No Justice for Canada’s First Peoples

I believe in justice. I can’t say I’ve seen that much of it in my lifetime, but I like the concept.

On June 2, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its executive summary on the ill-advised system of government-mandated, church-run residential schools that persisted until 1998. For over a century the program sanctioned the kidnapping of native children from their families and communities. All under the guise of education.

The full report, a result of six years of research and public meetings across the country, along with the testimony of some 6,000 residential-school survivors, will be released later this year.

Now that the commission has finished its work, now that politicians have had their time in front of the cameras, there is every indication that the governmental song and dance around the critical and longstanding matters of land and treaty rights will continue, and that native people will be left, once again, with vague and lumpy promises “to consider the issues at a later date.”

No Justice for Canada’s First Peoples

The 130-plus residential schools that operated in Canada emerged from the mid-19th century’s love affair with Christianity and the ideology of assimilation. In 120 years, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were dragged, literally, kicking and screaming into the waiting arms of Canadian paternalism.

One hundred and twenty years of neglect and malnutrition. One hundred and twenty years of physical, mental and sexual abuse. One hundred and twenty years of cultural genocide.

Mortality rates at some schools reached 50 percent.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission came into being as a requirement of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement, itself a product of the largest successful class-action suit in Canadian history. It was not created out of any largess on the government’s part. Perhaps that’s why, when the commission’s 94 recommendations came to the floor of Parliament, the prime minister thanked the commission, noting simply that it “has spent a long time on this report” and that “it has issued a large number of recommendations.”

Which is the political equivalent of “so long and thanks for all the fish.”

Had this been a royal commission on tar sands development or a white paper on tax breaks for corporations, the recommendations would have been applauded, but as the report was on Canada’s native population, the folks in power were able to curb their enthusiasm, opting instead to wait to see the full report.

Just another day at the office.

Here’s what’s most likely to happen. Those recommendations that are, in large part, cosmetic or symbolic may well be adopted. Any recommendations with price tags attached — funding for improved health care on reserves — or recommendations that might open the government to legal action will be ignored.

Sure, that’s cynical, and I wish I were wrong. It’s just that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report is not the first narrative of its kind. In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, the chief medical officer for Indian affairs in Canada, submitted a report, the results of which were buried by Ottawa until 1922, when Dr. Bryce published his findings as a book in which he called the health conditions at residential schools “a national crime.”

In 1928, Lewis Meriam released a report on similar residential schools in the United States. It concluded that they were crowded beyond their capacity, that disease was rampant, and that the rate of 11 cents a day for each native child was wholly inadequate. The report was so comprehensive and so damning that the United States never commissioned another such study.

Why ask the question if you know you won’t like the answer?

Only the Canadians persisted with such inquiries.

In 1966-67, the Hawthorn Report was published, reiterating the basic conclusions of the reports that had come before, while in 1996, the five-volume report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples traced native and nonnative history.

So what’s the benefit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? There are a number of answers, but the most important is that it gave the people most affected by the abuses of residential schools an occasion to have their voices heard, to have their stories recorded. It gave them the chance to speak the truth and to speak it loud.

Will it help? Who knows. Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But for the commissioners and especially for those people who lived through the distress and fear and shock of residential school life and who were brave enough to tell their stories, those moments were powerful and possibly, just possibly, even healing.

One can hope.

Of course, the report is not to blame for government intransigence. It’s a fine document, painstakingly researched and well written. The commissioners are to be commended. I especially enjoyed those moments that paired a little humor with serious concerns. One of my favorites was the recommendation to amend the Oath of Citizenship every new Canadian has to take. If Justice Murray Sinclair and the commission have their way, the new version would include swearing to “observe the laws of Canada including treaties with indigenous peoples.”

Imagine that. Made me smile. But then I happen to like irony almost as much as I like justice.

Thomas King’s latest book is The Back of the Turtle.

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