No More Shrugging. No More Turning Away

Ottawa Citizen
June 2, 2015

People gather before the Walk for Reconciliation, part of the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sunday, May 31, 2015 in Ottawa.

Before the reconciliation of people comes the reconciliation of narratives. We turned away from the stories of the survivors of residential schools. We told ourselves other stories, stories about good intentions and unfortunate mistakes. That work of reconciling our story-telling to fit the historical truth falls mainly to non-Aboriginal Canadians now, and that is only the beginning.

We Canadians wanted to believe that abuse was the aberrant work of cruel individuals, not the policy of an entire nation. We forgave the overt racism of our lauded forefathers, saying it was a different time – as if morality is relative, as if “don’t starve children” was an axiom too advanced or enlightened for the people who built this country.

The summary report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission refocuses that lens of history, making the truth uncomfortably sharp and clear. Thousands of children died. Some children were deliberately kept undernourished, to make a “baseline” for nutritional research. Children’s names and languages were beaten out of them. The residential schools were not a mistake. They worked precisely as intended, as one tactic in a strategy that Canada’s chief justice has accurately called cultural genocide.

Every Aboriginal person in Canada lives today with that legacy; every non-Aboriginal person does too, although they may not realize it. The legacy is there in the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in foster care systems, and in the shocking stories about those systems that have recently made headlines in Alberta and Manitoba. It is in Canadians’ widespread ignorance of Aboriginal languages, names, practices and stories; that knowledge of this country’s heritage and culture has been stolen from all our children. It is in our correctional system, in the suicide and diabetes statistics. The government of this country deliberately broke families and communities, and that damage has not yet healed.

None of this ought to be news, of course. The commission recognized the work of the 1996 Royal Commission – but noted that most of those recommendations have been ignored. This is, as the commission puts it, a second chance to get it right. The scope of the TRC recommendations is broad, from an apology from the Pope to more federal money for the CBC, even a change to the oath of citizenship. But the scope of the damage is vast too.

If a government, university or religious organization chooses not to follow one of the recommendations in this report, it should make that choice deliberately and publicly, explaining its reasons and its alternative solution to the problem the recommendation identifies. Every recommendation should be, if not implemented, then addressed head-on, with the honesty and fair-dealing that have been absent in this country for too long. No more shrugging. No more turning away.








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