CANADA’S TRUTH and Reconciliation Commission has received a dab of media attention, much of it for regrettable reasons. In October 2008, the TRC Chair Justice Harry LaForme resigned, citing the political interference of the Assembly of First Nations and the insubordination of his (AFN-appointed) co-commissioners, Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley. This inauspicious beginning yielded to inauspicious mid-points, the Canadian franchise of the TRC brand-name drawing attention for delays and the bureaucratic impediments which hindered its progress. The messenger aside, what about the message? On the final day of a three-day AFN National Justice Forum, in Vancouver, the Commission has been scheduled to release an Interim Report.
A creation of the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement — Canada’s largest ever class action settlement — the Commission is mandated to “receive statements and documents from former [Indian residential school] students, their families, community and all other interested participants” and to “yield as complete an historical record as possible of the IRS system and legacy.” The Commission is not a public inquiry, and does not have the power of the subpoena. It is best understood as a federal department whose $60 million budget’s deliverables (in the words of the Interim Report) are “the complex truth” of the residential school system’s history and aftermath and the guidance of “a process of truth and healing.”
Here I may as well state that I’m a partisan, not of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but of the complex truth. I’ve many friends and acquaintances in media and academia, all confessing ignorance of this history. The retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, appointed by Canada to oversee the complex five-month multi-city negotiations of the five billion dollar Settlement Agreement, told me that he was “not proud as a Canadian of that history” but that the settlement was “fair and honourable.” For many, the agreement was the endgame. But should it be?
At the core of the Commission’s thirty-page report and twenty recommendations is a simple and useful notion, that the time has come to endow the public with a “full history of residential schools and Aboriginal peoples, taught to all students in Canada at all levels of study.” Why? For the reason that Canada has invested in a campaign this year to educate its citizens about the war of 1812: by means of the past, the present has arrived — neither immaculate nor inevitable, but covered in the instructive fingerprints of its circumstance. Ignorance only impoverishes a nation, condemning it to act upon the already failed half-truths and misconceptions of its past. As the TRC Interim Report rightly concludes, “Canadians have been denied a full and proper education.”
Well, that’s all fine and good — but what does it mean? The Commission report acknowledges that the TRC lacks both the mandate and resources to make roses and sunshine of the residential school system. Why, indeed, should anyone think that a government department could reasonably bear a burden of that sort? I spoke to Bob Watts, the man who played a central role in negotiating and establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and by his own admission
I don’t think of reconciliation as the Prime Minister of Canada and the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations having some sort of hugfest on Parliament Hill, and then everything will be okay. I think about my friend Ken, who was in his sixties when he told his daughter for the first time that he loved her. He didn’t know that was part of the deal being a parent, because he never got that himself as a kid. To me that’s reconciliation. I think there’s going to be hundreds and thousands and maybe tens of thousands of little wee tiny reconciliations. But all those have a force.
The recommendations of the TRC, much like Mr. Watt’s optimism, necessarily depend upon the leverage of good will. In this case, the good will of existing institutions and activities. For example: “The Commission recommends that provincial and territorial departments of education work in concert with the Commission to develop age-appropriate educational materials about residential schools for use in public schools.” In a country where most non-aboriginal folk have never set feet on an Indian reserve, and where senior federal officials have confessed to me that they learned about Indians from cowboy movies, some education aided by the push of political will could do some good.