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Canada heals

Commission confronts memories haunting former Indian Residential School students

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to be held over the weekend in Montreal will create a forum for victims of the Canadian residential school system for First Nations youth. The conference, entitled Breaking the Silence, will mediate discussion and reconciliation between the victims of residential schools and their assailants.

“It is a high aim, but not an idealistic one,” said Martin Blanchard, assistant director of the Centre de Recherche en Éthique de Montréal, and an organizer of the conference. “We want to break the silence, bring together aboriginals and non-aboriginals. And that starts with a sincere apology.”

Throughout the 19th century, Catholic and Protestant churches attempted to assimilate 150,000 First Nation children into mainstream Canadian culture by teaching English, agriculture, and Christianity. A long list of allegations have been made against the 130 schools, including sexual abuse and crowded, unsanitary conditions where the children boarded. The last of these school, located in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1996.

Blanchard believes participants will achieve reconciliation by rehashing the history of these residential schools, and hopes the Commission could disindoctrinate the notion that victims should simply forgive and forget.

However, Kimberly Phillips, a spokesperson for the TRC, commended the Commission for tackling experiences from Indian residential schools that continue to haunt victims and Canada as a whole.

“This Commission is unique because it is the first court-ordered TRC to be established,” she said. “While legal issues will be addressed, we will also emphasize the experiences of former students.”

Blanchard pointed out that of First Nations people all over Canada were expressing strong interest in the event.

“It’s very difficult to reach out to aboriginals. In previous conferences, there has been very little participation,” he said. “But when it comes to residential schools, they have a lot to say.”

Blanchard recalled the aboriginals’ lack of faith in the ability of government initiatives to better their lives. He believes that has changed with the TRC. “The aboriginal groups that I have spoken to tell me that this Commission has given them hope. It is also making the academic community aware of an issue that has long since been ignored,” he said.

The conference will feature four panel discussions, the first of which – Reconciliation: An International Perspective – will be chaired by Christa Scholtz, a McGill professor in the department of political science.

“The panel will explore the politics of apology, internationally speaking,” said Scholtz, referring to the formal apology of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 11 to the vicitims of residential schools. Harper’s statement follows the actions of Australia and New Zealand, countries which instituted similar policies toward aboriginal populations.

“It will attempt to distill the experiences of the aboriginals and the lessons learned into actual suggestions for the Canadian government and its treatment of aboriginals,” added Scholtz. “Any mechanism that brings together policy makers, academics, and aboriginals to discuss such an issue as residential schools is valuable.”

Other panels will discuss the ethical challenges of reconciliation, the role of the media, and the relationship between memory and truth, incorporating academics and experts from a wide range of disciplines.

Anyone affected by residential schools is encouraged to heal by sharing their personal experiences.