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Reconciling the truth
Making amends; Although the Indian residential schools program was abandoned more than 10 years ago, much of its legacy remains unresolved. Advocates hope a Truth and Reconciliation Commission can start the healing
Catherine Rolfsen, Vancouver Sun, June 03, 2007
It's hard to picture Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation and special adviser at West Vancouver's Indian Residential School Survivors Society, at age six. But his grey crewcut and boyish grin hint at the child who was shipped off to St. Michael's residential school in Alert Bay decades ago.
He didn't know why he was taken from his community, or why he wasn't allowed to speak the only language he knew. He is still struggling to figure out why, 10 years later, he "staggered out of St. Mike's already a full-blown alcoholic."
A lot remains unclear for survivors of Indian residential schools. Although the institutions are now closed -- the last shut its doors in 1996 -- much of their legacy remains unresolved.
Chief Robert Joseph, a survivor of the residential schools, stands on the bank of the Capilano River. He says an apology from the federal government is essential to the healing process.
Today, Joseph is more hopeful than ever that Canadians are ready to confront their history.
Much of his hope rests on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) planned as part of the landmark $4-billion residential schools settlement agreement negotiated between the federal government, churches involved in running the schools and the Assembly of First Nations.
Although it likely won't begin until early next year, there are already high hopes that the project -- in which survivors of residential schools will tell their stories on a national stage -- will turn over a new leaf between First Nations communities and the rest of Canada. But there's also skepticism as to whether a TRC is the way to reconcile and whether Canada is ready.
The very fact that Canada has resorted to a TRC -- a model used internationally to deal with genocide, civil war and apartheid -- is an admission that the fallout from residential schools requires extraordinary measures.
Since South Africa's ground-breaking commission began in 1994, TRCs have been an increasingly popular way to deal with widespread human rights abuses. At least 40 have been set up in places such as Sierra Leone, East Timor and Chile.
Those involved in planning Canada's say a TRC is an ideal way to address the legacy of residential schools, institutions overseen by the federal government to break up aboriginal communities by assimilating their children.
Bob Watts, the interim executive director of the TRC, said the project can help turn the page on a shameful past. The former chief of staff to the Assembly of First Nations grand chief Phil Fontaine said he hopes that, through the commission's work, "the trauma and the legacy and the negative effects that our communities are feeling will end."
It's a tall order for five years work and a $60-million budget. The TRC will host seven national events across the country followed by many more community events. Anyone affected by residential schools will be encouraged to tell his or her story.
"I'm sure there will be people there that will tell their story that have never told it to anybody before. Never told it to their family," Watts said.
Over more than a century, 130 residential schools were built across Canada, most run jointly between the federal government and churches. The AFN estimates that 150,000 children attended the institutions -- which means that about nine out of 10 aboriginal people know a survivor.
Physical and sexual abuse were rampant. More than 19,000 claims for these and other abuses have been filed against the government by former students. But survivors also blame the schools for loss of language and culture, substance abuse and depression.
The residential schools settlement sets aside $1.9 billion for a "common experience payment" of $10,000 for the first year and $3,000 for each additional year spent at school, available to all eligible survivors. Additional money is available for those who suffered sexual and physical abuse. Survivors now face the decision of whether to claim their compensation -- forfeiting the right to sue in the future -- or to opt out of the settlement.
But negotiators say individual payments aren't the only answer for the estimated 80,000 living former students. The settlement also promises $225 million -- $100 million of which is to come from the churches in "cash and services"-- to go toward healing initiatives.
The TRC is an attempt to set the record straight on the past. Much of the history of residential schools is still contested -- for example, the mortality rate in schools is undetermined, but estimates ran as high as 50 per cent in the early 20th century.
In April, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice announced he would strike a special committee to investigate these deaths and examine why little was done to improve the overcrowding, disease and underfunding that plagued the schools.
Diaries and letters kept by former school employees are being unearthed, and an archive and research centre about residential schools are planned, all to fulfil the commission's first mandate: truth.
Reconciliation is the hard part. How does a country get past its history?
It's a question Paulette Regan has spent a long time thinking about. As a former resolution manager for Indian Residential Schools Resolution Canada, a federal department devoted entirely to resolving the legacy of the institutions, she was on the front lines of the effort to mend the relationship between aboriginals and the federal government. She said the first step toward reconciliation is for survivors and the Canadian public to start talking.
"It's one thing to know about the schools," Regan said. "It's another thing to truly understand their impacts. And I think the only way you truly understand is in dialogue with survivors and communities and families."
But not everyone thinks a TRC can achieve reconciliation. Stephane Leman-Langlois, an expert on the South African TRC at the University of Montreal, is not convinced the model makes sense in Canada.
The South African TRC was set up to address the vast number of human rights abuses during apartheid, Leman-Langlois said. The commission even made the controversial move of granting amnesty to about 1,000 perpetrators in exchange for full confessions.
But the Canadian TRC will avoid acting like a courtroom. It will not have the power to grant amnesty or subpoena former school employees, many of whom are dead anyway. For their own protection against lawsuits, those testifying will not be allowed to name abusers unless allegations have been proven in court.
If survivors want to name names -- or to testify in private for any reason -- they will be able to choose an in-camera hearing. But those names won't end up in any final reports.
So there will be little individual accountability in the Canadian TRC. But those involved say that's not the point. "We have a criminal justice system here in Canada that can do that work," Watts said.
Rather than laying blame, Watts said the TRC is about uncovering the roots of residential school policies and reconciling the relationship between aboriginals and the rest of Canada.
But Leman-Langlois is skeptical that a TRC can do the job. "You can't really institutionalize reconciliation. That's a very personal thing," he said. "It's kind of a pointless political, rhetorical exercise to call it a truth and reconciliation commission."
Those involved admit that a TRC is not a sure-fire formula for reconciliation.
"They're not a magic bullet or anything," acknowledged Kathleen Mahoney, the lawyer who negotiated the settlement agreement for the Assembly of First Nations. "They have to be worked at and it could very well not succeed."
For Mahoney, an international human rights lawyer and professor at the University of Calgary, success means raising public awareness about the legacy of residential schools.
"Hardly any of my students know anything about residential schools, notwithstanding the fact that it's the largest human rights violation in the history of this country, ever," Mahoney said. "Canada's right up there with the worst violators, but nobody knows that."
But Mahoney said the TRC will be a failure if all parties are not involved. She said a lack of public participation would be "another slap in the face to the survivors."
Mahoney is confident that churches, aboriginal leaders and government bureaucrats are motivated to see the TRC work. However, the commission will not have the power to subpoena, meaning participation is purely voluntary.
But Mahoney is uncertain that all federal politicians share a commitment to reconciliation.
Until recently, Prentice had stonewalled calls by opposition members, churches and aboriginal leaders for an official apology for the schools. Recently, he expressed support for a Liberal motion calling for an apology in the House of Commons but suggested the government would wait until after the TRC's findings.
"It is my sincere hope, as happened in South Africa, that this matter will be dealt with, that the whole issue of apologies, the whole issue of how this country is to find a way forward will be dealt with by the truth and reconciliation commission," Prentice said in a House of Commons debate May 1.
In 1998, then Liberal Indian affairs minister Jane Stewart's "statement of reconciliation" acknowledged the government's role in the schools, and said the government was "deeply sorry" for those students who were physically and sexually abused at the schools. But she stopped short of apologizing to all survivors.
Several churches have offered apologies and "confessions" for their part in the schools, including the Anglican church that ran St. Michael's.
Joseph has seen a lot of healing since his time at St. Michael's, but the hereditary chief said an apology from the federal government is "absolutely essential" to reconciliation.
"A government would be absolutely remiss not to extend that apology, because there has been some good work done, and a lot of healing has started, and reconciliation is just within our reach and we don't want to lose that," Joseph said.
But he said that neither an apology nor the TRC will be the end of his healing and his work with aboriginal communities.
"I know that having received the last cheque, having heard the last apology, having had the truth commission, it won't be the end of it," Joseph said. "It will be the beginning. The real beginning."