Aboriginal leaders welcomed the interim report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with enthusiasm tempered by a continuing call for action.
“It is necessary for the federal government and the churches to reaffirm their commitment to the important work of the TRC by addressing the obstacles identified in the interim report,” said Regional Chief Angus Toulouse of the Chiefs of Ontario. “The work of the TRC is about acknowledging the fact that First Nations culture was systemically attacked over many years and the profoundly negative consequences that this has had on First Nations people in this country. We need to collectively acknowledge that this tragedy occurred, ensure that it does not happen again and that we now must focus our efforts on finding a way to move forward together.”
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) reaction was equally guarded. Wrapping up a three-day National Justice Forum, which focused on reducing violence against women and children and creating safe communities, National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said the TRC’s report “draws important conclusions and points to clear steps toward reconciliation” but added, “Real reconciliation, though, is achieved through action and change. We must all work together to ensure these important recommendations are implemented in ways that address the needs of all residential schools survivors and families, and to ensure that from now on education will only be used to support and improve the continued and sustained success of First Nations as an investment in Canada’s collective future.”
The report stressed education of Canadians and families of survivors alike as linchpins along the road to recovery and reconciliation.
Explaining the complex interrelation between intergenerational trauma suffered by residential school students and aboriginal lives today is key to reconciliation and moving forward, said commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair in formally releasing the report at a press conference in Vancouver on February 24.
Sinclair said there is also an immediate and urgent need for mental-health services, especially in the north, because of the direct impact that the schools’ legacy continues to have. Overall, more understanding is needed by Canadians and survivors’ families and communities alike about what happened in the residential school era, when from the 1800s through 1996, when the last school closed, aboriginal children were taken away from their families and forced to assimilate. Of the 150,000 children who were yanked out of their environment in this manner, many were abused. Surviving former students number about 80,000.
In fact, the practice fit the United Nations definition of genocide, he said at a talk on February 18, the Canadian Press reported.
“It’s commonly said that it takes a village to raise a child,” Sinclair said. “The government of Canada took Indian children from their villages and placed them into institutions that were the furthest thing from a village that you could have. And then on top of it they destroyed their villages so that when the people left school they had no villages to go back to.”
The result, he said, is an interconnected web of poverty, a lack of leadership, and leaders who are unable to talk to their people about the future. It took seven generations to get to this level of disrepair, Sinclair said, and it may take even longer to get back.
Beacons in this wilderness are the potential of education to get the word out, and aboriginals themselves, especially those who have managed to overcome their difficulties and excel in life. Just as misguided education got Canada into this situation, so can education that teaches the facts of what happened can help the country move forward, Sinclair pointed out.
As for aboriginals who are making good, 15 examples were being honored the same evening, February 24, at the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards, also in Vancouver.
The commissioners said this report is a snapshot of what’s to come; the final one will be much more fleshed out. Sinclair also took the opportunity to broadcast the need for the balance of the relevant documents that the federal government and the churches that ran the schools that they promised to deliver.