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Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada

By Paulette Regan

Review By Daniel Francis

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 172 Winter 2011-2012  | p. 132-33

For years Canadians have been learning about the horrors of the Indian residential schools: from histories that have been written, from the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (which blamed the schools for the high rates of suicide, substance abuse, and family dysfunction in Aboriginal communities), and, most heartrendingly, from the testimony of people who attended the schools. In 2006, after initially resisting calls for redress, the federal government announced the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which provided for cash payments to former students, a new process for dealing with cases of abuse, a fund to support various commemorative projects, and the creation of a commission intended to help all Canadians understand the legacy of the schools. This was followed, in June 2008, with a formal apology in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has now begun hearing testimony at meetings across the country from people who operated the schools and from the students who attended them, with a view to healing the deep wound they created. 

Paulette Regan is the director of research with the TRC. In her book, Unsettling the Settler Within, she makes a provocative argument about the purpose of the commission. I think most non-Aboriginal Canadians – let’s call us the Rest of Canada (ROC) – will be surprised to be told that the TRC is about “us,” not “them.” Most of us conceive of the commission as an opportunity to educate the public about the schools and to allow victims of the system to achieve catharsis by publicly describing their experiences. In other words, it is largely about the survivors and their families and communities. Not so, says Regan. Of course, this is important; but, for her, the TRC is far more than a teaching moment, an opportunity for the ROC “to feel good about feeling bad.” For her, the TRC is a unique opportunity for all Canadians to come to terms with our own history, which, as regards Aboriginal peoples, is a history of oppression and injustice. 

Unsettling provides a useful summary of the government’s response to the legacy of the residential schools and an explanation of how the TRC came to be established, then plunges into its real subject, which is the need to address the myths of Canadian history. Chief among these is what Regan calls “the peacemaker myth,” by which she means the idea that “the settling of Canada was relatively peaceful because our ancestors … made treaties rather than war with Native peoples, brought law and order to the frontier, and created well-intentioned (if ultimately misguided) policies designed to solve the Indian problem by civilizing and saving people seen as savages”. For her, this myth infects Canadian history like a virus, and the TRC will only be successful if it causes the ROC to come to terms with an entirely different version of its own past. 

The truth telling of Regan’s subtitle is not just the truth about the residential school experience: it is the truth about past relations between settlers and Aboriginal peoples. The process of reconciliation is not only about allowing Aboriginal people to heal; it is also about non-Aboriginal people learning that we all bear responsibility and acknowledging the ways we have profited from the inequities and injustices perpetrated in our name. The job confronting the ROC is not to “solve the Indian problem,” says Regan; rather, it is to solve the settler problem. As she says: “Without a truth telling in which we confront our own history and identity … there can be no ethical or just reconciliation with Indigenous people.”

Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada by Paulette Regan.
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.  316 pp. $34.95 paper