Last week the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) held a public event in Montreal. The event was a space for victims to tell their stories and for others to witness their truths. There were also opportunities to learn more of the history of residential schools in Quebec and the horrors that they inflicted. Also available was the opportunity for victims to ‘offer an expression of reconciliation’.
But, I get ahead of myself. Canada’s disgraceful 120 years of atrocity that ended less than two decades ago (after the end of apartheid in South Africa) is still relatively overlooked — globally, and in Canada. This is true despite the facts that the hidden truths of the Canadian residential schools system have slowly come to light, that Canada has offered an official apology, and that Pope Benedict XVI offered ‘his sympathy’ for the Catholic church’s involvement in this policy.
Between 1876 and 1996, Canada perpetrated a ‘genocidal’ policy aimed to eradicate the aboriginal culture, and arguably its population, across the country. Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated in residential schools where they were taught English, Christianity, and British or French culture; they were denied permission to learn or use their native languages or customs. Grave abuses were suffered by these children, including harsh corporal punishment and sexual abuse. Thousands of children were killed as a result of this policy that was implemented by the Canadian government and Canadian Christian churches.
The TRC, a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, is not a criminal tribunal and the Commission does not have the power to subpoena individuals to share their stories or explain their actions, nor the power to judge or punish individuals who helped to perpetrate this harm. The Commission listens to surviving victims and others affected by the residential schools policy by way of statement gathering and other truth-sharing processes.
Montreal’s 4 day event (24-27 April 2013) was the fifth of seven scheduled ‘national’ events which are meant to “engage the Canadian public and provide education about the IRS system, the experience of former students and their families, and the ongoing legacies of the institutions”.
Admitting that the history of Indian residential schools in Canada is not understood by many, the TRC mandate claims to be founded on an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind in order to be able to work towards a stronger and healthier future. Arguably, this aim relies, at least partly, on the witnessing of the stories by the Canadian non-victimized public.
The question, then, is whether the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is ‘loud enough’ to truly convey to its audience this shared history that affects all Canadians still.