and building bridges between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians, has proved a remarkable and moving experience for those involved. But much more is needed to make the process of reconciliation meaningful.

"The political elite all knew what was happening in the residential schools and they did nothing. I am filled with incandescent rage,” seethed celebrated humanitarian Stephen Lewis during his address to September’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Vancouver, “thinking about what was done to the children. It was sheer, unadulterated evil and they did nothing to stop it.” 

In a contemporary context, continued Lewis, who is an honorary witness to the TRC proceedings: “Changes need to be made at a political level. Governments still refuse to negotiate land claims in good faith. The level of poverty and ill-health of Aboriginal people in this country is scandalous. Look at Attawapiskat. The disappearance and murder of hundreds of Aboriginal women is unacceptable but the federal government refuses to address this. This is not a political spasm. How much bad faith can a government display? The Prime Minister’s 2008 apology to survivors,” he concluded to thundering applause, “withers on the vine in the face of the ongoing hostility and racism of our government.”

 

Truth, yes, reconciliation not so much

The last of Canada’s Indian residential schools (which were operated by churches and funded by the federal government) closed in 1996. By then, more than 150,000 indigenous children had been incarcerated in the schools. 

The goal was to assimilate the children into Canadian non-indigenous society by forcibly separating them from their families, teachings, language and culture. It didn’t work. In the meantime, however, several generations of Aboriginal people were severely traumatized by the pervasive physical and psychological abuse that occurred in many schools. 

In the late 1990s, victims began bringing lawsuits against the government and the churches. The 2008 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) provided for compensation to victims, an apology from the government, and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The stated goals of the TRC were to “raise awareness of the history and impacts of the residential school system,” and to “enable a process of healing and reconciliation between those affected and non-Aboriginal governments, communities and individuals.”

Five years later, thousands of tragic stories have been shared and millions of archival documents gathered for permanent safe-keeping. Non-indigenous attendees at one of the many public TRC events that have taken place across the country have gained a deeper understanding of the problems that Aboriginal people face today, directly stemming from the residential school system and its multi-generational impacts. 

Is the TRC simply preaching to the converted, however? In 2012, as many as 3,000 Victorians attended a TRC event held in the provincial capital. People were eager to reach out and learn, and a warm atmosphere of goodwill pervaded the proceedings. But if members of a native lacrosse team can still have racist slurs hurled at them in Victoria, as they did in September this year, it suggests that outside the supportive environment of a TRC event, a large and intolerant gulf still yawns between First Nations people and other Canadians.

Then there’s the relationship—or the lack of one, as Stephen Lewis so eloquently points out—between First Nations and government. On the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation on October 7, which should have been a cause for celebration of the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government, instead Idle No More protests took place on the steps of government buildings across the country.

That’s not surprising. While defending its commitment to the reconciliation process, as Lewis pointed out, the track record of the federal government is one of refusal to respect Aboriginal title and the right to self-determination and control over lands and resources; funding cuts to First Nations institutions; and failure to address urgent educational and health needs. 

That’s also true of the provincial government. “The reconciliation process is meaningless, total whitewashing,” says Troy Sebastian unequivocally, “as long as the government treats us like this.” Sebastian, a 36-year-old Ktunaxa man living in Victoria, is fighting on behalf of his Nation to try and stop the massive cultural and environmental threat posed by the proposed construction of a new ski resort at Qat’muk, a sacred and ecologically fragile grizzly bear area in Ktunaxa territory in the East Kootenays. To date, Ktunaxa’s pleas have fallen on deaf provincial government ears. 

Under those circumstances, Sebastian views the BC government’s participation in the reconciliation process as sheer hypocrisy: “[Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation] John Rustad stands up and talks about reconciliation being so important, and about how he took part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Vancouver in September and in [Reconciliation Canada’s] Walk for Reconciliation,” says Sebastian. “Well, as far as I’m concerned that’s just BS. He shouldn’t have been allowed to take part. How does he have the gall to do something like that while he and his government are behaving this way towards First Nations in this province?”

 “I would never want to take away from the individuals telling their stories at the TRC, and I wish them the best,” says Dr Robina Thomas (Qwul’sih’yah’maht), an associate professor in the University of Victoria’s School of Social Work and a member of the Lyackson First Nation. “I understand this process is about raising awareness of the impact of the residential school system and hearing people’s stories. But where is the conversation about the fact that the impact of the schools still isn’t being addressed by governments?”

TRC Chief Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair adds sombrely: “We have more children in care now, I understand, than went through residential school. That’s shocking to me. So is the fact that any young First Nations person in school today is still statistically more likely to end up in prison than to graduate. It makes me want to cry. Governments should be stepping up and confronting that reality, but they aren’t doing it.”

Instead, both levels of government continue to pursue development agendas that conflict constantly with the desire of First Nations to protect and control the future of their traditional homelands. Mining, large-scale forestry, oil and gas development and open-net fish farming all receive abundant government support, often in the face of passionate First Nations opposition, while at the same time First Nations advocacy groups knock fruitlessly on the door of improved education programs and healthcare, better housing and poverty reduction initiatives, language revitalization support and environmental protection. 

There may be a whole lot of truth coming out at the TRC, but it certainly doesn’t feel like there’s much reconciliation to go with it, at least at government level. After the Commission concludes its work in 2014, and its final report and recommendations vanish into the unlit Orwellian depths of bureaucratic review, where will Canada be on its path to reconciliation with First Nations? If current indications are anything to go by, a long and difficult road still lies ahead. 

 

Has the TRC had any effect at all?

The work of the TRC has without question helped to raise public awareness of the impact of the residential schools. Extensive media coverage of TRC events may also have helped shift diehard public perceptions. In 2004, more than half of those polled in a national survey said poor Aboriginal people have only themselves to blame. By contrast, in 2012, according to Karen Joseph, executive director of Reconciliation Canada, an Environics poll found that two-thirds of Canadians believed they have a role to play in reconciliation. “People are ready for this,” says Joseph. “They want reconciliation to happen.” 

There has also undoubtedly been immense value to survivors in sharing their experiences publicly. “Thank you,” survivor Deborah Johnson told the audience at the September TRC event in Vancouver, “for listening to me.” 

Johnson had just recounted how she was proudly wearing the brand-new dress and shoes her mother had given to her when she was taken to St Joseph’s residential school at Williams Lake. But on arrival, the dress and shoes were promptly ripped off her tiny four-year-old body by the nuns. She was left standing in the cold room in her underwear, confused and crying, begging to be given back her pretty new clothes. She was given a ragged old uniform and tattered shoes instead, and punished for crying.

Her mother left, sobbing heartbrokenly. Johnson mistook her mother’s sobs for laughter. Until adulthood, when she finally learned of her mistake, Johnson hated her mother for abandoning her with apparent joy. Like thousands of other children, Johnson also spent her childhood suffering abuse at the hands of her supposed caregivers. “It helps people like me to heal and to grow,” she said to the hushed crowd, “knowing you are supporting me and not judging me.” 

Antoinette Archie, from Canim Lake, had similar experiences. Archie sat outside in the warm September sunshine and spoke about appearing at the TRC in Vancouver: “I think the TRC process is great. All these years, I have been feeling sorry for myself for everything that was done to me. I was so angry. Being able to understand that I was not alone, that all these other people were there too, has helped. Knowing non-First Nations people want to hear about it really helps.” 

But the TRC process hasn’t proved a cure-all for the damage done to Aboriginal children like Johnson and Archie. Archie says she still needs therapy, and hasn’t yet revealed everything that happened to her; she doesn’t know if she ever can. As Grand Chief Ed John told the crowd at the 2012 Victoria event, the memories and the impacts of the residential schools will stay with the survivors for the rest of their lives: “Like the Hotel California,” he observed, “You can check out, but you can never leave.”

The TRC itself has had challenges right from the start. It was set up as a federal department rather than an independent commission, so receives its marching orders from the federal government. In other words, the guilty party calls all the shots. Department of Justice officials watch every step of the TRC process with hawk-like ferocity, ensuring there is no deviation from the legal terms of the settlement. All TRC processes also have to comply with onerous federal bureaucratic policies tailored to large, resource-rich government departments rather than a tiny, brand-new organization. Getting an office up and running in 2008 and hiring staff was immensely challenging.

Then, before the substantive work had even begun, the first three Commissioners all resigned. Justice Harry LaForme, the former chair, stated publicly that the Commission’s independence had been compromised by political interference and that his authority was being questioned. 

More than a year after it was established, in July 2009, the TRC process finally got under way with a new slate of Commissioners, a small group of overworked staff, and its public credibility badly-shaken.

 

Dollars depend on abuse specifics

In 2012 the TRC issued an interim report, with 20 recommendations for federal and provincial government action. They included developing educational materials about the residential school system, creating parenting programs, establishing trauma therapy centres and restoring funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, extending compensation to day students (currently excluded from the settlement), and increased funding for archiving historical residential school records. None of the recommendations have been accepted by either level of government.

“The federal government says it is looking at the recommendations,” says TRC Chief Commissioner Murray Sinclair, “but I can’t say there has been any significant change as a result. Some of them have been rejected outright, like the recommendation to re-establish funding to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and making improvements to the TRC process. I expect,” Sinclair concludes with resignation, “that we will be repeating most of the recommendations in our final report.”

It doesn’t seem likely they will meet with any greater success second time around. Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Bernard Valcourt, was not available to comment on the government’s lack of action on the recommendations. Press secretary Erica Meekes provided this anodyne written response: “Our government is committed to a fair and lasting resolution to the legacy of the Indian residential schools and will continue to work with the TRC and to fulfill its obligations under the IRSSA.”

And not one iota more, Meekes may as well have added. That may be in part because the government has chalked up approximately $4 billion to date in settling compensation claims through the IRSSA. Survivors could choose to accept a limited “common experience payment” based simply on proven years of attendance at a school—the government set aside $1.9 billion towards this category of compensation—or participate in an independent assessment process (IAP) in which they could receive considerably greater compensation based on proving the actual abuses that had occurred. To date, more than $2 billion has been spent on compensating IAP claims to 23,268 claimants. Another 14,600 remain in progress.

It is questionable whether the IAP has contributed to reconciliation or compounded the problem, however. Participants are interrogated by government lawyers in a quasi-legal setting, and asked repeatedly to describe the most intimate acts of sexual abuse upon them. Points are awarded to the claimants based on how many times they suffered digital, vaginal or anal penetration, and whether those acts were persistent or occasional. Fondling doesn’t score as highly as persistent masturbation; broken bones rate less than anal intercourse. Dollar figures are assigned to the points scored; they are non-negotiable. 

It is difficult to imagine the sheer horror of having to tell strangers such intimate details, while lawyers repeatedly question your integrity and memory. Inspite of such indignities, thousands have done so, determined to hold the government to account in the only way that seems possible, and despite the psychological consequences of having to relive all those dreadful experiences. Whether the payments will adequately compensate for the reawakened memories is questionable. 

Also questionable is the federal government’s refusal to apologize for its role in undertaking unconscionable nutritional experiments on the children, another horrifying fact that gained prominence in mid-2013. In tests bringing to mind those undertaken on Jewish Holocaust victims, students were deliberately starved and studied to assess the effect of poor nutrition on growing kids. Minister Valcourt simply told media that the past can’t be erased, and “everyone needs to reconcile and move forward.”

 

Risking being labelled a sham

Critics of the federal government’s lack of commitment to reconciliation point not only to its refusal to live up to the spirit of the TRC process, but to its apparent lack of interest in having any kind of relationship with First Nations, let alone a positive one. 

The Harper government remains determined to drive the Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline through British Columbia despite ferocious First Nations opposition; refuses to honour historic treaties or show any inclination to move forward on concluding contemporary land claims and self-government agreements; and continues to neglect impoverished communities. “I would say that it goes beyond neglect to a completely counter-productive agenda that does nothing whatsoever to promote reconciliation,” says Lorne Brownsey bluntly. 

Brownsey is a former executive director of the federal treaty negotiations office in Vancouver and deputy provincial minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, now retired in Victoria. In late 2011, he told Focus: “Unfortunately, the government of Canada has become an increasingly reluctant partner in the process of reconciliation in British Columbia and elsewhere.” Two years later, nothing has changed. “The relationship between the federal government and First Nations has not improved one iota. To talk about reconciliation without any relationship is pointless, especially when the party with the fiduciary responsibility towards Aboriginal people—the government—is frankly derelict in its duties.”

Brownsey is cynical about the federal government’s reconciliation agenda, citing its recent frantic attempt to engage with First Nations on the Enbridge file. In mid-September a plane-load of federal deputy ministers landed in Vancouver and fanned out across the province to try and persuade First Nations that they could trust the government on this one. “I’m not impressed. Frankly, this isn’t about building a proper relationship with First Nations. I think they’re just trying to butter up the ones they think they need onside. It’s the same old story.”

That attitude, thinks Brownsey, explains why the TRC process has some fundamental barriers to success in its way. “How can the TRC do its job when the federal government is not engaged and is uncooperative? If they don’t step up to support it and the recommendations it’s at risk of being labelled a complete sham.” 

Things aren’t much more promising on the provincial government front. Minister of Aboriginal Relations John Rustad says he has found the TRC process “very moving.” But when it comes to the recommendations that the provincial government actively address educational and health issues, all he has to say is: “We’re looking at them. I am particularly interested in the education recommendations.”

Rustad says he is more interested in moving forward on the provincial government’s treaty agenda. “I think that’s where the greatest opportunity for reconciliation lies. We’ve managed to reach a few agreements and there is interest from other First Nations in moving forward.” 

The merits of the BC treaty process and the provincial government’s role in it are fodder for a whole different article. Despite what Rustad says, in September the independent BC Treaty Commission berated the provincial government for its lack of commitment to the treaty process. Whether or not treaties will achieve reconciliation of anything other than governmental economic agendas also remains a hotly-debated issue, as is the question of whether treaty agreements can possibly address the kinds of needs and issues highlighted by the TRC process. 

In the meantime, people like Troy Sebastian are incensed when they hear Rustad pushing the government’s treaty agenda as a path forward to reconciliation. “His government’s actions are utterly inconsistent with any commitment to reconciliation,” repeats Sebastian. “How on earth can John Rustad talk about reconciliation with a straight face?” he demands. “It makes me sick.”

 

Is there any good news here?

Yes, insists Reconciliation Canada’s Karen Joseph. “We are inundated with interest from both indigenous and non-indigenous people wanting to be involved in the conversation about reconciliation,” she says. “As people learn about the history, and understand not only the impact of the residential schools but of everything that governments have done to First Nations people in Canada since first contact, they are hungry to do something to repair the relationship.”

Reconciliation Canada, a non-profit organization, was created following the 2012 Victoria TRC event. “We’d already been talking about putting something in place that could carry on the work of reconciliation,” says Joseph. “People were really engaged but had nowhere to go to continue the conversation. That’s when we started talking about creating the Walk for Reconciliation as a way for people to show solidarity.”

Within a matter of weeks Reconciliation Canada had been created and substantial funding was in place to organize the walk.  “I couldn’t believe the level of appetite for it,” says Joseph. The walk, held on September 22, was hugely successful, reportedly attracting 70,000 participants. “We aren’t stopping there,” says Joseph. “Clearly people want to continue the conversation. We have to have a structure that people can become involved with on an ongoing basis, especially after the TRC is gone.”

Reconciliation Canada, says Joseph, is about moving forward past “sorry” and into a new relationship together that will benefit everyone long after the TRC completes its work. “It is partly a matter of social acceptance. When people at an individual level can become comfortable with each other, we’re really getting somewhere.”

Commissioner Sinclair thinks individual Canadians have a responsibility to make their actions speak as loudly as their words. “People who support reconciliation need to reach out. The TRC process is just part of a huge conversation that needs to take place about all the gaps that still exist between First Nations people and their lives and the lives of non-indigenous people in Canada. That conversation needs to take place with everyone.”

People can also help by advocating to government for the rights of First Nations people, say the critics of government inaction to date. “In the simplest terms, reconciliation, at some point, has to be not only about the residential schools but about transference of power back to First Nations,” observes Lorne Brownsey. “That means return of lands, restoration of prosperity, and not least of all, self-determination. British Columbians need to accept that’s vital, and support it.”

“Governments aren’t doing that right now in a way that is meaningful to First Nations, and won’t unless their constituents support them doing it,” he continues. “I know the TRC process has been worthwhile for many people who have found healing in sharing their stories, and for non-indigenous people who have been touched by hearing them, so it isn’t a failure from that perspective by any means. But there remains a major piece missing, and that is acceptance that reconciliation goes beyond individual healing and requires the return of real control to First Nations and recognition of their rights.” 

Troy Sebastian expresses his view in starker terms: “I don’t believe it is necessarily within our interest as indigenous peoples to participate in reconciliation when the concept of reconciliation is predicated on strong principles of white supremacy, apartheid and cultural genocide. If people mean what they say about wanting reconciliation, they have to put pressure on the government to compel the state to re-imagine its relationship with indigenous peoples, lands and law. Tell government to stop flying in the face of First Nations’ rights and needs and culture. If non-indigenous people don’t support us in our rights, and our goals for self-determination, this reconciliation process is all completely meaningless as far as I’m concerned.”

 

Where to from here, then?

On Canada Day 2014, the TRC will hold its final national event in Ottawa. That, at least as far as governments are concerned, is where the TRC process will end.

But, as Joseph and Sebastian and Brownsey all point out, it doesn’t have to mean the end of reconciliation efforts by everyone else. Fred Robbins, chief of the Alkali Lake Band, stood up at the TRC in Vancouver and said: “We need to recognize that things can’t end with the TRC process. We need to support the recommendations they have made. We need to carry on this momentum, or all this work will just get folded up by bureaucrats and put away on a shelf. And we need to do it together.”

Otherwise, all those stories so bravely shared will be forgotten, and the past, as usual, will simply be repeated. We can’t ever get Deborah Johnson’s brand-new dress and shoes back for her, but metaphorically at least, we can work together to make sure that governments never take them away from future generations of little girls just like her. And if Canada is ever to truly reach meaningful reconciliation with First Nations, we must.

Katherine Palmer Gordon is the author of six books of non-fiction, including several BC Bestsellers and a Haig-Brown prize-winner. We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia has just been released by Harbour Publishing. She also has 20 years experience working with First Nations on land claims and inter-governmental relations.