Judge works to foster reconciliation between natives, non-natives - Head of commission on residential schools speaks in Edmonton
BY BRENT WITTMEIER, MAY 11, 2012
Murray Sinclair, a Manitoba judge, and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, speaks with audience members on May 10, 2012, at King's University College on Thursday.
EDMONTON - Murray Sinclair has witnessed a deluge of tears, but each week, he still gets letters defending Canada's residential school program.
The Manitoba judge and chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has one of the country's most difficult jobs: listening to thousands of aboriginals tell horrifying stories, one by one, of physical and sexual abuse at the schools.
Thursday evening, Sinclair walked into a King's University College classroom for the other aspect of his job, to help nudge reconciliation forward.
"All of the survivors that have spoken to us talk about being afraid," he said to a group of about 60 people. The event was open to the public but the audience included about a dozen students from a three-week evening course on the history of residential schools and the process of reconciliation.
He began with video testimony from reluctant witnesses who emerged from decades of silence.
"I was taken from my bed with my mouth covered," said an Inuvik man, recalling a priest's actions late at night. "I carried that sexual abuse, that sexual assault for 49 years."
"They made a monster out of my father," another woman said, recounting her father's anger and the suicide that killed both of her parents.
The most common reaction Sinclair gets when he talks about these experiences of fear and their ongoing repercussions is, "I never knew any of that."
Between 1870 and 1996, government-funded, church-run boarding schools - predominantly in Western and Northern Canada - sought to transform aboriginals into English-speaking Christians. Mandatory attendance began at age five. Taken from their families, children were forbidden to speak their native languages, and returned home only in summer. The schools were rife with abuse, inferior health standards and poor education.
Education was initially a bargaining point for aboriginal leaders when treaty negotiations began. To defer costs, the government enlisted churches to run the schools. Tens of thousands of children died, and draconian rules severely limited the legal power of communities to fight back. Until after the Second World War, many of the teachers had no educational training.
After 1972, the government returned to the parents the choice of how and where to educate their children. Not knowing anything else, many continued sending kids back.
In 2008, Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons on behalf of the government of Canada. Sinclair, Manitoba's first aboriginal judge, admits surprise at how far Harper's words went, and also notes that the apology only delved into assimilation, not the abuse.
The commission began listening in the summer of 2010 and will wrap up by 2014. It was funded by $60 million set aside from a $1.9-billion settlement in 2007 with the Canadian government and Christian churches, the largest class-action lawsuit settlement in Canadian history. Alberta's hearings begin in April 2014.
"Apologies are just words," said Sinclair. "Without action, without some atonement, if you are not prepared to atone, your words are without meaning."
Sinclair defines reconciliation as the establishment of a respectful relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. The three commissioners don't believe it will happen in 2014, their lifetimes or in any living person's experience. It may take seven generations, Sinclair said, the same amount of time the schools were operational.
King's has been trying, in its own way, to foster that reconciliation. In January 2009, not long after the government apology, the school's interdisciplinary conference focused on truth and reconciliation in residential schools.
"It was a pretty powerful event," said Will Van Arragon, history professor leading the course. "We see this as a continuation of that conversation."
Beginning April 30, nightly classes cover much of the same ground, featuring historians and sociologists, community outreach workers, government and clergy, and of course, survivors. Students write reactions in journals and a synthesis of what they've learned. The class wraps up next week.
There are already tentative plans for another class in 2014, around the same time as Alberta's aboriginal communities come forward with their own stories.
Sinclair's appearance was a coup for the course, Van Arragon said, as they only expected a regional representative of the commission.
Born in Selkirk, Man., in the 1950s to parents who had residential school experiences of their own, Sinclair talked about how assimilation has been just as much a part of the public schools.
He thanks people who write him each week defending residential schools, admitting that there were good teachers in some of the schools. But even if the residential school program hadn't created a setting ripe for abuse, its goal of separation and assimilation caused tremendous damage.
It's a point Sinclair is glad to share with the King's students.
"They represent so great an influence on the future of the country," Sinclair said after the class. "We have future teachers here, some will be leaders in their church groups. There may even be a future politician."