Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future and The Survivors Speak are the most important books you will read this year, or this decade. They are available at no charge online and in public libraries. They are beautifully written, immensely well-researched. They are vibrant, warm, tough, disturbing, demanding, and profoundly wise. They tell a history of Canada that is widely unknown and misunderstood, and they call for nothing less than a revolution in the way we think. This discussion of reconciliation with aboriginal and indigenous peoples may shake your assumptions. We are responsible for our past, even if we did not know it. Why? Because taking responsibility is the only way to move into the future.
The summary volume (condensed from a six-volume report) documents the history of colonization and residential schools in Canada. It includes practical calls to action in the areas of education, law, language, and culture.
The Survivors Speak is primarily a report, in the survivors’ words, describing their experiences with the residential school system. The stories were gathered between 2010 and 2014, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada travelled across the country listening to residential school survivors. The 260-page document tells of children forcibly taken from their homes, transported in closed trucks, by train, plane, and boat, left in schools where their languages were forbidden, food was short, and discipline was frequently violent. These first-person accounts articulate the devastating effects of loveless institutional life, and of the ensuing family and social breakdown. The survivors’ memories of their families before they were taken to school give us a devastating feeling for what was lost, and for what happens when generations are torn from one another. The infrequent anecdotes about a good or kind teacher stand out for their rareness. It is compelling and difficult reading. The accounts in this book are selected from 6,750 recorded statements, and will be a key part of the commission’s legacy.
These books are essential reading, and I cannot say emphatically enough: every Canadian should know them. If I could carry them with me out into the streets, I would give one to every person I meet. Let me offer a few highlights from my experience of reading this lengthy document.
Though we may feel we are familiar with the deprivations and abuses of the residential schools, the detail provided in this report – often in the voices of the survivors themselves – teaches the profound destructiveness of communicating to a child that his or her identity is worthless, and the cumulative effect of enforced family separation over generations. Children do not learn love. Young adults do not learn how to parent.
Imagine an authority figure – a police officer or religious leader – coming to your door to insist that your child can get a better education in a boarding school. You might resist and be forced to comply, or you might send your child in good faith hoping for education and opportunity. Then, imagine your child returns home from school having been taught to hate you.
Mary Courchene, a former student at residential schools at Fort Alexander, Manitoba, and Lebret, Saskatchewan, said,
I looked at my mom, I looked at my dad again. You know what? I hated them. I just absolutely hated my own parents. Not because I thought they abandoned me; I hated their brown faces. I hated them because they were Indians. … So I, I looked at my dad and I challenged him and I said, “From now on we speak only English in this house.” …. [T]he first thing that we all were always taught was to respect your Elders and never to, you know, to challenge them. And here I was, eleven years old, and I challenged. … [M]y dad looked at me and I … thought he was going to cry. In fact his eyes filled up with tears. He turned to my mom and he says … “Then I guess we’ll never speak to this little girl again. I don’t know her.”
This is the destruction of the family. The TRC reports detail these encounters taking place through generations, and the despair that sets in as a result.
The reports also firmly document how some children prevailed – the very people who demanded this commission, and the people and their descendants who lobbied for the detailed action plans for reconciliation.
The land is made up of the dust of our ancestors’ bones
The TRC report tells a Canadian history, in the words of our first leaders (both aboriginal and non-aboriginal), that I have not seen before in history books. It describes historical contexts entrenched in five centuries of thought and asks us to confront relationships with aboriginal people that have shaped Canadian policy from the beginning.
Listen to the words of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, spoken in the House of Commons in 1883:
When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits, and training, and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.
The history behind such institutionalized racism is traced to a 15th-century papal bull called The Doctrine of Discovery, which, using the concept of terra nullius (land belonging to no one), gave European missionaries and explorers justification for empire building and colonization of aboriginal peoples across the globe. This is not irrelevant. It still informs the legal basis for claimed sovereignty over indigenous peoples. An important call to action in the report is a formal repudiation of The Doctrine of Discovery.
While many non-aboriginal Canadians are aware of the fact that indigenous people commonly regard land rights as culturally and religiously significant, few would consider their own connection to their property in the same way, and few regard the legal foundation of all land rights in Canada as theological. There is a profound philosophical and theological schism between European and aboriginal understandings of the land. The process of reconciliation will require hard and humble work to find a place from which to be mutually respectful of these differences and to move forward. What I find hopeful and exciting is the possibility of changing attitudes about our responsibility to future generations. This report urges us toward solving today’s problems, but also toward a philosophical orientation that is forward-looking, collaborative, and collectively oriented.
We are all a Treaty People
Long before Canadian confederation, in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the British sought to make land claims in North America. This was ratified by 2,000 indigenous leaders who gathered in Niagara in the summer of 1764 to make a treaty with the Crown. Imagine a gathering of 2,000 leaders coming to Niagara Falls to talk about their land with British officials. Once again, there was a betrayal of the aboriginal understanding of relationship and agreements. The report reviews and explains the historical agreement, and issues a call for action for a new proclamation that will include a full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Elder Fred Kelly observes:
To take the territorial lands away from a people whose very spirit is so intrinsically connected to Mother Earth was to actually dispossess them of their very soul and being; it was to destroy whole Indigenous nations. … Yet they continued to abide by the terms of the treaties trusting in the honour of the Crown to no avail [italics added]. … I am happy that my ancestors saw fit to bring their sacred beliefs underground when they were banned and persecuted. Because of them and the Creator, my people are alive and in them I have found my answers.
We have many tears to shed before we even get to the word “reconciliation”
You will not read another book this year – this decade – that embodies so thoroughly the deepest questions of what it means to be human. How do we live together? How can we bear what has been done? What is truth? What is forgiveness? What is reconciliation? What can I do?
The first step is knowledge and awareness. The thread connecting every word of this report is human dignity. How the requirement for human dignity is acted on is our collective responsibility. To read this report is challenging. Reconciliation is complex and imperfect. If we are willing to question ourselves, to be transformed – to listen – this report is a place to begin.
Read this report.
Kim Echlin is a novelist. She studied Ojibway language and literature with Elder Basil Johnson. She attended the Halifax TRC meetings with her two daughters in 2011. The complete, unexpurgated, six-volume text of The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is available from McGill-Queen’s University Press.