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Truth and Reconciliation

Xwla ye toteló:met qas ye slilekwel “towards understanding and harmony”
translated from Halq'eméylem by Siyamiateliyot (Elizabeth Phillips)

Listen to Elizabeth Phillips

Reconciliation at UFV

By Shirley Hardman, senior advisor on Indigenous Affairs at UFV

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was telecasting the TRC closing ceremonies — along with the commission’s conclusions and recommendations — I, like many Aboriginal Canadians sat transfixed, listening and viewing the faces of the speakers.

When Justice Sinclair cautioned that this report is for the future, the Survivors were moved to applaud. I wondered, what about right now?  What can we do today? The report and the speakers repeatedly stated that education will have a role in this action of building together.

Perry Bellegarde, Assembly of First Nations' Chief, asserted that in order to make room in our hearts and minds we would need to get rid of our society’s old ways of thinking about indigenous people. The churches (Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, United, and the Jesuits), standing together, acknowledged that apologies are not enough; they committed to “foster learning about and awareness of the reality and legacy of the residential schools…and the new ways forward.” It is a call for teaching about the history and legacy of the residential schools in all Canadian schools. 

Bringing reconciliation home

As I sat listening — and really, I was only listening because the telecast was so annoyingly intermittent — I began to think about my role in reconciliation. As the Senior Advisor on Indigenous Affairs at UFV, what advice do I have? What action can I take? As an academic, what can I be expected to do?  The answers don’t come easily.

On October 27, 2011, the University of Manitoba apologized for both failing to recognize and challenge the forced assimilation and for the university’s role in educating graduates that would go on to participate in such a system. In the apology, President Barnard stated that the university has “failed Aboriginal peoples.” It is in this apology that I can see a way forward. The U of M President reminds us that a critical role of the university is “to create, preserve and communicate knowledge.” This is something we all do at UFV.

The call for action says we must understand the past. Education will provide this understanding. This means some university instructors will experience a shift in attitude and it will be critical we have the requisite knowledge to pass on to students. This knowledge has not been a part of our own education, and in most cases not a part of our area of expertise. Leaders in many disciplines are not writing about it. So, the responsibility falls to us as individuals.   

In her book RESHAPING THE UNIVERSITY: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift, Sami author Rauna Kuokkanen offers a participatory paradigm that she cautions is not a model, but a process, that requires a long-term commitment. Rauna states in her introduction that she is making a “call for the academy to accept its responsibility toward the other and to do its homework.” Rauna is writing about indigenous knowledge, not a socio-historic overview that will inform and foster understanding of indigenous peoples. However, I think the process is transferable and could prove to be utilitarian.

As academics, we must accept the responsibility of moving the recommendations of the TRC forward. We must create and develop knowledge around the final report and its recommendations, and instill this knowledge in the minds and the hearts of our students. Our students go on to become social workers, teachers, political leaders, youth workers, business frontrunners, and church leaders. Our students are citizens in a society that needs to move towards understanding and harmony in a way that will address the truths that the six-year commission uncovered. 

Responses by:

Posted by Geoffrey Carr, Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at UFV

Dr. Carr's research examines the function of architecture and art in the contested spaces of colonial encounter. Carr has also worked on the largely overlooked architectural history of the Indian Residential School system in Canada, as well as the problems of preserving and commemorating these difficult places. He also is interested in issues related to memorialization, heritage preservation, state apology, and discourses of social reconciliation. He is currently working on a book about the architectural designs of the residential schools. 

One of the first issues that emerged at the closing in June of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) concerned TRC Commissioner Murray Sinclair's use of the phrase "cultural genocide." He used these words to describe the wrongs perpetrated by government and churches against Indigenous peoples in the Indian Residential School system. In the introduction of the Final Report of the TRC—Honoring the Truth, Reconciling for Future (2015)—cultural genocide is defined as the intentional destruction of “structures and practices that allow … [any] group to continue as a group”. The Report echoes Sinclair’s conclusion, citing a series of examples from Canada’s colonial history: government seizures of ancestral territories, forced relocations of Indigenous communities, prohibition of traditional languages, elimination of ancient religious practices, persecution of spiritual leaders, subversion of customary gender relations, destruction or sale of sacred cultural materials. Of course, there are more elements to this cultural genocide. Many more. Significantly in a recent Angus Reid poll, seventy percent of Canadians agree with Sinclair; yet P.M. Stephen Harper, Canada’s highest elected official, continues to refuse to utter the words “cultural genocide” when questioned about the conclusions of the TRC.

Why does this struggle over terminology matter? I think it matters because the words we use to describe traumatic histories may limit how we interpret such pasts but also (if chosen carefully) will help negate the dismissive gestures of apologists, deniers, and other assorted revisionists. In this instance, I suggest that the value of the phrase "cultural genocide" springs from its visceral, dissonant effect—sharply contrasting as it does with the popularly held image of Canada as a defender of human rights. True, on numerous occasions, Canada has protected human rights at home and abroad, but this cannot distract our gaze for one moment from the historic and ongoing abuse of the rights of Indigenous peoples in this country. The phrase “cultural genocide” rejects a narrow, sentimental vision of our nation in favour of an uncertain critical horizon so vast as to boggle the comprehension of any one mind. This seems entirely appropriate to me. How can any one person hope to grasp the enormity of a crime that played out over so many years, in so many places, at the expense of so many people? How can it reasonably be said that Indigenous people need to “get over” the centuries-long series of violent episodes, betrayals, epidemics, misguided policies, and neglect that have punctuated Canada’s colonial history? 

Despite the magnitude and complexity of the problems facing Indigenous communities, I find a measure of hope in the simple fact that a majority of Canadians acknowledge the gravity of the offense committed against First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people. This admission helps to square a rightful balance between truth and reconciliation. Yet, how to persist in truth-telling in a divided society when one of the main features of that society is a profound and lasting silence about its history? It is promising that BC’s Education Minister Peter Fassbender has committed to including more curriculum on our colonial past in the K-12 system, yet the path to truth and reconciliation requires more than educational reform. It is revealing that in the same poll cited above, those “less sympathetic to Aboriginal causes” were “those without relationships with Indigenous people”. Conversely, it seems fair to suggest that building relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is the key not only to solving the truth deficit around this difficult past but also to charting a course towards a more just society.

During the closing moments of the TRC, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, exhorted non-Indigenous Canadians to “make room in their hearts, and minds, and spirits … to rid yourselves of those racist attitudes … rid yourselves of images of Indigenous people as being substandard, as pagan, as savages … so that new things can come in … [a new] respect for our languages, our customs, and our traditions”. For me, this strikes at the heart of the issue. Every heart and every mind touched by colonial history needs healing. Clearly, the nature of that healing differs between those who have suffered the brunt of cultural genocide from those who have not. But what does it mean for those who have inherited wealth, privilege, and power at such a cost to others? It is naïve to think that such a heritage does not dehumanize each one of us. Any chance for real reconciliation demands not only an end to such naiveties, but also a wider sense that rejecting bigotry for tolerance, respect, and friendship is ultimately enlightened self-interest.

Posted by Yvon Dandurand, Associate Professor, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Yvon Dandurand is a Fellow and Senior Associate of the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy, a United Nations affiliated institute. He specializes in comparative criminal law and criminal justice research and has been extensively involved in numerous juvenile justice reform and policy development projects in Canada and abroad. He recently worked as the UNODC lead consultant for the development of the United Nations Model Strategies and Practical Measures on the Elimination of Violence against Children in the Field of Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. 

And now, the United Nations Human Rights Committee

The release today of the Human Rights Committee Report on Canada’s compliance with its human rights obligations in relation to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (and two optional protocols) makes it clear, once more, what Canada’s agenda must be to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples. Since the publication of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it seems that we have spent too much time trying to label and condemn past actions and not enough addressing their current impact. Debating whether the term “cultural genocide” is the best way to describe past wrongs seem to have superseded the importance of a discussion of what concrete actions must be taken immediately.

In early June, an Angus Reid Institute’s survey revealed that Canadians are not confident that government will follow through with the Commission’s recommendations, citing that 43% of them expect the federal government to take less action than they believe it should. Only 7% of respondents were “very optimistic” the TRC process would lead to “a better situation for Canada’s aboriginal people”. The Human Rights Committee calls for Canada to fully implement the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Human Rights Committee calls for specific actions to be taken and that should be our priority. The Committee is concerned that indigenous women and girls are disproportionately affected by life-threatening forms of violence, homicides, and disappearances. The Committee recommended that Canada, as a matter of priority:  “a) address the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls by conducting a national inquiry, as called for by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, in consultation with indigenous women’s organizations and families of the victims; b) review  its legislation at the federal, provincial and territorial levels and coordinate police responses across the country  with a view to preventing the occurrence of such murders and disappearances; c) investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators and provide reparation to victims and; d) address the root causes of violence against indigenous women and girls.”

The Committee is also concerned about reports of the potential extinguishment of indigenous land rights and titles. It is concerned that land disputes between indigenous peoples and the State party which have gone on for years impose a heavy financial burden in litigation on the former. It is concerned about the slow application of the 2011 Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act that amends the Indian Act, to remove reported lasting discriminatory effects against indigenous women, in particular regarding the transmission of Indian status, preventing them and their descendants from enjoying all of the benefits related to such status. The Committee addressed the issue of the disproportionately high rate of incarceration of indigenous people, including women, in federal and provincial prisons across Canada. In all of these areas, the Committee required Canada to take immediate action.

Finally, also concerned with the situation of indigenous peoples in Canada, the Committee recommended that the government, in consultation with indigenous people: (a) implement and reinforce its existing programmes and policies to supply basic needs to indigenous peoples; (b) reinforce its policies aimed at promoting the preservation of the languages of indigenous peoples; and, (c) provide family and child care services on reserves with sufficient funding.

According to the same Angus Reid Poll (June 9-12, 2015) one in three Canadians does not know anyone who is Aboriginal and the likelihood that someone is more sympathetic to the recommendations of the Commission is apparently influenced by whether or not someone has had contacts with someone of Aboriginal descent or people who are First Nations. As educators, what does that tell us?


Learn more about the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and its findings and recommendations.

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