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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has concluded its painstaking and pain-filled exposition of the misery inflicted by the Canadian policy of enforced residential schooling on Indian children and has issued its final report.
In its evidence is the truth part: Canadian democracy -- scarcely worthy of the name at the time of Confederation, and, as demonstrated in the antics around the Duffy trial, evidently not much more democratic now -- legitimated genocide and human rights abuses against children. In our names. That's what democracy does: it empowers governments to act in the collective name of citizens and for their benefit, who then assess the action because of transparency and accountability principles by which all abide.
That too is apparently now more political philosophy than practice, but perhaps that matter can be taken up another time.
The residential school policy was not for the benefit of "Indians" but for settlers: it was intended to de-Indianize the youngest generations so that there would be "no Indians and no Indian problem," in the crystal-clear words of Duncan Campbell Scott, the deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. It actually wasn't much of an education program at all (note that the federal government still spends thousands less per student in reserve schools than provinces do in the public school system, and ask yourself if there is a thread of continuity here).
The residential school policy was part of Canadian colonialism. Imperialism transformed into colonialism in the service of the settler state in what is now Canada. Colonialism has inflicted virtually incalculable damage on Indigenous peoples for every generation since. These truisms can be unpacked by others elsewhere.
Here, I turn to that single effort to address one strategy of the Canadian state in its project of land theft and genocide -- no 'cultural' modifier by this author. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard the testimony of many who attended the residential schools subcontracted by the state to various Christian denominations and produced the Final Report, the Executive Summary, and the Calls to Action so that all Canadians may know the Truth. They are available in digital form for all who are interested. All should be interested.
The Commission and the state were also to attend to the healing of those who have been damaged in ways that are best understood as child abuse and PTSD, yet it and the settler public have lurched toward 'reconciliation' ahead of healing, and really, without most Canadians and our elite political institutions having grappled with the truth.
Truth-telling in a reconciliatory process is meaningless if it is not heard by those who have benefited from the damage -- by those who enjoy what for shorthand we'll call white settler privilege -- and for those who have laid their truths bare, the exercise is unsatisfying unless there is some positive consequence that can produce a measure of change. What to do?
Too many seem to think that by virtue of the colonized having told their truths, reconciliation is attained as we all just 'get over it' 'going forward'. Not so quick: in between truth and reconciliation there must be recognition of what happened in our collective name; recognition of the damage done by the democratic state to those who have been oppressed by definition since occupation by the state and its chosen people; recognition of the illegal and immoral nature of this continuing state of affairs, and recognition of the requirement for remediation of all of these things by those who have obtained all the goodies the state has to offer, at the expense of those who have been stripped of virtually all of their: sovereignty, autonomy, cultural corpus, children, elders, health, wealth and opportunities.
This recognition can be manifested by Canadians individually, but it has surely been withheld by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, which has refused to adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Moreover, that same government continues to act in ways that prima facie violate the UNDRIP and the Constitutional law of Canada by, for example, making resource development the prime directive despite the lack of meaningful consultation and absolute lack of consent by Aboriginal nations whose territories and communities are affected by that development.
And that same government refuses to recognize the intergenerational damage consequent to colonialism in the suffering demonstrated by outrageous levels of incarceration of Indigenous peoples; disintegration of Indigenous families marked by the loss of children into the largely incompetent and indifferent child welfare systems; the under- and un-employment of Indigenous peoples in their own communities and elsewhere; the lack of access to basic incidents of human rights and citizenship such as education, health care and housing; and the rising barometer of pathology in the missing and murdered Indigenous women body count.
Recognition is a necessary though insufficient condition for reconciliation. Recognition must be accompanied by restitution. Oh yes, there is a cost to this reconciliation thing. As in the Christian model of remorse and penitence leading to a healed relationship (with God, with others), recognition must lead to collective remorse expressed penitentially by choosing to remediate inequality, injustice, and colonial predation. Unless and until the colonial state returns at least some of the land, negotiates shared jurisdiction over resources and tax room and makes other amends, there will be no reconciliation. All of the cultural symbolism represented by prayers and smudging that typically accompany truth telling will not allow the state to avoid payback. Sharing cultural practices is important, but cannot take the place of restitution.
And only then can we anticipate the possibility of right relationship -- a state of being that is constantly negotiated, beneficial to all, and is the manifestation of reconciliation. The model exists in treaty frameworks which contemplated ongoing adaptable relationships with the capacity to carry us all into a positive future. The model has never been animated by Canada.
The result of reconciliation may well also lead to an Indigenization of Canadian forms of governance and economic practices. That could be our collective salvation: the status quo is patently divorced from our putative political values and our economic practices are taking us to climate change hell in a hand basket.
The main point here is that reconciliation from the practice of colonialism will produce systemic change to remediate the systemic evils produced by colonialism. Be not afraid. Embrace the opportunity. We can all do better than the settler state status quo.
Until we have the preconditions for reconciliation, the truth will not make us free of the reality of colonialism -- not only historically, but right now, across Canada, in Indigenous communities and everywhere else as well, where neoliberal practices advance colonialism still.
Joyce Green is professor of political science at the University of Regina. Green’s work focuses on the politics of decolonization in Canada; on identity, human rights and citizenship; and on the way in which sexism, racism and race privilege is encoded in Canadian political culture. She is is of English, Ktunaxa and Cree-Scots Métis descent.
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