Of Truth and Reconciliation

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (whose website may be accessed here) is faring poorly of late in the court of public opinion, for reasons that have been widely reported. Foremost concerns have been the acrimonious resignations and dismissals of senior staff, a two-year delay of primary activities such as staffing and office-assembly, the apparent compromising of the Commission’s independence, and the inability of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to compel testimony by means of subpoena, or even to name perpetrators. Many are wondering if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be able to accomplish anything of value.

One might well begin in fairness by acknowledging the extraordinary burden of the “truth and reconciliation commission” brand name. It’s rather like coming into the world christened Brock Skyconqueror. Even before the business cards were printed and the phones were installed, people were day-dreaming about 1989 — Nelson Mandela and the crumbling walls of the prison, that sort of thing. It may however help the cause of expectation management to familiarize yourself, if you haven’t already, with the precise character of this institution:

2. Establishment, Powers, Duties and Procedures of the Commission. Pursuant to the Court-approved final settlement agreement and the class action judgements, the Commissioners: (a) in fulfilling their Truth and Reconciliation Mandate, are authorized to receive statements and documents from former students, their families, community and all other interested participants ….

This is to say, the Commission’s authority consists in the power to listen, under conditions which actively forbid assignment of responsibility:

[the Commissioners] (g) shall not name names in their events, activities, public statements, report or recommendations, or make use of personal information or of statements which identify a person, without the express consent of that individual, unless that information and/or the identity of the person so identified has already been established through legal proceedings, by admission, or by public disclosure by that individual.

I could go on quoting legalese from Schedule N of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, and no doubt you’d be enthralled by my doing so, but most of the twelve-page document establishing the scope of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is contained in these extracts. The rest of it is amplification, that the Commission shall “adopt methods and procedures which it deems necessary to achieve its goals” and shall “have available the use of such facilities and equipment as is required …,” etc.

Part of the burden of this Commission, and quite a large part, is truth — specifically the expectation that it will root out and present to Canada The Truth of the Indian Residential School System. But since the TRC is neither a public inquiry (see 4. Exercise of Duties: “… the Commission is not to act as a public inquiry”) nor a legal process, truth can only mean personal truth, the truth of one’s convictions and experiences as presented to the Commission. Another term for this is subjective truth.

It’s for me impossible to imagine the Government of Canada, the Churches, and their many respective lawyers agreeing to the establishment of an independent investigative body with quasi-judicial powers. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is precisely what one would expect of a court-mandated, lawyer-negotiated instrument: it is a circumspect compromise between parties, an admission of responsibility which carefully circumscribes consequences.

As an agent of public education it does hold promise. The TRC is mandated to create from its gatherings, as well as from other source documents (voluntarily yielded), “as complete an historical record as possible of the IRS system and legacy.” The importance of this cannot be overstated. But the challenge here is on the distribution, and not on the production, end. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples generated enormous material and testimony related to residential schools, much more than could be contained in its Final Report, but few have seen it. Many Canadians remain ignorant of Canada’s Indian Residential School System, and are therefore ignorant of its consequences and legacy. Without a sustained campaign of public education, which means actually getting the stuff into the public domain, the Canadian public is certain to remain in its bubble on not-knowing. So far the degree of effective public outreach is the principal difference between Canada’s and South Africa’s truth and reconciliation efforts,  according to comments made by South African professor Piet Meiring. But even here, we must acknowledge that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has resources unequal to the work of educating a country. It must have public and private sector partners in this endeavour.

So to recap: there’s a modest potential for some good in this Truth and Reconciliation Commission, only don’t expect an uncovering of Truth and the reconciliation of Canada and Aboriginal peoples. Rather, hope that individual truths will reach the individuals who can be reached, and that some small, personal acts of reconciliation will result. Expectation of anything more is a mere dream.

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