According to Wikipedia, a truth and reconciliation commission is “tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government (or, depending on the circumstances, non-state actors also), in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has a mandate to bring forward the truth of the activities and impact of the residential school system and has its roots in the formal apology offered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008, on behalf of the Government of Canada, for the state’s supportive role in the operations of the residential school system.
As part of this ongoing process, chairman Justice Murray Sinclair announced late last week that the commission has found the practice of residential schooling to be a form of genocide, in line with the United Nations conceptualization thereof, specifically the forcible transfer of children of one group (national, ethnical, racial or religious) to another group. This is counter to the government of Canada’s persistent distancing of Canada’s history from the UN’s definition and, in my opinion, represents an important naming and recognition of Canada’s history and its reach into the present-day experiences of residential school survivors and their descendents.
The scale of genocide implicates the whole of a nation, not just those people who have been directly affected, and in The Globe and Mail‘s reporting of the commission’s activities, they highlight the effects of residential schools beyond those who were forced to attend, to teachers and their descendents. Though I think its a bit strange for the Globe and Mail article to speak about the effects of residential schooling in a way that does not emphasize the experience of survivors, I think it is important to frame the history of residential schooling in a way that implicates all Canadians. This is Canadian history. This is part of what it means to be Canadian today. So many Canadians are treaty people, whether or not they live on reserves. I am from Treaty 8. Though neither my parents nor my grandparents attended residential schools, this is part of my history and it deserves to be understood and grappled with in all its difficulty.
What the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is able to do is resist a historical revisionism that dishonourably shies away from who we have been as a people. Acknowledging the heavy weight of the past is one step in ending a cycle of perpetuation because pretending the past did not happen doesn’t make it easier to move forward. The difficult, painful acknowledgments, if not made, do not dissipate these cycles of violence, but instead become knives inside the spirit of a person or a country. While it is despicable, this history, I firmly believe that only by acknowledging it, by feeling it deeply, is it possible to imagine ways forward that will leave behind, instead, a different kind of history.