Residential schools: stories to tell and re-tell

June 16, 2010

Truth and reconciliation are things we think that only faraway, war-torn countries need. Not so. The Indian residential-school system in Canada - a system carried out by churches with the imprimatur of governments - resulted in widespread abuse and loss of aboriginal culture, a national shame that still, today, demands truth and reconciliation. A four-day national event at The Forks in Manitoba provides an entry point for all Canadians into that process.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a product of the settlement agreement between the federal government and Canada's aboriginal peoples, is co-ordinating the event and six others like it across the country. Its mandate extends to creating a historical record, collecting statements from anyone affected by the residential-school experience, and promoting education about it for future generations.

The residential-school system removed children from their homes and families. The results included horrendous instances of sexual and physical abuse. Almost every student was shaped by emotional cruelty and loss of dignity. Eddy Jules, a student who arrived at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in 1969, remembers that "the first thing they did to us when we walked in the door is they cut our hair" - an assault on a child whose long hair is intrinsic to his First Nations identity.

Truth is needed because some facts still need to be collected. The commission's chair, Mr. Justice Murray Sinclair, wants to get to the bottom of stories about children who went missing from the schools. Stories of student-on-student abuse also need to be told.

Reconciliation is needed because in many ways, residential schools aren't just part of the story of the aboriginal-colonial relationship; they are the story. Nearly every aspect of the relationship - the making, and occasional breaking, of treaties; attempts to suppress aboriginal culture; the institutionalization of aboriginals - is either reflected in, or was propelled through residential schools.

There is an urgency in telling the stories. Most of the schools closed by the 1970s, so almost all of the perpetrators are gone. Many former students - the commission estimates 80,000 - remain, but their numbers are dwindling. The legacy remains, in the generations of people whose parents and grandparents failed at parenthood because they knew only institutionalization in their own childhood.

Reconciliation may be harder than truth, and not just for aboriginals; it will take a creative engagement by the commission to convince new Canadians that this is part of their story, and to remind all Canadians that the residential schools story merits telling and retelling in 2010 and beyond.

There are legitimate differences of opinion in Canada about questions of aboriginal policy, but the need for truth and reconciliation cuts across these lines. In 1994, a young aboriginal student told the CBC that traditional First Nations education consisted of "the three L's": looking, listening and learning. That education was denied to too many aboriginal people. The commission allows Canadians to look, listen and learn, if they have the courage.

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