This is the second time in twelve months that the Federal government has been court ordered to release documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those documents prove horrific abuses that resulted in several convictions of the administrators of the school. Such abuse includes sexual abuse, forcing children to eat their own vomit and electrocuting children as young as six years old.
What is most disturbing is perhaps the amount of time and tax payers money the Federal government has spent actively trying to suppress this information from coming out.
A Closer Look at Apologies
In 1986, the United Church officially apologized for its role in the residential school system and the harm it caused. The Anglican Church apologized in 1993, the Presbyterian Church apologized in 1994, the RCMP apologized for its role in 2004, the Federal government apologized in 2008 and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVI didn’t apologize for the Catholic church’s role but instead, expressed “sorrow” for the abuses that occurred at the Roman Catholic run residential schools.
There has been skepticism regarding the sincerity of the federal government’s apology and speculation that Stephen Harper merely apologized for the sake of Canada’s self-image and international reputation. Furthermore, The Indian Act’s continuing legislated extermination leading to the assimilation of First Nations people in legal terms is counter to Canada’s constitutional commitments and Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for residential schools.
The Path Toward Reconciliation
In taking steps toward true reconciliation, injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples need to become viewed as ongoing, not ‘historical.’ The peculiar view that the past is somehow completely detached from and does not inform the present directly stifles progress toward attaining a just relationship. Indeed, the colonial Indian Act is still in place and so it cannot be said that injustices remain in a separate realm of history.
According to university professor and co-author of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Taiaiake Alfred, the main challenges to reconciliation is denial and entitlement. He says,
“The colonizers who refuse to acknowledge their privilege and inheritance of wrongs are practicing another form of selfishness and hypocrisy – they claim the right and privilege of indignation and the power to judge those cruder colonizers among them and attempt to use this rhetorical posture to release themselves of their own responsibility for the colonial enterprise, both historically and in the way it has affected their own lives, their families’ privilege and their communities’ formation.”
Alfred describes reconciliation as,
“The logic of reconciliation as justice is clear: without massive restitution, including land, financial transfers, and other forms of assistance to compensate for past harms and continuing injustices committed against our peoples, reconciliation would permanently enshrine colonial injustices and is itself a further injustice.” Reconciling sovereignties would also allow for Aboriginal peoples to fully engage in their political and economic development and move beyond the legacy of colonialism by taking control over their own affairs.
In 2007, after multi-year negotiations resulted in a $1.9 billion victim compensation plan, funding was set up for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (established in 1998 as part of the Gathering Strength — Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation’s eleven year mandate ended in 2009) Provided that victims met the required criteria, a payment of up to $10,000 for one year of attendance with an additional $3,000 for each additional year was offered.
A full disclosure of the abuses of the residential school system must be done to facilitate reconciliation efforts, however the Federal government purposely withheld documents from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but in January of 2013, they were court ordered to release them. Today, ten months after the court order, the Federal government still has not released the documents.
Paulette Regan, a non-Indigenous Canadian and author of ‘Unsettling the Settler Within’ gives a call to action for all non-Indigenous Canadians,
“As Canadian citizens, we are ultimately responsible for the past and present actions of our government. To those who say we cannot change the past, I say that we can learn from it. We can better understand how a problematic mentality of benevolent paternalism became a rationale and justification for acquiring Indigenous lands and resources, and drove the creation of prescriptive education policies that ran counter to the treaty relationship. Equally importantly, we can explore how this mentality continues to influence Indigenous-settler relations today. Failing to do so will ensure that, despite our vow of never again, Canada will create equally destructive policies and practices into the future.”
In conclusion, after exploring much of the currently available literature on residential schools, it can be said that the schools have caused widespread and intergenerational harm to all Aboriginal peoples and have negatively impacted virtually every aspect of Aboriginal lives. Although the residential school system has not erased Aboriginal cultures and languages entirely, the system’s role in the larger colonial scheme to displace Indigenous peoples and relegate them to the lower classes of society have been successful however. In moving toward the path of reconciliation, it must be understood that colonization is still unfolding in Canada and that injustices are not historic but actually entrenched in the current system. And while small but difficult steps have been taken toward the goal of reconciliation, there remains a great deal more for Canada as a whole to do politically and socially.