Roland Chrisjohn and Tanya Wasacase


Along with many of our colleagues, we have not been at all hesitant in making known our objections both to the pronouncement made in June 2008 by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (we believe the term “apology” is inappropriate) and to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) installed by his government. However, apart from some television, radio, and newspaper coverage immediately after his statement, and several invited addresses since then, we have had little opportunity to expand upon our concerns.1 Consequently, we appreciate this chance to set forth our position (or op-position). The fact that our objections can be stated, regardless of whether or not our arguments influence anyone, shows an encouraging current willingness to listen; in the past, governments, government agencies, and churches have silenced their critics by pretending not to hear them. We will focus our comments here as much as possible on the TRC. Anyone wishing to see the continuity between these remarks and those we made concerning Harper’s statement may consult the document cited.

The Reality of Rhetoric

If nothing else, the history of Canadian governmental policies toward Indigenous peoples should have taught us long ago to take their initiatives with a block of salt. We therefore find it troubling that so many people have embraced the government’s own characterization of their words (“truth,” “reconciliation,” “apology,” and so on) and deeds (“mistakes,” “forging a new partnership,” et cetera) at face value. Harper’s government is the ideological, legal, ethical, and political successor to those governments that created residential schools in the first place. These successive governments recruited the churches of Canada to collude in their operation of these schools; maintained the institution for over 100 years regardless of any change in the nominal form of the government; accommodated, rather than investigated and litigated, criminal actions on the part of church and bureaucratic officials; ignored, denied, and then minimized the depredations recounted; and initiated a series of irrelevant temporizing maneuvers (public relations campaigns denigrating Aboriginal claims, public squabbles with churches over relative liability, alternative dispute resolutions, and so on) rather than deal squarely with issues. These are just a few of the many deeds that we could recount.

We must also bear in mind that the residential school system was only one aspect of a range of policies aimed toward Aboriginal peoples that similarly could and should be condemned.2 All this happened, we have charged,3 with the government’s full knowledge that the policy created and supported was utterly in violation of the international law Canada had helped bring about but had contrived in such a way as to suit its own agenda. Consequently, are caution and skepticism not the most reasonable reactions to the June 2008 pronouncement emerging from this shameful record of transgression and evasion? It was not incidental that the campaign to frame the pronouncement as an apology began months before it was made, and remember that a year and a half earlier the Parliament of this government publicly considered, in all seriousness, the invention of a “new kind of apology” that would vacate any possibility of liability being attached to it. They did not consider at the same time a new kind of marriage proposal that committed neither party to marriage, a new kind of tax that gave back money to Canadians, or a new kind of truth that would not have to correspond to facts. What Indigenous peoples and Canadians-at-large have been subjected to in the entire run-up to the apology for residential schools and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been rhetoric, a concerted effort to manipulate our perception and understanding of what is happening. Formally, rhetoric is persuasive, rather than correct, argumentation (not that a correct argument cannot be persuasive) and, as such, is a form of discourse similar to political campaigning, advertising, spin-doctoring, and other situations where the sizzle is more important than the (possibly non-existent) steak.

At one time, an introduction to rhetoric was part of high school-level education, then it became a requirement of first-year university schooling, and now it is an increasingly difficult-to-find option for generalized, liberal arts programs. Only prospective lawyers and marketers can count on an introduction to the ins and outs of rhetoric. While we were suspicious of how the marginalization of rhetoric has coincided with the rise of unchallenged ridiculous ideation (for example, the suggestion that the purchase of an expensive pair of sneakers will transform you into a local version of a millionaire professional basketball player), at least we have asked how is it that the individual capacity to evaluate the quality of arguments has gradually become so irrelevant. On the face of it, an introduction to rhetoric seems (to us, anyway) as useful and as important as it ever was. Whatever the story behind the decline of rhetoric, it is its current absence that concerns us here; and, rather than complain about its passing we will endeavour to clarify exactly what its proper use can give us when applied to the instance of the TRC. We will take the two foundational terms, “truth” and “reconciliation,” in reverse order.

Two Ships that Crash in the Night

The term “reconciliation” has been attached to issues of Indian residential schooling from the first inklings of the range of church offenses.4 It was an obvious attempt to connect what should happen in Canada with what had happened in South Africa, after Apartheid, but problems with its application were noted even then. To put it simply, before two parties can reconcile they must, at some earlier time, have been conciled; that is, two distinct parties, independent and moving in their own directions for their own reasons, meet, share, and decide to make their independent ways forward into a single, combined effort.

The classic exemplar of this has been when a woman and a man (nowadays the sex of the parties involved has become irrelevant) meet and decide to become joined in matrimony. Of course, the path of true love rarely runs smoothly, and the union may be dissolved for one reason or another. There is and has been for centuries any number of interventions (for example, clerical counselling, marriage consultation, and mediation by friends and/or family) aimed at healing the rift, whatever its basis. Reconciliation, then, is the success of these enterprises, a restoration to the earlier condition of a single, shared and combined effort.

This, of course, puts the lie to the application of this term to the relation between Indigenous peoples and the mainstream Canadian populace and polity. The consistent feature of policies considered, established, and maintained by Canada with respect to Indigenous peoples has been our termination.5 The consistent feature of our reaction to those policies has been resistance (passive and otherwise). This should all be completely obvious, but it should be recalled that the word was, indeed, similarly misused in the hearings held after Apartheid was vacated,6 but nobody (of consequence, anyhow) complained about it here. How did this slip by critical sensibilities? Reconciliation is an expression that is both warm and fuzzy; it is, after all, such a relief to an extended family and community when a warring married couple, both parties of which are generally esteemed by all concerned, return to a prior happy state.

Reconciliation, then, is an attempt to insinuate a revised and bogus history of Indian/non-Indian relations in Canada. It implies that, once upon a time, Indigenous peoples and settlers lived in peace and harmony, working collaboratively toward shared long-term goals, only to have residential schooling (which began with only the best of intentions) rear its ugly head and drive a wedge between Canadians and Indigenous peoples. The job of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, like that of a good marital therapist or (more appropriately in this instance) a concerned priest, is to mend the rift, heal the split, and make two conjoin again as one. It is an interesting fable, but there is more history to Star Wars than to this scenario. The (ex)termination of Indigenous peoples and their unsurrendered pre-existing title to land and resources is central to the political economy of Canada; was, is, and will continue to be.

“Draw a Lion Incompletely…”

As bad as reconciliation fares under examination, truth does even worse. As we charged in our response to Harper’s statement:

This commission can (1) subpoena no witnesses, (2) compel no testimony, (3) requisition no document. It cannot find, charge, fine, or imprison. Thus far, the only ones lining up to testify are members of groups who have already testified (the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples generated thousands of pages of testimony from school survivors, a corpus, we must add, that has not in the slightest way entered into the consciousness of the average Canadian in the 12 years since its publication) and those who still maintain sufficient plausible deniability to publicly defend its inactions (the RCMP, for example). Those most obviously culpable have already stated their intentions not to bother showing up.7

Nothing whatsoever has changed with respect to these charges, now that the Commission is in (sort of) operation. It may be claimed that we are insulting the Survivors of residential schooling who are now coming forward to make their stories known. Insulting may well be going on, but it is not us who are doing it. The header for this part of our presentation is taken from an old Chinese proverb: “Draw a lion incompletely, and it looks like a dog.” Its meaning is that an incomplete picture will be mistaken for something it is not; and a lion and a dog are significantly different enough for the difference to be important. Will the testimony of Survivors be sufficient to draw the picture of the truth of Indian residential schooling in Canada? Even after a moment’s reflection, it is obvious that Survivors’ testimonies cannot bring retribution or compensation for crimes committed and/or resolve the following injustices and:

  1. Murders, abortions, suspicious deaths, and so on have always been a part of an undercurrent of charges concerning residential schools.8 What does the government and the churches know about these crimes? Who committed them? Who were the victims? Where are the bodies of the victims? Where are those who are criminally responsible, either directly or indirectly? How much was known of the circumstances at the time of commission? Why has the government not acted as yet upon this information?

  2. Children in residential schools were experimented upon by mainstream Canadian researchers, with the permission and cooperation of officials charged with the children’s well-being. Experiments in dental deterioration and tracking the spread of deliberately induced tuberculosis have already been made public.9 Who performed them? Who approved them? Where are those who are criminally responsible, either directly or indirectly? Why did Canada flout the Nuremberg Code of responsible research and informed consent? Why has the government not acted thus far upon this information?

  3. Sub-lethal criminal actions (rapes, torture, deprivation, and so on) have already been stipulated to in several criminal proceedings.10. Retrieved 5 January 2009 from:] Has the full range of these actions been revealed? Have the perpetrators been identified? Has the full range of the victims of these perpetrators been acknowledged? Has the government cooperated fully with investigations of these crimes? If so, why does nothing seem to be happening? If not, why not, by what authority, and for what purpose?

  4. As already noted, the government and churches have engaged in a long series of irrelevant reactions to the increasing number of revelations on residential schools, starting with simply ignoring them and culminating in the current Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What is the internal record of these reactions? Who fashioned them and to what end? How much taxpayer money has been spent trying to evade legitimate grievances of abused individuals instead of admitting guilt? How much taxpayer money has been saved by the expedience of waiting for Survivors of residential schools to die?

  5. We have also charged that Indigenous peoples (ex)termination has been consistent government policy since Confederation. Is there an internal paper trail, including Cabinet documents, that would either substantiate or refute this charge? What has been the ideological force behind the charge if it is substantiated within Canada’s own internal documents? What is the true explanation behind such an unwavering series of catastrophic policies and programs if the charge is refuted?

  6. Covering up a crime is itself a crime.11 Who has been responsible in the governments, bureaucracies, and institutions in operation since the closure of the last residential school in fashioning this cover-up? How has the cooperation of supposedly independent parties (child welfare agencies, newspapers, police forces, judges, and so on) been coordinated? Who crafted the evasions in Canadian law necessary to mis-define genocide and remove any chance of an Indigenous person ever bringing a charge against a Canadian authority or official?

We could generate more questions, especially if we were able to sift deeper through the facts with more finely gauged questions in our search for truth. What should be clear, however, is that those who have and will testify can only do so with respect to their personal experiences. As pointed out at the start of this section, the Commission is structurally enjoined from pursuing any matter that is deeper than this, regardless of how important such inquiries are thought to be. We have no doubt that the Indigenous people who testify at the forthcoming sessions will be telling the truth, and nothing but the truth.12 They cannot, however, tell the whole truth, which resides, in our best guess, in Cabinet documents, memoranda of agreement, consultation documents, and the minds and hearts of people who cannot be compelled to be open and honest. And, if our readers find the citation of an old Chinese proverb too obscure, perhaps a Yiddish one will resonate more: “A half-truth is a whole lie.”

Truth and Reconciliation Conjoined

Truth and reconciliation thus seem remote, to us anyway, from anything this Commission, however well-intentioned, is capable of producing. The question of what the Commission is designed to do thus must be addressed: what is a succession of individuals testifying publicly about painful personal memories actually aimed at accomplishing?

First, it should be pointed out that this format of one group of people (the Survivors) complaining publicly about the actions of another group of people (their oppressors) is what the oppressors, the historic mission churches, already sentenced themselves to back in 1993.13 The scandal breaking then of sexual abuse, degradation, racism, and genocide even before the range and extent of crimes (against individuals and against humanity) became known could be expiated, they proclaimed, by forcing themselves to “listen to the complaints of their victims.” In the intervening time since we first encountered this assertion it has not become any more sensible. In general, the perpetrators of a crime do not get to enforce their own sentence unless, of course, the victims are Indigenous people and the perpetrators are anyone else. Even if genocide is taken off the list of offenses it makes no difference. Would “having to listen to the victim” be sufficient castigation for rape, child abuse, enslavement, or other more specific abuses associated with residential schooling? In our view, it is no more than for bank robbery, insider trading, or forcible confinement. The very inclusion of such a suggested restitution for the crimes of residential schooling, much less its elevation to the only form of redress now guaranteed to residential school Survivors, bespeaks that there are factors lurking behind such an obvious dodge. We will mention two.

First is the obvious ritual, religious form of talking to clergymen about unspeakable sins. It looks and sounds like some bizarre confessional, where one confesses what was done to him or her, instead of what he or she did, and, in a further perversion, confesses to representatives of those who committed the original offenses. Somehow, the crimes of clergy are absolved, not by them accepting responsibility for their actions, but by listening (if they so choose) to victims accuse them of those actions. At least those testifying at the Commission hearings are not going to be sent away with acts of penance to perform.

Second, and even more objectionable, is the latent suggestion that public testimony will bring about some kind of catharsis: a discharge, as it were, of accumulated negative psychic energy, as if that release is therapeutic. Thus, in short, the healing agenda that we have already criticized at length14 has returned, and there are no longer any paradigms to rival it. Somehow, excoriating one’s oppressors in public (even if they are not there) will feel good and validate the marginalized lives the victims of the abuse of Indian residential school have had to live.

We suppose that raging at one’s oppressor (even if it is only shouting down a well) could possibly feel good for a time; but establishing that such actions have long-term therapeutic benefit beyond what one could obtain from a placebo15 has yet to be demonstrated. How many days or how many hours will it be before those who testify find themselves back where they started, with the additional task of having to face the enormity of the realization that public castigation of an identified personal oppressor has not only done nothing to resolve personal issues, but it has let the offending party and the institution standing behind him or her off the hook?

Let us be clear: the crimes of the Indian residential school system are not reduced to the individual injuries experienced by those compelled to suffer them. Even if Bill, Dave, Ann, and Elizabeth feel better by publicly charging their tormentors and even if those feelings prove to be long-lasting and bring personal peace and tranquility to their lives for the first time, the crimes have not been undone. The schools were not created to destroy the lives of Bill, Dave, Ann, and Elizabeth but to destroy forms of life that were surviving and growing within them. Making individuals whole does not thereby reconstitute the Indigenous forms of life residential schooling was mandated to destroy.


A significant omission in everything we have read about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the fact that there is already in existence considerable literature on previous similar commissions convened in other countries.16 It seems to us a natural first step to review what has happened before, with the aim (if nothing more) of seeing what problems arose previously in an effort to avoid them this time. It was our initial intention to provide such a review in this paper, but we have already far out-written our welcome. If the current Commission is not going to include such a review, we would welcome an opportunity to undertake it in a future contribution.

Nevertheless, we will finish this piece by summarizing what such a review would tell us. To put it simply, while truth and reconciliation have, at best, only problematically been either revealed or brought about in such proceedings, what, in retrospect, the victims have discovered they desired most, what they might consider most important, was not only ignored but is completely absent in any findings of any truth and reconciliation commission: justice. Our critique can be reduced to exactly this: truth and reconciliation are not justice, and the Commission will not produce justice even if successful in its mandate (which, we have argued, is a task it cannot achieve). The people who are coming forward to testify before the Commission are doing so in good faith. It does them no service to embroil them in a dismissible process that resolves nothing, clarifies nothing, and permits the offenders yet another layer of obscurantism. Rather than a new beginning, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has become the same old song. Residential school Survivors deserve better.


Roland Chrisjohn is a member of the Oneida Nation of the Confederacy of the Haudenausaunee (Iroquois). He received his doctorate in Personality and Psychometrics from the University of Western Ontario, following which he obtained his certification as a clinical psychologist in 1986. Roland has been active in issues involving Aboriginal people in Canada for over 40 years. He has worked with Aboriginal young offenders, women’s organizations, prisoners’ associations, family and children services, and suicide intervention programs. He has taught such courses as personality, statistics, multivariate analysis, Native studies, world history, and education courses at six different universities in Canada. Roland is currently the director of the Native Studies program at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He has written more than 50 articles on a variety of subjects, and is the principal author of The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada (1997).

Tanya Wasacase is a Cree woman from Saskatchewan. She received her bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick) and her master’s degree from the University of New Brunswick where she is currently pursuing her doctorate. She is part-time faculty working in the Native Studies program at St. Thomas University. Tanya’s areas of interest are Indigenous peoples and public health, education, and social policy issues. She is currently engaged in the critical examination of social science research and is working to expose Western assumptions, prejudices, and biases underlying explanations of drug and alcohol abuse among North American Indigenous peoples. Central to her work is the development of an alternative historical materialist framework for understanding and treating drug and alcohol abuse in Indigenous communities.

  1. Chrisjohn, Roland, Andrea Bear Nicholas, Karen Stote, James Craven, Tanya Wasacase, Pierre Loiselle, and Andrea O. Smith (2008). An Historic Non-Aplogy, Completely and Utterly Not Accepted. Retrieved 17 December 2008 from: (Reprinted later in The St’át’imc Runner July 2008:3–8).
  2. The “60s Scoop;” the loss of status by Native women; the treatment of Native veterans; discriminatory hiring practices; health care (or its absence); housing (or its absence); water; failure in fiduciary responsibility; the list seems endless.
  3. Chrisjohn, R., T. Wasacase, L. Nussey, A. Smith, M. Legault, P. Loiselle, and M. Bourgeois (2002). Genocide and Indian Residential Schooling: The Past is Present. In R. Wiggers and A. Griffiths (eds.), Canada and International Humanitarian Law: Peacekeeping and War Crimes in the Modern Era. Halifax, NS: Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, Dalhousie University: 229–266.
  4. Chrisjohn, R. and S. Young (1994). The Circle Game: Shadow and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada. Unpublished draft research report commissioned by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and submitted October 1994.
  5. Chrisjohn, R. and S. Young (1997). The Circle Game: Shadow and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada. Penticton, BC: Theytus Press.
  6. Hamber, B. (2002). ‘Ere their story die’: Truth, justice and reconciliation in South Africa. Race and Class 44(1):61–79.
  7. See note #1.
  8. Mallinder, Lorraine (2009). Playground bones force Canada to face genocide of Indian children. Retrieved 23 April 2009 from:–
  9. Napier, David (2000). Ottawa experimented on Native kids. Anglican Journal May 2000 (retrieved 23 April 2009 from: Some of Napier’s claims have been disputed (see John Siebert, Anglican Journal, November 2000), but it makes no difference whether you side with the original charges or with those who dispute them; (1) most of Napier’s claims (and the more serious ones, like violating the Nuremburg Code and failing to act in the best interest of the child) have not been disputed but remain unaddressed, and (2) Napier makes no claim that his investigation of experimental abuses was comprehensive (that is, the possibility of additional, perhaps even more serious abuses remain). The existence of controversy here at all makes our point: there are compelling grounds for proper authority to investigate the competing claims and interests.
  10. A sample list of criminal cases involving institutional child abuse, including those involving Indian residential schools, can be found in: Shea, Goldie M. (1999). Institutional Child Abuse in Canada: Criminal Cases. Prepared for the Law Commission of Canada [unpublished
  11. Nixon, we should remember, was indicted for covering up the Watergate crimes, not authorizing them.
  12. This is an attitude, however, that the non-Indigenous Canadian public as a whole is in no way obliged to share. They do not even need to bother paying any attention to the proceedings (unlike, say, in Germany, where the genocide of Jews is mandated in the curriculum right through to high school graduation). We predict here (and assert our right to an enormous “I told you so” in due course) that, to the extent testimony and Commission findings are noted at all in the mainstream, large parts of such acknowledgements will directly or indirectly impugn the testimony provided by Survivors.
  13. Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Public Hearings Round IV: Historic Mission Churches Special Consultations. Ottawa, ON, November 8 and 9, 1993. In CD-ROM For Seven Generations: An Information Legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Ottawa, ON: Libraxus Inc.
  14. See note #5.
  15. Jopling, David A. (2008). Talking Cures and Placebo Effects. London, UK: Oxford University Press.
  16. Barkan, Elazar (2000). The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.; Rotberg, R. and D. Thompson (2000). Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Hayner, Priscilla (2002). Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York, NY: Routledge; Rolston, Bill (2002). Why Truth? Why Now? Race & Class 44(1):v–vi; Cobban, Helena (2007). Amnesty after Atrocity? Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes. London, UK: Paradigm Publications.