This is the second installment in a three-volume set produced by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. This volume contains personal reflections on the opportunities and challenges posed by the truth and reconciliation process, which was constituted in the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, to aid in the deliberation of work facing Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The work of truth and reconciliation has at its core human relationships. The Indian residential school system, and the policies that informed it, has shaped not only the past, but the present. It has shaped relationships between the Canadian government and Aboriginal peoples, between the abused and their abusers, and between individuals within families and communities. Indeed, as we set out on this unique voyage, every wrinkle in the territory may be understood as a relationship.

The residential school system itself came about as the consequence of human relationships. Through the treaty negotiations of the late 1800s, Aboriginal people agreed to allow use of their traditional territories in exchange for (among other things) training of their children in the skills of agriculture and animal husbandry. This training was not to supplant Aboriginal cultures, but to enhance and sustain them into the future. The churches had long sought government support for their efforts to Christianize Indians and saw their opportunity in the treaty provision. The government, eager to divest itself of its obligations, entered into a formal relationship with the churches. The government was optimistic that the forcible assimilation of Indians into Canadian society would solve “the Indian problem” and open the land fully to settlement within a single generation.

In other words, a relationship of ostensible good faith and mutual respect between peoples yielded to a political relationship of convenience, coercion, and advantage. Displaced by the nineteenth-century project of “nation building” were the concerns, interests, and humanity of Aboriginal people. The partnership of church and state in the fashioning of a colonizing residential school system constituted a crass and painful betrayal when viewed from the perspective of human relationships.

Whatever ways, if anything, to improve the future must be informed by an awareness of past relationships and a commitment to the principle of mutual respect. Although the residential schools’ systemic bigotry and racism are repudiated today, there are many reminders that not all is well in the relationship between Canada and Aboriginal people. Nor is all well in the relationships among Aboriginal people themselves, relationships that have been maligned across the generations by institutions such as the Indian residential school system, the criminal justice system, and the child welfare system. Addictions, domestic abuse, suicide, and poverty are all “relationship indicators” suggesting that the deep wounds of the past require a comprehensive response informed by an understanding of human relationships impacted by historic trauma.

Truth and reconciliation, separately, are but steps along the path of healing this and many other subsequent betrayals. None is a fixed target; they are grounded in relationships and, like a conversation, do not move in straight and predictable lines. What truth, reconciliation, and healing require, at minimum, are human presence and commitment. Beyond this is uncharted territory.

Georges Erasmus
Aboriginal Healing Foundation