The Role of Truth and Reconciliation

By Reuel Amdur

Murray Sinclair talked about the impact of the history of residential schools and racist oppression. He talked as well about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which he was asked to head in June, 2009. He spoke to a convocation at Carleton University organized by the Faculty of Public Affairs and the School of Social Work on October 15.

He is Manitoba’s first Aboriginal judge, and his parents and grandparents were all residential school survivors. The other commissioners are Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson. Littlechild spent 14 years in a residential school, and Wilson is married to a survivor.

Sinclair gave this description of the oppression that Aboriginals suffered through the residential schools. The government took a family’s children away and in many cases forbade further contact, in order to prevent the children from knowing their language and their religion. Their language and religion were to be destroyed, as they were seen as inferior. Laws were passed to aid in this destruction of native families. “If parents hid the children to keep them from residential school, they were committing a criminal offence, as was anyone helping them.” Protest was illegal, for if three or more Indians came together, it would be deemed a conspiracy. They could not go to court to object without the permission of the Minister of Indian Affairs, and no one could go to court on their behalf. A lawyer taking such a case would be automatically disbarred.

Well, could Indians organize to vote to change things? In 1891, a law forbade Indians from owning property, and property ownership was a condition of voting. This policy against Indian families persisted from 1890 on. Only in the 1950’s was there a beginning of the closure of the residential schools, with children then going to public schools. In 1972, Indians on reserve began to have their own schools.

Sinclair pointed out that this destruction of Aboriginal families and culture went on through seven generations. Children from seven and eight were put in institutions where they were taught that their language and culture were bad and that their parents were “savages not worthy of respect and love.” “It took seven generations to make this mess. It may take seven generations to rebuild,” he said.

This destruction has taken a serious toll. Shame was drilled into the children, and some tried to deny being Aboriginal, saying that they were French or Spanish. The people were impoverished, socially dislocated, and housed in poor homes. Then the resentment began to boil over. In the 1950’s the crime rate among Aboriginals, which had been about the same as that of other Canadians, began to grow. In the 1960’s came the ‘60’s scoop, apprehension of native children. “A repeat of the residential schools in a new form,” he said.

Sinclair spoke of the aims of the Commission. First, there is the matter of the truth. The Commission needs to tell the whole story. As for reconciliation, the task is multifold. There is the need for reconciliation between perpetrators and victims and Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. Also, between the Aboriginals and the government? “I haven’t yet met anyone who wants to be reconciled with the government. You don’t forgive institutions. You forgive people.”

According to Sinclair, it is not just Aboriginals who suffered from this racism. White people did as well. “Canadian kids were also told that Indians were inferior.” They learned about what their white ancestors did and that what they did was right. Therefore, “Canadian children have learned a racist attitude toward Indians. This racism is not an Aboriginal problem. It is a problem for all Canadians.”

Perhaps the most important role of the Commission is in helping Aboriginals to reconcile with themselves, with their families and with their own image of themselves. The oppression has caused great hurt to family relations and to self-respect. Unfortunately the work cannot be accomplished in the four years allotted. After all, it took seven generations. . . .