A national memory for Canada

“Our ambition in the truth determination process is to ensure that we establish a national memory, for Canada, around residential schools, so that in 50 and 100 years from now, no one will ever be able to say that this did not happen.”

Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
“Shared Perspectives, An Evening of Reconciliation”
August 14, 2012, Toronto, Canada
Excerpt begins at 34:39

Witness the stories: Watch the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission webcasts at: http://www.livestream.com/trc_cvr

Unofficial transcript of Chief Justice Murray Sinclair’s address courtesy of First Peoples Human Rights Coalition (FPHRC)
Excerpt begins at 34:39

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created by the courts.  It was created because of a settlement agreement that resolved the multiple lawsuits that had been started in Canada by survivors of residential school who were suing the government and the churches who ran residential schools for the abuses that occurred within the schools.  The lawsuits also included claims for loss of culture and loss of language and loss of identity.  All of those were wrapped up into the settlement agreement and one of the terms of the settlement was that because the parties, the survivors, the claimants, were not able to testify and tell the court about what happened to them in the schools, a process was to be created whereby they could share their stories and tell about those experiences.

And that’s what our commission was created to do, was to give an opportunity to all of those survivors to talk about their experiences.  We have been recording those stories since the time that we started and we will continue to do so until this commission closes its doors at the end of its mandate, which currently is scheduled for July the 1st of 2014.  And thereafter we will try to ensure that there are opportunities for them and for members of their families and their friends and members of their communities to continue to have those stories recorded, because the message and the truth of what they say is so very important.

Our ambition in the truth determination process is to ensure that we establish a national memory, for Canada, around residential schools, so that in 50 and 100 years from now, no one will ever be able to say that this did not happen.  And no one will ever be able to ask the question, without getting an answer – “What happened back then?  Why did they do it?  What did they do?  Who did they do it to and who did it?”

Our ambition as the Commission is to provide answers to those questions, so that we are able to satisfy all of Canada as to the nature of what occurred, but also to ensure that Canada, as a whole, as an entity, is able to move forward, having dealt with this in the appropriate way.

And that’s what reconciliation is all about.  There can be no reconciliation without truth.  There can be no reconciliation without acknowledgement of the harms that have occurred.  And that is what has occurred to this point in time with the apology of the Government of Canada, with the apologies of the various churches to the survivors and their families of what went on in those schools, but there must be more than apology.

There must be more than compensation.  There must also be a process by which the relationships that have been damaged by those schools, not only the relationships between the perpetrators and the victims of abuse, but also the relationship between the victims and their families, the victims and their communities, and the victims and themselves, to a large extent, are resolved, are reconciled, are addressed in a way that allows them to be able to carry forward in their lives with dignity and respect for themselves and respect for all others.

That’s a high ambition.  It’s one I want you to know that we acknowledge we will not be able to achieve in our lifetime.  We will not be able to achieve it within the lifetime of the Commission.  We will not be able to achieve it within the lifetime of the Commissioners.  We will probably not be able to achieve it within your lifetime [to members of the audience]either.

But, if we are to set the path to reconciliation clearly before us, if we are to talk about how reconciliation can be achieved, if we are to get everybody to gather together and agree, that the aim and ambition of reconciliation is to establish a respectful relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in this country, then everything that we do going forward will be tested against that ambition.

Is what we are doing today going to help us to establish that respectful relationship that we are all trying to achieve?

The first [step] of the truth determining process is about gathering those stories, but the second of it, as well, is to ensure that Canada understands its role in all of this.  And that Canada also understands that it wasn’t just aboriginal people who are affected by the policies that went on in the schools, but all Canadians were.

At the same time that aboriginal children were being taken from their families and locked up in those institutions – sometimes for years at a time – and being told that they were unworthy, being told that they were pagans, that they were heathens, that they were inferior, that their cultures were irrelevant, that their stories and their languages were not worthy of being kept and maintained and shared with all others – at the same time that it was being done to those young aboriginal students in those schools, the very same messaging was being given to all of you, and to all of your ancestors, to your grandmothers, to your grandfathers, to all of the leaders of this country who have come to take over authority, who are talking, as well – now – with aboriginal leadership about what can be done about it.

We must get everyone to understand that we are all affected by this history, and if we understand and accept that we are all affected by this history, then we can understand and accept that we all must do something to correct that for future generations.

It is through the schools – it is through education – that the relationship was so badly damaged that now everyone believes the self-fulfilling prophecy that aboriginal people are inferior, that aboriginal people are unable of handling their own affairs, that aboriginal people are incapable of maintaining their language, that have no culture or language or identity that’s relevant or important.

That needs to be overcome and the way that we overcome that is to ensure that all children in the schools of this country going forward are taught properly about who aboriginal people are, are taught about their cultures in a way that they can come to respect, are taught about aboriginal people in a way that shows their full and proper contribution to the events of the history of this country, so that they know that the war of 1812, for example, had a significant aboriginal component to it, and that our component, that our role in that is not to be downplayed or ignored – that our role in the history of this country can no longer, should no longer be downplayed and ignored.

We need to ensure not only that aboriginal children are given an opportunity through the schools of this country to gain a measure of self-respect and pride, but we also need to ensure that all children are given an understanding of that relationship, given an understanding of aboriginal people which allows for the evolution and development of a proper foundation for mutual respect.

Racism is a hard word for us to grapple with in this conversation, but it’s one that we must embrace.  It’s one that we must come to terms with as the conversation for reconciliation evolves.  Unconscious racism, racism of which we are unaware, is the most difficult component of all, and we need to be sure that we come to terms with that as part of this conversation.

We know that we can, through the work of such entities as human rights commissions in this country, address direct and blatant racism, but it’s the unconscious racism – it’s the way that people think about each other – it’s the way that people talk about and talk to each other that we also need to address.

And our ambition as the Commission is to contribute to that conversation in a way that the foundation is laid so that future generations of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, including new Canadians, coming to this country for the first time, who have no connection to this history, that all of those people can talk to and about each other with respect.  [extended applause]

That’s the very same ambition that all people of this country should have and that’s why we have so willingly embraced the connection with the black community, because that history is so very clear.  The comparisons are so very strong.  The similarities are there, as black people were torn from their lands and taken away from their families and placed into an environment in which they had no rights.  They had no control.  They were threatened with coercion and punished for trying to maintain their sense of self.

In that very same way, the very same thing was done to aboriginal people in their own land.  And, in many ways, while we can talk about residential schools as a breach of treaty rights, as a breach of aboriginal rights, as a breach of inherent rights – at its most fundamental, residential schools were a breach of the human rights of the children who were taken away from their families and of the parents who lost them for those many years.

It takes a village to raise a child, and now those villages are attempting to recover from this experience, and so our ambition as a Commission is to assist in the conversation, so that those villages can, in fact, develop a sense of their connection to history, contribute to what it is that they need to know, lay a foundation for that knowledge that they will need to have for future generations to be able to deal with this.


And remember that what it is that we are trying to achieve as a Commission involves including you in the conversation as we go forward.  So we invite you to look at the materials that we produced, to look at the information that we share and try to do what you can with those who you influence, whether it be members of your family,members of your neighborhood, or your community, to ensure that going forward we are all able to know what it is that we are talking about.

Thank you very much.


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