A Way Out of a Dark Past
Can Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation efforts help the U.S. with its own reckoning?
In the summer of 2011, Simon Hogaluk of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada, sat at a microphone and began telling a story. He spoke through tears of being torn from his parents as a child and forced onto an airplane, where he joined others who were being shuttled, against the will of their families, off to schools aimed at erasing their culture under the guise of “education.” During those Northern Hearings and others held throughout the country, thousands of Indigenous Canadians participated in a mission of truth-telling and reconciliation as part of a nationwide reckoning with a particularly dark piece of the country’s history.
After hundreds of years of outright atrocities and more subtle oppressions against Indigenous and Black people, the United States, too, has a past to atone for. Although officials, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have offered a handful of apologies, these statements have been criticized for failing to condemn the government’s complicity and for offering only a symbolic, rather than systemic, resolution. And, while in the wake of highly publicized killings of Black people by law enforcement, White Americans are more likely to acknowledge that racism is real and often shapes experiences with police, they remain unlikely to support defunding the police or paying reparations to Black Americans.
This is where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like the one held in Canada can come in, says Cyanne E. Loyle, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. The process can serve as a way to launch a national conversation, even when faced with vast ideological rifts. “The point is to get everybody on the same page, not to start on the same page,” she says. From there, citizens and their governments can identify actionable steps toward change. Canada’s effort has been imperfect and reconciliation is still ongoing, but it carries important lessons for the United States’ own process.
The Canadian Context
From the late 1800s to the 1990s, Canada removed more than 150,000 Métis, Inuit, and First Nations children from their homes and sent them to church- and government-run boarding schools. The schools, much like those in the U.S., were established with the intention of breaking Indigenous children’s connection to culture, family, and identity. Once arrived, the children were stripped of their—often homemade and valuable—clothes, prohibited from speaking their own language or dancing traditional dances, punished for practicing Indigenous spirituality, and taught that their families, bands, and entire way of life were inferior. Indeed, in 1883, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, said, “When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.” As such, Macdonald called for Indigenous children to be removed from their homes and placed in residential schools where they would “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”
In addition to these practices, which would come to be known as cultural genocide, many students suffered physical and sexual abuse as well as extreme neglect. Survivors recall eating oatmeal with worms, “rotten soup,” and having to pick from scraps intended for the pigs. Multiple studies have shown that this suffering has had intergenerational consequences for Indigenous communities, leading to elevated rates of chronic and infectious disease as well as mental distress, depression, addictive behaviors, and more. During the program’s 100-plus-year tenure, at least 139 government-supported residential schools and similar programs operated throughout Canada. In 1969, the government severed its partnership with the churches that often ran them, but the last federally supported school didn’t close until the late 1990s. For years—decades—many survivors didn’t speak about it, even to their own families, and too many non-Indigenous Canadians had no idea the system existed until relatively recently.
Prompted by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and former students’ calls for a government acknowledgement and apology, Canada formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008. Through the effort, which drew on a legacy of transitional justice that began in post-Apartheid South Africa, survivors and their loved ones shared almost 7,000 stories in public panels, sharing circles, and private testimonies. The Commission also gathered documents from schools, governments, and other sources.
As the chair of the commission, then-Justice on the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba Murray Sinclair explained to attendees at one truth-telling event that Canada’s TRC process aimed to capture stories to ensure that they were available for the future. But it was also intended to lay the groundwork for a new future. Sinclair, who has served in the Canadian Senate since 2016, said at a 2011 sharing panel held in Kuujjuaq, Quebec, “Our responsibility in doing all of this is to record the truth of residential schools, because it is only through knowing the truth of that story, and all of those stories, that we’ll be able to engage in a discussion with Canada about the second part of our mandate, which is reconciliation.”
Reckoning with the Past
The TRC process is not unique to Canada. Rather, from Sierra Leone to Guatemala, TRCs have in recent decades become a familiar way for transitioning governments to address—with varying degrees of success—acute traumas and violence that they and their predecessors have committed or permitted. What makes the Canadian example especially relevant for the U.S. is its similar context. First, in both countries, a distinct but related legacy of colonialism has wrought modern-day consequences. Second, whereas many TRCs are used following civil war or regime change, Canada’s Commission occurred as part of a shift in ideology.
“The idea is, when you have this kind of space, this kind of power shift, you have the opportunity to reckon with some of the events of the past,” Loyle says. In the U.S., despite daunting ideological divides, coming to terms with the past may be key to building a more civil society going forward. If the increasingly diverse and widespread protests against police brutality and systemic racism are any indication, we are ready.
Unfortunately, however, the process of unearthing, documenting, and publicizing the truths of injustice is neither simple nor inherently beneficial, especially for those who are active participants. Each individual engages differently with the process, Loyle notes, and outcomes vary for people who have shared their experiences. In the Canadian TRC, some survivors actively wanted to be heard and found the act of sharing their story cathartic or even empowering. Others found that participation led to a sense of exploitation all over again, which added to their trauma. Still others questioned why those who had been victimized were left to do the labor of reliving their painful experiences.
Nonetheless, a TRC’s ability to raise awareness and change opinions may be one of its greatest strengths, Loyle says. In South Africa, the 1995 TRC taught White South Africans about the extent of the atrocities carried out by the state, which Loyle says ultimately dismantled broad acceptance of apartheid policies. In Canada, too, the process has raised awareness and improved people’s understanding of their country’s past: In particular, the Canadian TRC—which included numerous nationally televised events—made the testimonies of extreme abuse suffered by residential school survivors widely available for the first time.
As Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the world’s first national Indigenous television broadcaster, reported on the nationwide events held around testimonies, the importance of the TRC’s truth-telling role to Canada’s Indigenous communities stood out. “The most important thing that we heard from people is that it was documented, people know about it,” says Cheryl McKenzie, an Anishinaabe and Cree woman from Hollow Water and Peguis First Nations in Manitoba and APTN’s executive director of news and current affairs. “You can’t ignore it anymore, and hopefully nobody forgets it.”
Is Knowing the Truth Enough?
Despite the power of these stories to potentially shift perspectives, academics and activists challenge whether a process that is centered on individual suffering can effectively lead to structural change. After all, like the enslavement of Black people and the Indian Boarding School system in the U.S., Canada’s Indian residential schools left their mark on subsequent generations and entire communities of Indigenous peoples, says Monika Ille, a member of the Abenaki First Nation of Odanak. “All of this impacted not only the generations that went through it, but the generations to come as well. Those children became parents, and what was it to become a parent? What happened to their culture? Their language?” says Ille, who is the CEO of APTN. “All of that still affects people today.”
Yet a substantial proportion of the stories in mainstream media focused on the abuse, rather than the fact that the schools represent just one piece of a systematic attempt to erase Indigenous cultures. The Canadian government also terminated treaties, outlawed Indigenous spiritual practices, eliminated or replaced existing governing bodies, and denied Indigenous people the right to fully participate in the nation’s political, economic, and social worlds. The consequences have not stayed in the past. They continue to affect the lives of Indigenous Canadians, and left unaddressed, will shape the existence of future generations.
McKenzie explains that, while both of her parents attended boarding school, their experiences were decidedly different. Her mother remembers a “kind” teacher who brought her home on weekends, where she learned to bake and got to sleep in a comfortable bed. The absence of explicit abuse, McKenzie says, can cause even survivors to overlook the oppressive function the schools played. “[My mom didn’t] experience any sexual abuse, but of course there’s the abuse that comes when one person thinks they’re superior over Indigenous people. And the loss of her language, being closely connected with her family,” McKenzie says.
Those losses carried forward. McKenzie’s mother became an adult who no longer spoke her native language and was unable to teach it to her children. And for Indigenous people across Canada, the loss of culture and systematic fracturing of communities by residential schools has contributed to increased rates of psychological, physical, economic, and spiritual suffering.
But the Canadian TRC may have been slightly better poised to address structural problems than many of the truth and reconciliation processes that preceded it. In a 2013 article in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, gender equality and social justice scholar Rosemary Nagy argued that the Canadian TRC’s de-emphasis on individual accountability, while potentially problematic in its own right, may have opened the door for a more contextualized approach. “There was a desire on the part of many survivors to have public education on larger systemic and collective issues,” she wrote.
More than a decade has passed since Canada’s TRC began its mission and five years since the Commission released its “Calls to Action.” The 94 recommendations therein span issues of education, media, language, child welfare, and Indigenous sovereignty, and are intended as a framework for working from truth to reconciliation. It seems that the TRC is having an impact. In a 2016 survey conducted by the Environics Institute, two-thirds of non-Indigenous respondents were aware of residential schools, up from just 51% in 2008. The same survey found that most of those who knew about the schools saw the experience as a factor that continues to affect Indigenous Canadians’ lives.
Despite these changes, many still believe that reconciliation is a long way off at best. Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claims of commitment to the process, Indigenous people in Canada still suffer the consequences of colonization, such as: lack of equitable access to healthcare and education, elevated levels of incarceration and unemployment, and disproportionate rates of child death, suicide, and other mental and physical health issues.
Asked what he sees as the biggest barrier to reconciliation, Niigaanwewidam Sinclair, an Anishinaabe activist from the St. Peter’s Band of the Little Peguis First Nation of Manitoba, doesn’t hesitate: “Land theft is the problem,” says Sinclair, who is also a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press, and an assistant professor in Native studies at the University of Manitoba. “When you steal all the land, 99% of the land, then you remove a people’s way of life, you remove a people’s way of expressing themselves, raising their children, creating an economy. And so the biggest challenge of reconciliation is land theft.”
That doesn’t mean that smaller steps to reduce the current atmosphere of violence don’t matter. Changing racist names of sports teams or tearing down statues celebrating slavery have value, he says. But that value is in facilitating an atmosphere in which bigger conversations and actions might take place. “We haven’t even had the conversation yet, and the conversation is where reconciliation lies,” he says. “Reconciliation starts with returning the land. … Indigenous peoples need to self-govern.”
And, while Canada’s TRC provides a roadmap for enacting reconciliation in its calls to action, the vast majority of those calls remain unmet: In fact, according to a report by the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research center, only nine of the 94 had been completed as of December 2019. Thus, says Sinclair, “It’s the people themselves that have to perform reconciliation when they begin the process of enacting the calls. Because when you enact the calls, you’re setting the stage for that conversation.”
Could the U.S. Benefit From a TRC?
Several grassroots and local-level truth and reconciliation commissions have already been held in the U.S. In 1997, a Greensboro, North Carolina, TRC addressed the 1979 murder of labor organizers by members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party. From 2013 to 2015, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission addressed the abuse of Native American children by the state’s welfare agencies. In April of 2019, a Maryland TRC began investigating the dozens of lynchings that took place in the state between 1854 and 1933.
These local efforts, among others—including the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama—have brought some healing and reconciliation for participating communities, and they can be essential to information gathering, Loyle says. They do not, however, constitute the nationwide reckoning with the country’s history of genocide, land theft, and slavery, or with the persistence of systemic racism that some argue we need. According to Loyle, research shows that processes at the national level are important to achieving and maintaining peace. Thus, she advocates for an approach “that would actually try to go back as much as possible to the historical evolution” of contemporary policies and structural injustice in the U.S.
The widespread Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality might finally provide the momentum we need to make a TRC happen. In fact, in June, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., called for a racial healing and truth commission. And Christine Diindiisi McCleave, an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation and CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, wants to make sure such a process includes both Black and Indigenous peoples. McCleave argues that in order to move the needle against all racial oppression we need to start with our nation’s original sin that includes the mass killing, displacement, and attempted cultural annihilation of Indigenous peoples.
Despite the challenges faced by Canada, and the complexities inherent in seeking an approach that could work across 50 states and 574 federally recognized Tribal Nations, the Healing Coalition is exploring the possibility of a national TRC to address the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.
“The acknowledgement of the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples is imperative to reparations or a movement to improve the lives of Black Americans,” Diindiisi McCleave says. “We were the first people they came in and oppressed. It needs to start at the beginning. It would help others if we had some kind of reckoning about how the country has treated Indigenous people.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 10:59a.m. on Dec. 1, 2020, to reflect that Justice Murray Sinclair was serving on the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba, not the Provincial Court of Manitoba, when he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008. Read our corrections policy here.