The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will help ensure Canadians never forget the past

Phil Fontaine in October 1990The worst thing that could happen would be for the Canadian public to forget this painful history

WAYNE K. SPEAR | SEPTEMBER 30, 2021 • CURRENT EVENTS

In October 1990, Canadians were shaken — much as they were by the recent discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools — when Phil Fontaine opened the nation’s eyes to the horrors that took place at those schools and the long-lasting trauma that resulted.

Yet Fontaine later told me that the events of that month happened by accident. He’d said during a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations that it was necessary for the organization “to deal with an issue that was like a plague in our communities … residential schools, and the abuse that went into those schools.”

On the way home, a Globe and Mail reporter who’d been at the meeting approached Fontaine at the airport. They had a brief conversation, and the next day Fontaine woke to discover his words were front-page news.

Fontaine would be interviewed about his experiences many more times. His interview with Barbara Frum, on Oct. 30, 1990, is perhaps the most notable. Many who were in an Indian residential school system have told me that Fontaine’s willingness to speak out on the issue gave them the courage to do the same.

No one was talking publicly about the Indian residential school system before then. Hardly anyone, beyond those who were there, knew anything about it. Between 1907 and 1940, there had been a handful of newspaper articles about the schools, with headlines like Canada Deserts Her Children and Schools Aid White Plague — Startling Death Rolls Revealed Among Indians — Absolute Inattention to the Bare Necessities of Health. Yet if Canadians were shocked at the time, they soon got over it, and quickly forgot.

In 1990, the stories returned, this time told by Indigenous people themselves. By the end of the decade, Canadians who wished to could find a good many books on the residential schools. In the early-to-mid 2000s, residential school lawsuits were commonplace news. Then came the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. And after this, the prime minister apologized and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was set up.

While the current federal government has squandered much of the goodwill it amassed early in its mandate, with promises of a new and sunny relationship with Canada’s First Nations, not everything is bad. Canada, for example, is unlikely to return to the era of universal ignorance about residential schools.

Anyone who dismisses the substantial achievement this represents disrespects the residential school survivors who for years dedicated themselves to a campaign of public education. As a result of their efforts, there is a consensus now that the experiences of those who attended residential schools ought to be heard and respected, and that those who did not survive the schools should somehow be recognized.

There is, of course, more work to be done. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) provided direction with its 94 calls to action. Among them is call to action number 80, which urged the government to designate a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The selection of Sept. 30 reflects the fact that this was the time of year when children were transported to the schools, in many instances hundreds and even thousands of kilometres from their homes.

The TRC envisioned the day as a statutory holiday and a time for reflection — and while this will not be the case for most Canadians (most provinces have not designated it as a stat holiday), the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will evolve over time.

The worst thing that could happen would be for the Canadian public to forget this painful history. The formal designation of a day of observance and commemoration will serve the cause of remembrance, and that in itself is a good thing.

An interview with Justice Murray Sinclair

Wayne K. Spear in conversation with Justice Murray Sinclair | August 1, 2015
Murray Sinclair
Photo by Fred Cattroll

The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change

WKS: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an Executive Summary this June, and in December you’ll be releasing the full TRC report. What can we expect from that?

JMS: Many people are still looking for the basis for why we said what we said. The full report will reveal all of that. We have to produce that report in French and English, so that takes time.

WKS: At the final TRC event in Ottawa, the media seized on the phrase “cultural genocide.” Do you think this was a good place to start the conversation about the meaning of residential schools and reconciliation? Or would you have preferred the focus to have been elsewhere?

JMS: I was quite fine with it. We knew when we were writing the report that it was going to be the big question. It’s not only important to Survivors, but I think Canada and the political leadership of the country needed to know what we were going to say about it. It’s an important part of the foundation for the conversation going forward. It puts all of this experience into a proper perspective. This was not simply nice people who made a mistake. This was a truly unacceptable intention to wipe out Aboriginal people through the elimination of their cultures.

WKS: During the TRC you had occasion to comment on murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. Your comments made me think of the death of Helen Betty Osborne and your work with the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. It seems that little has changed. Looking back over you long career, do you feel there’s been much positive progress?

JMS: I’ve always maintained that the kind of change we need—the change I’ve been talking about since the AJI [Aboriginal Justice Inquiry] days, which is really systemic change—is going to take a long time to achieve. It’s going to take several generations before we can realistically say that we are on our way to a decent end. Changing systems requires changing the way people believe about the law, they way they believe about their political systems, the way they believe about their institutions, and the way they believe about how they’ve been educated themselves. Those challenges are hard for people to come to terms with.

I think we expect that there will be some conscious, and unconscious push-back even, on the part of the people who are going to wonder if there’s not a different way of doing it. The reality is that until we have fundamental change about the way we see things and think about things, there’s not going to be effective change.

WKS: How do we even have a conversation about systemic change when we are on the margins—of the media, of the institutions which will necessarily provide a space for conversations to happen? Aboriginal people have to be invited into these spaces, at someone’s good grace. It sounds to me like we may need to envision and create new institutions, new spaces to host the discussion about the change we need.

JMS: If we start thinking about things that way, we will immediately reject any solutions, because the idea of building from scratch is too overwhelming for most people. But what we’ve said in our report is that you can take what we now have, and you can build on that. This came out of the past. This will soon be our past. We need to figure out how do we take what we now have and change it enough that we can be assured that, in the future, we will have a better relationship, starting with a vision of what the future is going to look like. We have to ask ourselves “Is what we are doing each step of the way going to get us to that vision?” It’s feasible. Highly possible.

WKS: Thank-you, Justice Sinclair.

JMS: Thank-you.

External links: TRC | Murray Sinclair Biography | Settlement Agreement

94ways: how we will ensure the TRC report is not the RCAP report

 RCAP

A COUPLE WEEKS AGO, Zoe Todd posted a YouTube video inviting people to read from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 388-page executive summary. The video was conceived by Erica Violet Lee and co-organized by Zoe Todd and Joseph Murdoch-Flowers, and its inspiration came from Chelsea Vowel’s blog post “Reaction to the TRC: Not all opinions are equal or valid.” Ever good one, that.

You can read a CBC article about this project here.

As a result of these amazing folks, people are now posting their readings of the TRC summary on YouTube.

Chelsea’s post, which I recommend, was itself a response to Conrad Black’s National Post article “Canada’s treatment of aboriginals was shameful, but it was not genocide.”

Black took up a Utilitarian argument, heavily inflected by 19th-century tropes and by the White Man’s Burden—arguing that European civilization was such a gift to the natives that there’s no way you could call what Canada attempted genocide, even if you preface it with the qualifier cultural.

His point-of-view, that aboriginal people should be thankful for the gifts of human civilization, has a vocal following. Maybe not a majority following, but likely a sizeable minority. And since it’s a common enough position, it should be aired and not just dwell in the dirty cracks of CBC’s comment section.

I love a heated debate, and I’d be happy to undertake one in my (limited) spare time. But, OK, I’m coming down now from the soapbox. Lord Black is not the point of this post!

That National Post article has indirectly inspired a YouTube campaign, in which ordinary people—i.e. people who are not referred to in public as “Lord Such & Such”—are reading the very report that Black dismisses—without having read it! Seems to me like a decent turn.

But I had another idea, too. That’s the real reason I have written this post—to tell you about my idea.

It’s called 94ways. I’m not 100% settled on this name, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far, in my opinion.

The idea is to create a website and the related social media where people can post simple, practical, actionable ideas related to each of the 94 recommendations of the TRC’s document Calls to Action. It could be an idea they are planning to do, or one they’ve already done. We could all brainstorm. We could trade experiences and stories. We could bring the report to life.

Nowadays you can even do things like organize a Meetup or host a Webinar. All of this could be part of the 94ways.com or 94campaign.com or 94toRestore.com or whatever it ends up being called.

All of this and more. The only limits are imagination, human will, and courage.

One final thought

Years ago I had a conversation with Georges Erasmus about RCAP—the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (Actually, we had a lot of conversations over the years about RCAP!)

Georges was reflecting on the 1996 final report. It had just come out, and he was looking forward to a holiday, after his intense traveling and media work around that extraordinary and unprecedented five-volume, 4,000-page work.

You see, he went straight from being National Chief of the AFN to being co-chair of the Royal Commission. Every time the man tried to take a holiday, someone would arm-twist him into another job. In fact, that’s what happened after RCAP. Phil Fontaine called and said, “Georges, you’ve got to come help create this Aboriginal Healing Foundation. If we don’t do it by April 1st, we’ll lose the $350 million.”

Georges said, “I’m not looking for a job, Phil!” But it was futile.

He spent the next 14 years at the AHF, and even today he is hard-at-work, building up a nation run by the Dene, for the Dene.

Anyway, what Georges told me was that, just as the report was to be distributed, the feds pulled the funding. As a result, RCAP lacked the resources it needed to properly and effectively get the report into the hands of Canadians.

Remember, this is before YouTube and Twitter and Facebook. It would be years before the technology existed to put RCAP on the Internet, and even more years before anyone did. (You can now find it here.) So back then, if you didn’t have an actual printed copy, you were pretty much out of luck.

And most of us did not have printed copies.

RCAP’s final report became a cliché: you know, the report that collects dust sitting on a shelf. Only I doubt it even did sit on a shelf in more than a couple Parliamentary offices. There were some great efforts to get the word out, for example by reading the entire report, page-by-page, on the radio.

A few lucky people (like me) managed to get the report on CD, but back then the technology was so primitive that they may as well not have bothered. It was designed for installation on a server running Windows NT, because back then a five-volume report was basically an unimaginably huge amount of data—certainly not something you’d pop into your lousy desktop.

I never did get that darn RCAP CD-ROM to work!

I’m sure the feds were happy to have a report no one could access. Because that meant no one could challenge the government to do something.

Well, it’s now 2015, and the people can do all sort of things. It will be 100% impossible for Mr. Harper and his kind to bury the TRC report, the way RCAP was buried, although they will try as best they can.

And they will fail.

Contact me if you think 94ways is a good idea.


Update (06/25): I have registered the domain 94ways.com and am gradually building the site. You can now visit and have a look around. The next step is to create the social media accounts. I hope to have this done in the coming days. Please share your comments, ideas, suggestions or other content here, or at 94ways.com. Thanks!

Looking back on this week’s Truth and Reconciliation final event

The Delta Hotel

It’s a sunny Tuesday in Ottawa, and I’m having shawarma with my son on Bank Street. We are the only customers this late in the afternoon. On the TV there’s a live broadcast from the nearby Delta Hotel, where I too had been only minutes ago. Earlier in the day, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its report “What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation.” As I eat my shawarma I try to imagine all the restaurants, all the bars and lobbies and lounges across Canada, and elsewhere, that this broadcast is reaching.

It’s difficult to summarize how I feel.

It’s earlier in the week and I am tucked into a corner of the second-floor balcony, looking into the Delta foyer. There are people everywhere. It smells of burning sage and the grilled chicken from the restaurant below. Voices combine to an indecipherable roar that resembles crashing water. The noise is punctuated by the sounds of forks surrendered to exhausted plates, of drumming, of abrupt laughter. A drum group whose members include Wab Kinew plays a song, and right above the drummers, on the same second-floor balcony to which I’ve escaped, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada taps his foot.

My senses are numbed. It’s relieving, and also a bit strange, to realize that I can walk two blocks in any direction and find myself in the sleepy day-to-day of downtown Ottawa.

I see many familiar faces. I’ve been at this long enough now that I catch myself reminiscing about the old days. The people I talk to agree: it was different then.

Twenty years ago the pain of Indian residential schools was raw. It tore through the rooms where we gathered. Anger and hurt so fresh, so intense, it was frightening to behold. I’ve lost count of the gatherings of residential school survivors I’ve attended—some well over a decade before there was a TRC—but the emotions are something you can never forget. I knew more than a few senior bureaucrats who didn’t mind admitting they were terrified, half-convinced they wouldn’t get out unscathed.

All these years later, there are survivors of terrible abuse who are telling their story for the first time. The familiar anger, and the hurt, remain. But the mood at this week’s final event is not what is used to be at gatherings of this sort. We aboriginal people are stronger than we were. We are no longer so filled with shame and self-loathing that we are unable to talk about what happened in those institutions. Survivors know that it wasn’t their fault, and one by one they are letting go of the destructive emotions which have held them back. We are looking to the future, and we’re in no mood to settle for anything less than what we consider good and just.

Healing and reconciliation, as Justice Murray Sinclair notes, are personal matters. It’s up to individual survivors to assess progress. Everyone wants to believe, but when it comes to the relationship between aboriginal people and the Canadian government we are all agnostic. For a century now native people have complained of politicians who deal only in fine-sounding words. Although the mood of the week is positive, I note the standing ovations given to people who, like Ellen Gabriel, have had their goodwill and patience depleted—not only by inaction but by government actions which are seen to contradict the spirit of reconciliation.

Here, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final event, we are reliving the June 2008 apology. On that day the painful experiences of aboriginal people were recognized and validated by every political party, including the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. No longer could anyone credibly argue (as I remember people did) that there was nothing to apologize for, beyond perhaps the unfortunate zeal or wickedness of “a few bad apples.” Now, as in 2008, we were receiving official acknowledgement of the pain and injustices inflicted on us.

It took decades to get here. Years of survivors telling their stories, year after year pushing for recognition, apology and restitution. It’s been over 20 years since Phil Fontaine saw his story of residential school abuse on the front page of the Globe and Mail. (He later told me he didn’t expect this airport conversation to end up in print.) In the years following this revelation, many hundreds of survivors organized themselves.

A remarkable coalition formed around the cause of truth-telling, healing and reconciliation. Survivors, churches, activists, artists, politicians, elders, front-line workers, citizens, and other joined for a common cause. Survivors and their supporters published books and commissioned reports. They created support groups and lobbied for an apology. They launched what would become Canada’s largest-ever class action lawsuit, the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

Out of this exhausting and relentless effort came the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. To understand the feelings in that room, as the TRC summarized its findings, you have to understand the amount of time and work that went into making that day a reality. In terms of sheer human will and commitment, the determination to have the history of Indian residential schools properly recognized rivals anything else this country can put up—including the building of a transcontinental railroad, or the establishment of a nation from sea to sea.

It’s done now. There’s no turning back.

My Truth, My Reconciliation

TRC

Will Canadians learn anything of useful value from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada? Will they even be interested in doing so?

These and other questions are on my mind as I prepare for the final closing events of the TRC, from May 31 to June 3. I don’t expect to find the answers to my questions in Ottawa. It will take years to assess the efficacy of this commission. And ordinary Canadians, not the Establishment, will be the ones who decide. Or perhaps not.

I’ve been asking questions about the Indian residential schools, and looking for answers, for a quarter century now.

In the early years of the last century, my grandfather Gowandehsonh was in the Anglican-run Mohawk Institute (the longest-running Indian residential School, better known today as the Mush Hole). He rarely spoke of it, mentioning as we drove by the building that he used to dig in the moonlight for raw potatoes to eat. This information—delivered casually and in passing—came without context or further explanation, and young as I was I could do nothing but sit in confused silence.

In the 1990s I began studying the residential schools for my doctoral thesis. Around the time former AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine went public with his story of residential school abuses, and others soon came forward. In 1992 I had my first candid conversation with a former student, or “inmate” as Indian Affairs had once termed them, about what really happened.

Since then I’ve interviewed hundreds of people and written several books, including Full Circle: the Aboriginal Healing Foundation & the unfinished work of hope, healing & reconciliation (get your free ebook version here) and Residential Schools: with the words and images of survivors.

Bob Watts, who played an instrumental role in setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said something to me I’ll never forget. It’s quoted in my book Full Circle:

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 hug-fest 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.

I’ve interviewed former students, church leaders, therapists, lawyers, journalists and government officials from the front-lines right up to the Prime Minister. I’ve found that everyone has their own ideas about what reconciliation is and how we get there. My book ended up being a collection of personal truths, jostling against and conflicting with one another. I expect the TRC’s final report to be the same, offering to Canadians myriad reflections on the truth of experience rather than the objective Truth of a judicial inquiry. I also think my friend Bob is closest to being right about the nature of reconciliation.

I was in the House of Commons when the Prime Minister of Canada apologized for the government’s role in residential schools. It was a powerful speech, and I was frightened at how unprepared I’d been for my nearly-overwhelming emotional reaction. But even then I knew that, on their own speeches and slogans and photo-ops are not going to get us very far. This isn’t about the National Chief nor the Prime Minister, although they doubtless have a role to play. The thousands of unseen, unreported, uncelebrated gestures of ordinary folks are what will make the difference—if there’s going to be a difference at all.

I’m going to Ottawa in search of this.

You can join me this weekend, wherever you are, by participating in the Legacy of Hope Foundation’s #hopeis social media campaign.

I Went to an Indian Residential School, and My Father was the Principal

Guest post by Mark DeWolf

Indian residential schools

Part of my Truth is my memory of how it was at the residential school during the years my Dad was the Principal

IT’S A COLD BUT sunny day in Edmonton as I cross Jasper Avenue and approach the front doors of the Shaw Centre, the venue for the final national event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Streaming out one door is a large group of non-aboriginal teens, chatting, laughing, doing a bit of good-natured jostling. It’s Education Day at the TRC event, and a good number of local schools have arranged for their students to attend, no doubt hoping that the kids will not only learn about the work of the TRC and the reason for its establishment, but also gain something from the experience of sharing the event with thousands of their First Nations neighbours. Have they? I wonder.

Continue …