Healing the pain of residential schools is a Canadian experience for everyone to work on

From Winnipeg Free Press

Canada must confront the truth

By: Murray Sinclair and Stuart Murray

Posted: 11/1/2014 

In 2008, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights began its formative work by travelling across the country to listen and learn from people about their human rights experiences. In the same year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada began its work of listening and learning from Indian residential school survivors and their descendants. The stories people told both the museum and the TRC were powerful and reflected different ways of understanding justice and equality. The stories provide a foundation to approach the challenging issues and conversations around both human rights and indigenous rights.

Since the TRC began its work, the public conversation around residential schools and the devastating effects of colonization has grown. Survivors have been vocal in rejecting a society marred by racism and exclusion, and the result is that all Canadians are looking for new ways to listen and understand each other. There are many unknowns, but what we do know is we cannot continue as we have in the past and that reconciliation will be a long journey. After all, Indian residential schools operated for more than 100 years in Canada, but it's only recently people have begun to listen.

In 2008, the Canadian government delivered a formal apology to residential school students for the abuses they endured, for the schools themselves, and committed itself to a new relationship.

In 2010, the first national event of the TRC took place in Winnipeg, which marked the beginning of a five-year process and six more national events. These events are important steps in publicly acknowledging and taking responsibility for the damage these schools inflicted on indigenous communities and individuals. On Nov. 12, 2010, Canada endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, further reflecting the ongoing need in Canada to take indigenous rights seriously.

Today, the desire for appropriate acknowledgement of the harm done by colonization, including the residential school experience, is more and more framed in terms of genocide.

The term genocide was developed by legal expert Raphael Lemkin, who also led the successful effort to make genocide a crime under international law. Lemkin's writings clearly connected genocide and colonization.

Among the events he considered genocide included the colonization of Tasmania and the invasion of North America by the Spanish. Lemkin's understanding of genocide and its relationship to colonization is examined in depth within the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Many of the exhibits in the museum rely on the voices of people who have direct experiences with human rights issues, and the exhibits on residential school experiences in Canada are no exception.

They include testimony gathered at TRC events from residential school survivors, some of whom name their experience as genocide. Alongside these testimonies are exhibits that document the buildup to establishing residential schools, the violations against the indigenous and human rights of indigenous people, and attempts to deny, minimize or hide the violations. Finally, the struggle to break the silence about the horrors experienced by many is profiled. These exhibits highlight ongoing efforts to have these violations recognized as genocide.

The right to declare a particular act as criminal is one reserved exclusively to properly constituted courts. Therefore, neither the museum nor the TRC have the authority to declare Canada's treatment of aboriginal students in Indian residential schools as an act of genocide.

However, based on Lemkin's published and unpublished works, the entire process of colonization of North America from the time of contact, including the forcible removal of aboriginal children from their families to send them to residential and boarding schools, would appear to have been aimed at eliminating aboriginal peoples of North America as a distinct racial group.

We need to take seriously the perspective that the entire process of colonization in Canada would fall within the definition of genocide as contained in the UN Convention. Confronting honestly and deeply such realities of colonialism in Canada is one of our most important human rights tasks. Taking the question of genocide seriously is part of that conversation, a conversation that can only move forward with education and awareness. Both the TRC and the museum are committed to providing essential spaces for truth-telling, education, conversation and reflection. Each of us has a responsibility to take part in these conversations, within families, within schools and workplaces, and within the broader community.

The Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair is the chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The commission's final report is expected in June 2015. Stuart Murray is the outgoing president and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.


From Winnipeg Free Press

Sinclair issues challenge to help heal pain of schools

By: Ashley Prest

Posted: 10/30/2014

Justice Murray Sinclair: 'Reconciliation is a hard road.'


Justice Murray Sinclair: 'Reconciliation is a hard road.' 

Justice Murray Sinclair, the head of a commission investigating the excesses of Indian Residential Schools, said on Thursday that a fundamental change in attitudes and recognition of the past were vital to heal the harm and alienation inflicted by more than a century of mistreatment.

Sinclair chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, due to report next June on the effects of the 142 government-run schools on the more than 150,000 aboriginal children taken from their homes and uprooted from their culture starting in the 1870s. The last such institution closed in 1996.

In an address to several hundred spectators at the University of Manitoba's Engineering and Technology Complex entitled "If You Think Truth is Hard, Reconciliation is Harder," he challenged everyone to help make the necessary change.

Sinclair said the key to moving on from the suffering and shame will hinge on recognition of what took place.

"Things are going to change and if they're going to change, we need to set the terms of what those future changes are going to result in." he said. "Reconciliation is a hard road."

Sinclair said the commission had conducted four years of hearings and investigations and compiled accounts in video and spoken word from 7,000 survivors. The groundwork had already begun to include the commission's findings and the history of the IRS system in school curriculums across the country.

"Getting people to understand will allow us to appreciate the significance of putting changes into our curriculum so that there is a more balanced approach to the teaching of Canadian history and about aboriginal people," Sinclair said.

He said commission members have met ministers of education from across Canada twice in their annual meetings to "convey to them the importance of curriculum change."

"But also (to convey) the question of holding them accountable to ask them to show us what they're going to be doing. They've been very co-operative and I must say, very anxious to make sure they do the right thing," Sinclair said. "They know, as do many leaders in Canadian society, that things are changing and they have to keep ahead of the change so they have some input as to where that change is going to take us."

Sinclair was speaking at the U of M, site of the national research centre and archives for the commission, as the 2014 Distinguished Knight Visitor as part of a special enrichment program to assist academics and the community at large.

Knowing the truth, he said, will allow everyone - indigenous and non-indigenous - to move forward to a shared future.

"It is about creating a relationship founded on mutual respect between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. It is through the establishment of relationships that we are going to be able to achieve a good nation," he said.

He said neglect, abuse and oppression suffered by the incarcerated children constituted genocide under the terms of the Geneva Convention definition and it was up to this generation to start down the path of reconciliation.

"The importance of fixing it is all of our responsibilities. We have to find a way to get our leaders to set directions for the way we need to follow," he said. "It was originally intended by the indigenous people to find a way in which we can co-exist and share this territory and get along with each other. Now it needs to be readdressed because the aboriginal population is growing. It's the fastest growing population in Canada."

Today's adults, he said, are going to inherit the responsibility of moving forward.

Answering questions, Sinclair said there was no longer any place for people who say they do not wish to know, who say they weren't there and express no interest in the history of the residential schools.

"There's a segment of the population who refuse to accept any responsibility because they weren't there," Sinclair said. "My comment to them is you may not be connected to the past but you are connected to the future. What do you do to accept responsibility for the future? That's the question they need to be asked."