Throughout the mid-1800s to the late-1900s, the Canadian government, in conjunction with the Church (Catholic as well as other sects of Christianity), stole generations of Indigenous children from their homes, families, elders, and communities. The children were taught to be ashamed of who they are and were physically, mentally, and sexually abused. This was an attempt at cultural genocide. The children who attended these schools were never meant to thrive. Countless many lost their lives at these schools and many more would lose their way long after they had left the school walls. Residential schools are not a historical event buried in the past; they are still happening and will continue to affect the future if they are not addressed now. Those who attended are not the only ones that have been lost; the generations that came after and those yet to come have inherited this experience. Canada has a history of refusing to acknowledge its own colonialist policies, and residential schools have been disguised, spun, denied, dismissed, and swept under the carpet. Many, if not most Canadians today, do not recognize the impacts of residential schools.
Reconciliation will be difficult and will not occur without acknowledgement of what took place. The hope is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will finally give people the chance to not forget, but to move past it. Reconciliation presents an opportunity for all parties—including the Canadian government, all sects of the Church, federally recognized Aboriginal organizations, the victims and their families, and the Canadian public in general—to work with one another, to address each other, and to come to terms with what happened. The TRC should provide a safe and culturally relevant forum for victims and their families to tell their stories and to be finally acknowledged. These stories will have a profound impact on the collective memory of all Canadians.
Indigenous people for their part can also take this opportunity to send a message to the world that never again will such a racist agenda be tolerated in Canada. Residential schools happened. Why are so many Canadians unaware of that? It does not get taught in public schools, not even as a part of what is commonly referred to as the “black pages”1 of Canadian history. It comes as a shock to many people when they do learn about this colonial practice as they arrive at post-secondary institutions. I have often heard from many of my fellow students of being shocked that they were not taught this part of history before leaving high school. That shock is often followed by guilt and shame and often leads to denial. This guilt, shame, and denial hinder people from engaging in dialogue with each other. What can be said about the Canadian moral code when people are dragged out of a church in handcuffs by police for protesting against the denial of thousands of residential school deaths, as was the case in Vancouver in early 2008.2
As part of the Awareness for Diversity Week in March 2008 at University of British Columbia Okanagan, members of the organizing committee made and planted window shutters around campus grounds. Students could open up the shutters and see a display of information on various issues, including residential schools. The point being made was that many of these issues are hidden or covered up. There were some angry responses to the window shutter revealing information about residential school practices in British Columbia. The complaints included: the statistics were made up, no one died, the Church had good intentions, it paints Christians in a bad light, only a small percentage of the students who attended were ever abused, and the racist attitudes and policies of the time do not exist anymore, so therefore we should not bother with it now.
I was startled by the complaints, since this was the only shutter to receive any negative feedback, but I was not surprised. I was, however, shocked by the number of people who were learning about residential schools for the first time in their lives, particularly because there had been several of these schools in this region. These complaints illustrate the lack of awareness and understanding of the history of Canada. Colonization is not over for this nation and it is not a relic of the past. People are either still benefiting or are still being victimized by the inherited legacy of Canada’s colonial history. There needs to be an opportunity for discussion so that we can come to terms with what being a Canadian means to each of us. If the TRC is what it should be, it will be an opportunity to accomplish just that. Canadians can no longer choose to look the other way.
Canada’s TRC will be slightly different from other TRCs that have been conducted in other countries, such as in South Africa, in that any information provided by the perpetrators, the government and churches in this case, will be provided on a voluntary basis. We will see in the coming years how forthcoming these organizations will be with information regarding their involvement, since they will still have control over what gets revealed. In order for this commission to be successful, victims and their families are being asked to relive their experiences and to share it with the general public. It is a lot to ask of people who have lived through such traumatic experiences. Although it may be therapeutic for some to share their stories, for others, the residential school settlement process and the TRC may become yet another traumatic experience in itself. There needs to be complete transparency on the participation of the government and the churches if they are to participate fully in the process. The lack of this transparency will make the creation of a truthful and unbiased historical account more difficult for the Commission. I believe the success of the TRC relies on genuine co-operation on the part of the government, the churches, and the Canadian public. Hopefully, the next five years will prove to be successful.
Compiling a truthful account of history is only one small step toward reconciliation. The abuse at residential schools has been denied for a long time. There needs to be acknowledgement so that the policies and racist discourses that lead to such blatant violation of human rights can be changed. To say “it happened so long ago, just get over it” dismisses the experiences of the victims and their families that are still being affected by what happened. The traumatic memories are intergenerational and have been inherited even by those who have never set foot inside these schools; so many of the social issues that Aboriginal communities face today stems from the practice of residential schools. The effects must be fully understood and recognized if we are meant to move past it, as nations.
I am a product of the inherited experiences, thoughts, wisdoms, and philosophies of all those who came before me. Representing multiple national identities meant coming to terms with those legacies, whether they were positive or negative. My experiences of being both Canadian and Japanese—and at times having those identities denied—have given me a deeper understanding of my self and what I represent. In order to have a full and complete understanding of our national identities, we need to have a comprehensive awareness of where we come from, and I do not believe that most Canadians today have this insight. Perhaps, as an immigrant, I have had more opportunities to question what it means to be Canadian. It is my hope that the TRC will be an opportunity for many other Canadians to do the same, and perhaps for some, for the first time in their lives. The TRC can truly be an opportunity for reconciliation, but it is up to this generation to make it so.
Mari Tanaka is a 26 year-old undergraduate student in the Department of Cultural Studies at UBC Okanagan. Her research interests include popular media, language education, intercultural communication, and constructions of identity. Upon completing her undergraduate degree, she plans to further her studies at the graduate level. ?She was born in Fukuoka, Japan and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1991. ↩
- The phrase “black pages” (short for “universal black pages”) refers to the untold negative history of Canada’s treatment of blacks living within a section of Halifax, Nova Scotia, commonly referred to as Africville. See page 241in Bradford W. Morse (2007). Reconciliation Possible? Reparations Essential. In Castellano, Marlene Brant, Linda Archibald, and Mike DeGagné (eds.), From Truth to Reconciliation: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation: 233–256. ↩
- Webb, Kate (2008). Native protest disrupts mass: Churches accused of ‘genocide’ over TB deaths. The Province, Monday, March 24, 2008. Retrieved 5 March 2009 from: http://www2.canada.com/theprovince/news/story.html?id=5790d241-b4c4-48cf-ac75-7cf7d1ee0b7d&k=25804 ↩