Uncomfortable truths: Dr. Marie Wilson on the history of residential schools in Canada

| December 6, 2012
Uncomfortable truths: Dr. Marie Wilson on the history of residential schools in Canada

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"The indigenous capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation is almost beyond belief."

Few Canadians can speak with a genuine understanding of that capacity. Dr. Marie Wilson, who sits on Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is one of them.

Commissioner Marie Wilson communicated this powerful message while in Montreal last week to deliver the annual Jeanne Sauvé Address. There she spoke to the incredible leadership being shown by survivors of Canada's Indian Residential Schools as thousands have courageously come forward to tell the country their stories. 

Established in 2008, the TRC is in year three of a five-year mandate scheduled to end in the spring of 2014. 

The commission's task is daunting: to record the experiences of children and anyone else who was impacted by the residential schools; to tell Canadians the truth about those experiences and the lasting impacts they have had; and finally, to guide a process of reconciliation "between and within Aboriginal families, communities, churches, governments, and Canadians." 

It's an ambitious and vitally important mission, one being made that much more difficult by the actions of the current Federal government.  This past Monday, the Canadian Press reported that the TRC reluctantly decided to take the Feds to court over their refusal to release millions of documents the TRC believes are integral to fulfilling its mandate.

Commissioner Wilson, however, never once mentioned the troubling lack of co-operation on the part of government in Montreal.   

Instead, her remarks communicated the "enormity" of the trauma wrought by the residential schools on Aboriginal Canadians and outlined how imperative the deeper engagement of non-Aboriginal Canadians remains if meaningful reconciliation is to be achieved.

Truth and trauma

Between the 1870s and 1996, over 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were taken from their families and put in some 130 government-funded, church-run schools across the country.

The intent of the Residential Schools was to assimilate and to christianize.  According to official government records and correspondence, "the fastest and most effective way to do that was to get at the families through the children."

The Canadian government wished to 'kill the Indian in the child' so that within a generation there would be no more Indians in this country, and no more 'Indian problem.'

"Try to imagine if these were your children," commissioner Wilson challenged the audience. 

"They are four, five, maybe six or seven years old, and a Priest, or an Indian Agent, or an RCMP officer comes to take that little one away from you to a place where you could not see them; where they were routinely punished if they tried to speak the language you taught them; where they could not be close to you, or comforted by their brothers or sisters; where food was foreign, punishment was swift and abuses, in many places, rampant."

Just as difficult to imagine is that entire communities were emptied of children.  As one of the survivors told the TRC of this phenomenon: when the children were taken, "even the dogs cried."

Those same little children are among those Commissioner Wilson now recognizes and honours as this country's unsung leaders.  Leaders because in spite of the severity of the trauma they endured, they had the determination to speak up in the 1980s and 1990s, while the last of the schools were still operating, to take legal steps to address the harms they’d experienced. 

Their courageous acts are what led to the largest out of court class action settlement in Canadian history in the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement; the settlement that established the TRC as a requirement.

Now, through the TRC's hearings and national events, a picture of just how severe and long-term the impacts of the residential school system are is emerging.

High rates of addiction and mental health issues are commonplace in Aboriginal communities, the epidemic of suicide in many regions Commissioner Wilson described as “an urgent and national crisis.”

She has little doubt these issues are related directly to "the continuing trauma of [having] separated children from parents." These traumas reverberate through generations. The effects of having been raised outside of the home, without loving parents and often under brutal conditions, have left deep and lasting impacts on the parenting capacity of many survivors.   

"I have had many, many survivors come forward and say each in their own words: the thing I have greatest regrets about is the way in which I raised my own children."

Reconciliation: The real two solitudes

 In light of the enormity of the wrongs suffered by Aboriginal individuals, families and communities as a result of the residential schools, it's a wonder what's driving the desire for reconciliation? 

For many survivors, Commissioner Wilson said, it's their willingness to finally forgive themselves, their desire not "to carry other people’s garbage any longer."

"They were told when they were little that they were bad, they were dirty, they were savage.  As little children they took those messages literally and grew up thinking they were true."

Listening to others share similar stories at commission hearings can help in the acknowledgement that this wasn’t their fault; that they were children, and the blame for the shame, anger, and other devastation lies with the adults who were then responsible.

Speaking at the hearings, Commissioner Wilson said, can offer tremendous release for some survivors; especially for those that have been carrying around their story, and often their shame, as a secret for 50 or 60 years. 

"Some of the survivors will sit with their wife or husband right beside them and say: 'I have never told anyone this before, even my spouse!'"

While the TRC continues to record the stories, meticulously stockpiling these truths and providing space for the sharing of experiences within Aboriginal families and communities, ensuring that non-Aboriginal communities hear the truth and take part in the reconciliation process remains a real challenge. 

"We must be honest about the real two solitudes in this country, that between Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens, and commit to doing tangible things to close the divide in awareness, understanding and relationships."

Non-Aboriginal Canadians, Commissioner Wilson said, need to do something in response to the real harms and needs that survivors are coming forward to describe. They need to know that Canada cares, that Canadians are listening to them.

At least right now, that means non-Aboriginal Canadians, along with representatives of elected leadership and representatives of the media, need to show up to bear witness at the TRCs hearings, and to attend and cover the national events. 

It seems a small request in light of the immense injustices suffered.

"We can no longer afford to be strangers to each other in this country that we now share.  We could actually come to know each other not just as labels or hyphenated Canadians but rather as neighbors and as friends, as people that we care about."

The alternative to opening up a genuine space for dialogue is the risk of repeating the betrayal and aggravating relations. 

Uncomfortable history, uncertain future

 For Commissioner Wilson, the residential schools are a sustained ribbon of story line in Canadian history. To date, they remain part of a “sustained ribbon of ignorance." It is a defining part of how Canada has come to where it is today, with hugely disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal peoples on the streets, in the prisons, in the emergency wards, and, troublingly, in the child welfare system.

The fact remains that for many, if not most, non-Aboriginal Canadians, the legacy of the Residential Schools simply isn't on the radar.  In turn, this (perceived) lack of interest means there are few if any media outlets that dedicate reporting staff with any consistency or attentiveness to Aboriginal issues, let alone to the important work of the TRC. 

"At some point we have to ask ourselves: How is it that we as a country devoted so much air time to the TRC say in South Africa but [which have] dedicated so little to our own on a sustained national basis."

Commissioner Wilson said Canadians need to own the residential school system as Canadian history, not Aboriginal history.  In an effort to do just that, the TRC has challenged Ministries of Education in provinces across the country to make the teaching of residential schools mandatory in the curriculum.  

That it remains absent from the curriculum of every province illustrates just how far there is to go in the quest to raise awareness, partnership building aside.

But there have been some promising breakthroughs. The governments of Nunavut and the North West Territories have already taken up the curriculum challenge.  No high school student in the North will graduates ignorant to the legacy of residential schools. 

Importantly, these governments worked directly with survivors, many of them able to capture their experiences in Indigenous language, to include their stories as part of the new curriculum.  

There is a limited window of opportunity, Commissioner Wilson pointed out, for the other provinces to do the same, to consult survivors within their own borders when making curriculum.      

"Most Canadians who do learn about the schools share a sense of outrage at what happened, are upset at not being told about it and have a genuine desire to help set things right."

Institutionalizing the teaching of this fuller, if more brutal Canadian history, in our classrooms would at least be a start.

"This is not comfortable subject matter," Commissioner Wilson said.

"You have to get uncomfortable to get honest about all of this."

 

To find out more about the TRC's  work, visit their website at: www.trc.ca

Hearings will begin in Quebec in January and the next national event will take place in Montreal on Wednesday April 24, 2013. 

Jonathan Sas is a 2012/2013 Sauvé Scholar . He is the former editor of The Mark News and holds an MA in political science from the University of British Columbia.

 

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