130 years to heal from attempted genocide?


Emphasising hard truths may not be the best route to reconciliation

The head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) said last week that it could take 130 years for indigenous people to heal from the “genocide” of the country’s former residential schools system.

While both parts of that assertion may be true – the residential school system was an act of genocide, and the devastation it wreaked will take more than a century to overcome – was it wise for Justice Murray Sinclair to make that statement now?

In his speech to students at the University of Manitoba on Feb. 17 (as reported by The Globe and Mail) Sinclair argued that taking 150,000 aboriginal children from their parents and putting them in Church-run schools over more than a century was a form of genocide. As is now well known, residential schools in Canada were designed to assimilate indigenous children into mainstream culture.

Sinclair is certainly then not the first person to apply the term genocide to residential schools. But to what purpose?

Accusing Canada of genocide is shocking, a slap in the face. True, such an accusation could motivate some Canadians to inquire further into one of the darkest chapters of this country’s history. Others in positions of power might be anxious that Sinclair’s assertion could have legal implications, and send lawyers scurrying to their research libraries.

But I believe many other Canadians will react with disbelief, if not anger. Yes, our governments fully perpetuated the residential school system over generations, they will admit, but this system was the product of racist thinking of a bygone era (even if the last school didn’t close until the 1990s).

They would argue that the federal government has apologised for that system – in the process establishing the TRC – and that it is unimaginable that a Canadian government would ever again support the stated aims of such a system.

It would be easy to label those sentiments as just the wishful thinking of a generation of blinkered Canadian settlers. And while their reactions might not contribute to the Commission’s mandate of establishing the truth of what happened in those grim residential schools, they are more than wishful thinking – they represent the challenge of achieving reconciliation, which is the second part of the Commission’s mandate.

I would like to see the TRC do more to try and bring indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians together. Beyond publicising the painful stories told by former students at its hearings across the country, it needs to reach out to ordinary Canadians; to motivate them to sincerely try to understand how physical and mental abuse in one’s childhood can reverberate through a family for generations, and affect entire communities of such families – and eventually all of us.

Yes, Canadians need to hear the awful truth of what happened when our former leaders set out to erase an entire category of people from this land, but we also require guidance in understanding how families’ pain still lives today and leaders who will demonstrate that healing the wounds of the residential school system is essential to moving this country forward, and requires the combined efforts of indigenous and non-indigenous alike.

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