The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One: Summary “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future.”
April 12, 2016
Review By J.R. Miller
The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) between 2009 and 2015 is especially relevant to British Columbia. Residential schools and their impact are interwoven with the history, contemporary situation, and future development of British Columbia. The Pacific province historically had a large number of schools operated by the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, United Church, and Presbyterians, and their effects have been felt there perhaps as deeply as in any other part of Canada. At the present time, British Columbia is the home of one of the most effective survivor organizations, Reconciliation Canada, whose leader, Chief Robert Joseph, has been an inspiration in the investigation of the schools and the establishment of a reconciliation movement. And British Columbia’s economic future, so dependent on resource extraction and related infrastructure projects that involve First Nations’ territories, is bound up with the success of the movement to improve relations between Indigenous peoples and the rest of the population.
In June 2015, the TRC issued a summary of its final report, which was released in full in December 2015. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future traces the history and legacy of the residential school system before turning to the commission’s recommendations for resolving the ensuing problems and advancing reconciliation. The mandate of the Commission was principally to provide a platform for the investigation of the history of the schools, especially through the statements of those who were involved in their operation, and to propose remedies (23, 43). In practice, the TRC based its understanding of the residential school history and legacy mainly on the testimony of former students. Although the commissioners say, rightly, that they tried to collect the testimonies of former staff and government officials, the reality is that the oral testimony on which its history relies comes almost solely from survivors’ recollections. As the commissioners said, they “listened to thousands of survivors”(39). Although the TRC “made a concerted effort” to collect the testimony of former staff, only a small proportion of its almost 6,700 accounts came from staff (26). The TRC conducted ninety-six such interviews, and an unspecified number of statements were collected at its national and regional events. Hence, the sources for the report are overwhelmingly the views of former students.
The consequence of the TRC’s reliance on survivor accounts is a version of residential school history that is unbalanced. As that history emerges in the report, it is one almost solely of abuse. While the commissioners acknowledge that there were good workers in the schools (117, 127), and that a small minority of students had a positive experience, the history and legacy that emerge in these pages deal almost totally with damage and demoralization. Underlying this history and threatening prospects for promoting reconciliation is the painful reality that Canadians do not know the history of the schools that is revealed in these pages. And, say the commissioners, until Canadians know and accept that history, reconciliation is at risk (187, 137). To “build for the future, Canadians must look to, and learn from, the past” (8). “Reconciliation is about respect” (185). Knowledge, including historical understanding, is the foundation of respect.
From its analysis of the history and legacy of residential schooling, the TRC drew ninety-four recommendations or “Calls to Action.” Some of these propositions, such as urging provincial and territorial governments to revise their school curricula to incorporate the history of residential schools and treaties, seem obvious and closely related to the Commission’s mandate. Others, such as the contention that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is “a framework for reconciliation” (187, 137), might be sound, but no explanation or elaboration is provided of it. Some, such as the call to the pope to apologize for residential schools in Canada within a year, seem extraordinarily challenging and only loosely connected to the TRC mandate. Others, such as urging that federal government funding to the CBC be restored and enhanced, simply are not. The number and breadth of the TRC recommendations are so great that they raise the spectre of a repetition of the fate of the recommendations of the earlier Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). RCAP’s proposals for a vast new governance system that included sixty to eighty Aboriginal governments and a third house of parliament to represent Aboriginal peoples at the federal level were, as former deputy minister of Indian Affairs Harry Swain put it in his memoirs, “dead on arrival” (Oka: A Political Crisis and Its Legacy [Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre 2010], 168-9).
Canadians, and more especially British Columbians, should hope fervently that the same will not prove true of the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission twenty years later. The initial response of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggests it will not.
The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One: Summary “Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Toronto: Lorimer 2015. 451 pp. $22.95 paper