Truth and Reconciliation Commission looks to the future
Churches look to strengthen relationships with First Nations peoples
By Aaron Epp | Monday, July 23, 2012
Photo courtesy of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
The churches involved in the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are working extremely hard to prepare for national TRC events and further build relationships with Canada's First Nations peoples, says one of the TRC's three commissioners.
"[Christians] have a true and sincere sense of indignity and shame about what happened and the role of the church in it," says Marie Wilson, who is joined on the commission by Justice Murray Sinclair and Chief Wilton Littlechild.
"My hope for the Church, and Canada generally, is that people get shaken awake to this story."
Reconciliation will take decades, but it cannot happen unless people understand the history of Canada's Indian Residential Schools (IRS), says Wilson.
"It is going to take time to rebuild relationships, to rebuild trust…and we need to [use] our new understanding of why things are the way they are in Canada," she says.
Established in June 2008 with a five-year mandate to inform all Canadians about what happened in residential schools, the TRC began its work in Winnipeg in June 2010 with the first of seven national events planned to promote awareness and public education about the IRS system and its impacts.
The TRC released its interim report this past February and held the fourth national event in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan this past June.
Wilson says one of the good things that have happened over the past two years is that some churches have planned special services to coincide with national events, to draw attention to the history of residential schools and the TRC's work.
She believes such services have directly led to more people attending national TRC events. The Saskatoon event included the largest turnout of non-First Nations people so far.
Wilson adds that over the past three years, the commission has put a significant amount of its attention on the truth-telling and truth-sharing part of its mandate. Now, it is shifting its focus to reconciliation.
To that end, the TRC's interim report concludes with 28 recommendations, including a recommendation that provincial and territorial departments of education work with the TRC to develop age-appropriate education materials about residential schools for use in public schools; a recommendation that the Government of Canada and churches establish an ongoing cultural revival fund designed to fund projects that promote the traditional spiritual, cultural and linguistic heritages of Canada's Aboriginal peoples; recommendations on how the government and churches can help the TRC fulfill its mandate on time; and a recommendation that governments, educational institutions, and churches consult, design, announce, and publicly unveil residential school commemorations before the completion of the commission's mandate.
Wilson says it is encouraging to see departments of education across Canada taking the TRC seriously. Last year, for example, the Northwest Territories committed to making the story of residential schools a part of its social studies curriculum.
"This will be mandatory learning, so never again will we have…an emerging adult population that says, 'I had no idea about [residential schools],'" Wilson says.
Clare Ewert Fisher, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan, attended the national event in Saskatoon with some of her colleagues and says it was a very profound experience.
"It was very painful as we heard people tell their stories in an open and vulnerable way," Ewert Fisher says. "[But] it was very life-giving because being vulnerable like that is part of the healing process, and people were really looking for healing and building right relationships between people."
Henriette Thompson, the Anglican Church of Canada's public witness coordinator for social justice, says that she and some of her colleagues have attended each national event, and they plan to be at the next three as well. They have also attended a number of the community events the TRC has organized.
"It's really important for our church to be visible and present," Thompson says. "If we weren't there and visibly present, the survivors could justifiably say, 'Well, the church has abandoned us again.' We want to do everything we are able to say, we are committed to walking together. It's not an optionit's something that we've simply, plainly committed to."
Wilson adds that the TRC is important because the residential school system impacted not only the students who attended them, but also the children and grandchildren of those students. In many cases, residential school survivors passed on their shame to the next generations.
"Many of the young people in our school system today are living the reality of being intergenerational survivors," Wilson says. "We've heard from over 3,000 survivors now, but that's 3,000 of 80,000. There are many still struggling, many still living a self-hurtful lifestyle."