Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Church implicated in Canada's reconciliation project

1 Comment
Indian Residential SchoolsAboriginal reconciliation in Canada is a project with numerous parallels to the Australian experience. Notably they include a conceptual looseness around the meaning of 'reconciliation' itself. Canada's reconciliation project got a serious roll-on in June, when the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held its first hearings into the so-called Indian Residential Schools at the Forks in Winnipeg.

The TRC has been a long time coming in Canada. These church-run schools began forcibly co-opting Aboriginal children in the 1870s. When the last one closed in 1996, about 150,000 children had been through the system. Along the way, the anger of survivors became a groundswell that forced an out-of-court settlement with the churches and the federal government in 2006. That agreement mandated the TRC, along with funds for commemoration and compensation provisions totalling CA$1.9 billion.

Over the four days of the event, survivors of the schools 'told their stories' before 'sharing circles' of their peers, or in private testimonies delivered out of the public gaze. All these testimonies showed that Canadian policies of removing children from their homes and depriving those homes of children involved a fundamental violence.

A relatively fortunate minority of survivors took pains to assert they had not been abused at their residential schools, typically attributing this to the goodness of specific teachers. They still testified to the basic trauma of the separation from family, friends, culture and language, which remained a burden on the rest of their lives.

But most survivors who testified complained of shocking treatment. Violence was the norm, not an exception. Most described sexual abuse by the staff employed to teach and look after them and/or by fellow students, themselves already brutalised. Testimonies at the Winnipeg event leave no doubt that Canada's churches were heavily culpable for the abuse — particularly the Catholic religious orders, who ran 70 per cent of the schools.

Many children who went into residential schools did not come out alive, without any record of escape or death. Before the Winnipeg event, the TRC's chief commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair declared that the missing may number 3000 children, and that it would be an urgent priority to findout what happened to them. 

Historical witnesses from the early 20th century onwards reported that less than 50 per cent of children survived at some residential schools, especially in the west. At the Winnipeg event, a survivor from one prairie school remembered the graves on its grounds. Only in his adulthood did it occur to him how weird it was for a school to need a graveyard.

According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the fact of systemically removing children of specified races from their families was an act of genocide. Non-Aboriginal Canadians, much like Australians, have generally rejected that word in discussion of their country's history.

But uncovering the truth of the missing children may well make the genocidal reality of residential schools more apparent. It may demonstrate that D. C. Scott's infamous policy objective for the schools, 'to kill the Indian in the child', was a euphemism for what happened on the ground.

Many questions can be asked about the the scope and rationale of the TRC's work. It is still not clear who is supposed to reconcile with what. Nor is it clear how comprehensive a picture of 'the truth' the TRC can draw, given the very narrow limits placed on its powers of investigation. This question of the brief is important. In several speeches both before and during the Winnipeg event, Sinclair observed that one of the tasks of the TRC will be to provide a clear definition of its concept of 'reconciliation'. According to its mandate, it has until 2014 to do this.

The faltering Australian experience suggests that a too inclusive definition of reconciliation for Canadians is unlikely to lead to change. The term 'practical reconciliation' is one version that reluctant Australians have used to underwrite a highly paternalist approach to addressing Aboriginal social disadvantage that sustains the legacy of invasion. Canada's TRC will do well to close the door to such appropriations, if significant numbers of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are to engage with its work and with each other.

Tom ClarkRavi de CostaTom Clark is a senior lecturer in the School of Communication and the Arts at Victoria University, Melbourne. Ravi de Costa is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto. They are working on a research project examining non-Indigenous attitudes towards Indigenous reconciliation, which has been funded by Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Topic tags: Tom Clark, Ravi de Costa, Canda, Aboriginal, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Australia, Intervention



submit a comment

Existing comments

How can a body be formed and then give itself until 2014 to define it's own mandate? Should not the mandate define the body?

Greig Williams | 02 July 2010  

Similar Articles

Gillard sustains population myth

  • Ruby J. Murray
  • 01 July 2010

I don't know about you, but last time I got on an outrageously late, over-crowded train at peak hour full of apparently longstanding Aussies in business suits, the first thing I thought was: I really wish Australia accepted fewer immigrants.


Campaigning to Christians

  • John Warhurst
  • 30 June 2010

Christians rarely agree on what they want from government. The Australian Christian Lobby jumped the gun last week with its forum for political leaders to address Christian voters: the elevation of Julia Gillard means it now needs to engage afresh with a new Prime Minister.