On March 13, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) visited McGill, as part of a conference entitled “Whose Truth? What Kind of Reconciliation? The Importance of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions for Promoting Democratic Good Governance,” sponsored by the Institute for the Study of International Development.
The Canadian TRC, established in 2008, aims to document the legacy of the Canadian Indian residential schools system, and the lived experiences and histories of those affected by it. Residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996, were notorious for their brutal treatment of Indigenous children, who experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of caretakers.
Children also suffered the more insidious effects of forced assimilation and separation from their families and native cultures. At least 4,000 children died while attending the schools.
Commissioners stressed the longstanding, intergenerational effects of the school system, and emphasized the need for healing, mutual understanding, and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
“Recognition, for us, is about changing this history of oppression and negativity, and allowing Canadians to relate to each other in a more positive way,” said Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Commission, and former judge.
Marie Wilson, another one of the commissioners, implicated Canadian culture and society as a whole, and stressed that the residential schools system was a product of Canadian policy, and not solely an Indigenous issue.
“It says right here, in the agreement, that reconciliation is ongoing – it’s individual and collective, and it names all the parties to the agreement – and it also names the people of Canada,” she explained.
“How will we get that word out there, and how will we make it so that the people of Canada register that this belongs to us all?”
Commissioners also noted that many of the challenges facing Indigenous people today are reflective of the damage incurred by the system, not only on the survivors of abuse, but also, through them, on their families and their communities.
One audience member, who identified as an Aboriginal woman, asked commissioners about the need for action regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“While the government doesn’t see a commission on Aboriginal women as a necessity at this time, could you please find some safeguards for Aboriginal women on our behalf? Because we trust in your vision, we believe in your mandate, and all we want is pretty small compared to what the world offers,” the audience member said.
Research has shown that while Indigenous women make up approximately 3 per cent of the Canadian population, between 2000 and 2008 they represented 10 per cent of all female victims of homicides.
“I think that the fact that [the Commission] is given the trust as widely as they are and given a justice mission, that we have to respect that opportunity,” the same audience member later said to The Daily. “They’ve asked us to care and to be involved, and so caring and being involved means asking them to consider ideas that matter to us, that we suffer silently around.”
Chief Wilton Littlechild, another one of the commissioners, agreed with the audience member, emphasizing to The Daily not only the urgency behind growing numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, but also the connection of the issue to the residential school system.
To illustrate the connection, he related a story to The Daily in which he attended the funeral of a murdered woman, who turned out to be the daughter of classmates of his from his time in the residential school system.
Littlechild also pointed to the recent release of a report by Members of Parliament on the Special Committee on Violence Against Indigenous Women that failed to recommend a public inquiry into the problem – a move that advocates have long pushed for.
“Our first sacred teaching that we use in our hearings and our national events is respect,” Littlechild said. “What I’m seeing here now, through the parliamentary committee, is a lack of respect for life.”