Taddy Stringer is Métis and a parishioner and chorister at Christ Church Cathedral and an activist committed to human rights both internationally and in Canada. Taddy also works as a psycho-educational consultant in the many Cree and Inuit communities of James Bay, Hudson’s Bay and the Ungava coast.
When I was invited to speak to the congregation about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I found myself very much at a loss as to what to say, not because there was too little to be said, but because there was far too much. I have decided to focus on things glossed over by the press, together with some of my own observations and experiences.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was paid for out of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Its budget had to cover not only the Commission’s five-year mandate, but to establish a permanent archive, the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, housed at the University of Manitoba. The TRC was mandated to gather information and hear testimony, but it had no investigative and judicial powers. Since it’s testimony could not be used to prosecute, it had also no power to grant amnesty.
The original chair was Justice Harry LaForme, of the New Credit First Nation, the judge who wrote the Ontario Superior Court decision in support of same-sex marriage. But so daunting was the task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Justice LaForme, as well as the other two original Commissioners, resigned within a year. The remarkable people who replaced them have carefully deflected media attention from themselves to their work and the experiences of the survivors.
Justice Murray Sinclair is Ojibwe (Anishnabe), a judge of the superior court of Manitoba since 2001. He is the son and grandson of residential school survivors.
Dr. Marie Wilson is a journalist. She covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and on her return to Canada, she launched the first daily news service for the North, in English, French and eight indigenous languages.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, of the Maskwacis Cree First Nation in Alberta, is a lawyer, former MP, parliamentary delegate to the UN, and North American representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. A residential school survivor, Littlechild was, as he put it in one interview “not too bad at sports.” (The interviewer left it at that, never finding out that Littlechild competed internationally in hockey, baseball and swimming, and brought home more than one gold medal for Canada.)
At the Montreal volunteer training session, Chief Littlechild arrived unannounced to thank every one for being there. He explained that, as a school survivor, this was very important to him personally, and that it seemed to him the presence of so many people from such different backgrounds all wanting to participate and help with the event was already a sign of reconciliation. At the very end of the hearings, Chief Littlechild was still present and accessible. As we were packing up, and people were drifting away, an elderly woman whose husband had attended a residential school, and was now in hospital with cancer, called to say she had just heard about the event on the radio, and wanted to share their experiences. The organisers wanted to tell her it was too late, but Chief Littlechild said, “I’ll wait for her, and talk to her when she arrives.” I realised it hadn’t occurred to me that he might say anything else.
The six national hearings, and local hearings in 77 smaller communities, were times of mourning. One of my tasks, in Montreal, was to pass out boxes of tissue, and glasses of water. The Closing Event in Ottawa was markedly more cheerful. There was a strong sense that the taboo of silence had been broken; that survivors and the families of survivors could speak without shame of what had been done to them, and that, if they did so, they were less likely to meet hostility, incomprehension or disbelief from their non-aboriginal friends or colleagues. Even having a name, “trauma”, for what they had experienced, and having the assurance that their reaction had not been abnormal, seemed to help some survivors to begin to find healing.
The organisers of the events in Ottawa were careful, on the one hand, to give people an opportunity to express their sadness, anger, pain, and on the other, to leave people feeling better than when they came. A talent show in Ottawa on Monday night (featuring almost exclusively professional indigenous artists) began at sunset with songs for the children who had never returned. But by the end I found myself dancing to rock and roll with a grandmother from Baffin Island in her traditional floor length skirt and kerchief, and a three-year-old from the West coast of James Bay, whose parents were fiddling on the stage. The next day there was a blessing by the elders, and a blanket dance for a family who had walked all the way from Attawapiskat to attend (everyone who wishes to puts some money, discreetly and anonymously, on the blanket as they dance).
Those who, at the end of it all, were the most upset and angry were not so much bothered by the past as by the present. A grandmother from one of the Atikamekw communities in Quebec was more distressed by the ongoing logging in La Vérendrye, than by all the abuse she had suffered as a child. A Dene woman broke down and cried, not when speaking of the abuse she had suffered from the bishop and priests, but while describing how children from her community were still being taken from their parents by Child Services, without any attempt being made to help the parents or extended families (often residential school survivors themselves) care for them. “This is the present,” she told her audience, “and it’s your votes.”
Never, in Montreal or in Ottawa, did I hear anyone blame all non-aboriginal Canadians, all Christians, or even all members of religious orders. Nor did I hear anyone suggest that people should feel guilty about abuses in which they had no part. I did hear many people urge everyone, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, to take responsibility for the present. As Dr. Wilson put it, “It’s not about feelings; it’s about action.”
Some Christians, faced with the long list of abuses and outrages committed in the name of Christianity, have wondered if perhaps the best thing the Churches could do is to keep as far away from the indigenous communities as possible. I’ve heard only one survivor expressing that opinion, and he went on to say that he didn’t want his children to feel this way. Justice Sinclair has been explicit on this point. The churches must not leave. “When you leave,” he explained, “it creates a hole in the community that can’t be filled.”
The Executive Summary of the commission’s report is 388 pages, and well worth reading in its entirety. For those who are not likely to do so, the Introduction (20 pages), is a summary of the summary. That, the Preface to the volume “The survivors speak”, and the Call to Action, together give some idea of the purpose, spirit, and main findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision’s work. Links to the Commission’s Findings and Publications can be found at: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=893
Also well worth reading is a very interesting interview with Chief Littlechild: http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/canada/lift-each-other-interview-chief-wilton-littlechild-c