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Both Reconciliation and More than Reconciliation: Reflections on the TRC Executive Summary Report

“I want to acknowledge these stories as gifts…” (p. 328)

There is power in stories and in their telling, and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s (TRC) Executive Summary report is powered by the stories of those survivors who testified during the six year period of the TRC's mandate. As you read through the violences that each storyteller and testimony-giver somehow survived, you recognize the immense power within those who found a way to go public with their stories, many which are laden with generations of pain and trauma. You recognize that the process itself was at times violent, and yet the stories and truths were told.

It is these stories and testimonies that form the backbone of the TRC's report, and which I wish to highlight in this essay. In part because I believe one way of honoring the stories is to hear them, to listen, and approach them with respect; and, in part, because I believe it the voices of the survivors that offer a more compelling vision of reconciliation than the report itself does. As the TRC's report states, Indigenous peoples’ definitions of what reconciliation is and can be have varied wildly from visions of reconciliation put forward by the government and, in this report, the nuances and power of survivors’ visions for reconciliation are at times sidelined, missed, or simplified by the report. In part, this is a function of the summarizing nature of the report – it’s difficult to represent nuance in a short space – and, in part, it is a nature of the report’s appeal to reconciliation under the rubrics of state recognition.

The TRC’s summary report is a complex and rich document in itself and there is no way I can do it sufficient justice in the short space of this essay so I strongly encourage that everyone takes the chance to read and engage with the full report, which can be found here. As Chelsea Vowel beautifully lays out, “At some point, everyone living in these lands has to face what the TRC was set up to investigate. There is no valid excuse to remaining ignorant, when the information is so easily accessible to you.”

Colonial War

“Those schools were a war on Indigenous children…” (p. 192)

This quote from a survivor’s statement sums up the heart of the truth that the report sets out to uncover, which is the impact of residential schooling on Indigenous children, and the impact on Indigenous peoples, cultures and nations more broadly. As the report makes clear, the term ‘school’ itself is perhaps a bit of a misnomer as the little (and qualitatively poor) education that went on was more of a byproduct of the schools than the mission itself. The goals of the school were broadly, according to the report, to impart skills for assimilation into a market economy, political assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Canada, cultural and spiritual ‘change’ (which seems a bit of a tame word choice in context), and, more broadly, the national security of Canada (p. 61). Or, as one survivor put it, the goals were to civilize and Christianize. The report vigorously demonstrates that the schools were entrenched, systemic environments of emotional, spiritual, physical and sexual abuse, and also demonstrates the high death rate of Indigenous youth in the schools, as high as 40% at some schools. Readers should be left with little doubt: the residential schools were a tool of genocide, not just cultural, but also physical and biological (despite the report’s claim of only cultural genocide, separating it from physical and biological).[1]

The report, in its extensive History section, lays out the violences of the residential schools but also places them in the broader context of colonialism. As the report bluntly states, “There was intent.” This counters the pernicious claims, even within the report itself, from many of those involved in running the schools that, despite the violences, those involved (individually and collectively) had good intentions.

The opening quote and the nuanced and connected ways in which the TRC report lays out the many ways in which the residential schools were part of a larger project of assimilation and genocide remind me of Sora Han’s statement that the settler state is war. The residential schools were not aberrations in an otherwise peaceful state of settlement; they were an intentional piece in the larger, normalized state fabric of violence against Indigenous peoples, a fabric that remains intact to this day. If we recognize this inherent violence of the settler state towards Indigenous peoples, this perpetual state of war known as 'the state', as continuing today, some of the challenges to reconciliation are revealed.

Challenges to reconciliation

“Knowing about these things is not enough…” (p. 287)

Metis artist Christi Belcourt is cited in the report as saying, “We [Indigenous peoples] need action, and where we need action don’t meet us with silence” (p. 336). As we have already seen from Prime Minister Harper and all levels of government, there has been a profoundly telling silence in regards to the TRC report and its recommendations, which fits into the larger government pattern of denying that there is any problem to attend to. And this silence illustrates the challenges, in part, of the TRC report. The vast majority of its 94 recommendations appeal for government action, beginning with, “We call upon the federal government…” Action is needed and those that the report is calling most heavily upon to act are silent.

Despite the heavy reliance on recognition and action from the government, it is important to note that the responsibility for action outlined in the report does not end with the government. One of the final sections is a call for each Canadian to understand the depth of colonial violence and to make changes towards reconciliation. While I am largely uncomfortable with the way the call for treaty relations is framed in this report (especially, as the report itself notes, Canada never actually entered treaty with good intentions…), at the heart of Indigenous treaty making is right relationships – with self, with one another, and with the land. The report calls for each of us to engage with the truth that is shared by those who survived residential schooling (and, also, those who did not) and act to restore right relationships with one another and with the earth. As the report states, citing Paulette Regan's influential Unsettling the Settler Within, this will require non-Indigenous people to approach the report and the process of restoring right relationships with humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to sit with discomfort and “stay in the decolonizing struggle.”

What about land?

A noticeable tension within the report is the question of Indigenous relationships to land. Elders’ and survivors’ testimonies speak frequently about the importance of the land, in sustaining culture and the people; as an Anishinaabe elder recounted, to take the lands away was to dispossess the people of their very soul & being; taking away the land was meant to destroy Indigenous nations. If the report is intent on centring the cultural genocide carried out against Indigenous peoples, then the report must be similarly intent on centring the theft of land that was the backbone of enacting this cultural genocide. It must also be similarly intent on centring the return of land in reconciliation. But, it is not and is, in fact, noticeably lacking. Among it’s 94 recommendations, land features only in relation to corporate responsibility and sustainability (Call to Action #92) and features perhaps the weakest of the calls to action: a call to ‘meaningful consultation’ for land development by corporations. This has already been the hallmark of the Canadian government’s approach to development on and extraction from Indigenous land, and what is considered ‘meaningful’ to Indigenous peoples varies wildly from what is considered ‘meaningful’ by the Canadian government.

There are similar tensions in other recommendations that the report puts forward. Calls to Action around language (#13-17) are haunted by survivor’s testimony that state: “I didn’t realize until taking this language class how much we have lost—all the things that are attached to language…including the land” (p. 204). Call to Action #18 includes the argument that Indigenous peoples have the right to traditional medicines; yet the lands on which these medicines grow is being destroyed, and Indigenous peoples are being further dispossessed of this land and denied access to the land to harvest medicines. Similarly, Call to Action #21 calls for “on-the-land” healing options. These Calls are again haunted, this time by the words of Anishinaabe elder and survivor Fred Kelly who connects the dispossession of the land to colonialism in all aspects of Indigenous life in the report, “To take the territorial lands away from a people whose very spirit is so intrinsically connected to Mother Earth was to actually…destroy whole Indigenous nations. Weakened by disease and separated from their traditional foods and medicines, First Nations peoples had no defence against further government encroachments on their lives” (p. 277). The recommendations put forward by the report are haunted by the failure to centre land restoration at the heart of reconciliation efforts.

A different call to action

As the TRC report and many others have noted, this is not the first time that the government and all of Canada have been presented with a report such as this. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples' (RCAP) 1994 report was similarly lauded as, if not a blueprint, a first step to recognizing the self-determining right of Indigenous peoples and an important step towards reconciliation. The RCAP report, while similarly detailed and robust, was largely shelved by the government and the vast majority of its recommendations were never implemented. What will be different about the TRC report?

The powerful words of a survivor, in relation to the residential schools settlement process, ring true for the process of the TRC as well:

“And they opened up all our wounds, for what? To turn us all down? And some people are dying…. My sister’s doing drugs, like, ’cause she’s tired of waiting. She’s living on the streets. So, so, why did they do this to us, again? They hurt us again. They shouldn’t go back on their word to us. They already hurt us. Stop hurting us.” (p. 216)

The danger of the TRC process and report is that it is another attempt to demand recognition from a state that, at its very core, is a state of war against Indigenous peoples.[2] The danger of the TRC report is its framing of reconciliation on ‘shared lands’ without questioning the legitimacy of the colonial state. If this is all the TRC is, then what are we opening wounds for again?

This is why we, non-Indigenous Canadians, must see the TRC as a call for more than state recognition. This is why we must read the TRC report and call for reconciliation through the words and stories of the survivors, as they call for reconciliation that is more than state recognition, as they call for a reconciliation that centers the land and right relationships with it and with one another. We must honor their stories and their visions of reconciliation. We cannot be content to let the Canadian state practice reconciliation for us, because all it knows how to practice is war. We must individually and collectively commit ourselves to doing our part, to listening to Indigenous peoples as they describe their visions of and pathways for reconciliation, and to be willing to vulnerably and humbly remain committed to staying in and supporting the struggle for not only reconciliation but also decolonization.

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Erica Violet Lee for reading and commenting on this essay; your support and help is greatly appreciated!

 


[1] The report itself details the immense death rate of these schools, indicating the intent of physical genocide. Also, as an example of biological genocide, in Alberta the 1928 Sterilization Act allowed Indigenous girls to be sterilized upon approval of the Principal. These distinctions made in the report (between cultural, physical, and biological genocide) are difficult to maintain as separate categories, particularly as all three were attempted by the state through the residential schools, as well as in other spaces (such as prisons).

[2] For Indigenous critiques of the failures of the ‘politics of recognition’, see Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus and Glen Coulthard’s Red Skins, White Masks. Also, for open access options, see Glen’s 2007 essay on the politics of recognition, as well as Jeff Corntassel’s 2012 essay on the limitations of the UNDRIP, which the TRC report references as the guiding framework for reconciliation.

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