For the first time, the experiences of First Nation, Inuit and Métis Peoples who went through residential school system, a chain of institutions disguised as schools to assimilate Indigenous children into mainstream Canadian society, was released to the public.
The report documents the loneliness, the abuse and the strangeness of walking into a place where their language and culture was forbidden.
The TRC issued 94 calls to action to every segment of Canadian society in the hopes that this never happens again.
Sinclair said at the time that reconciliation would not happen in our lifetime – so, on this day set aside by the federal government to remember Canada’s dark history, how far does he think we’ve travelled?
APTN National News anchor Melissa Ridgen recently sat down with the former justice to talk about that and the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
Melissa Ridgen: “How do you hope non-Indigenous Canadians are marking today, what do you hope they are doing today?”
Murray Sinclair: “Well one of the things that the report is for people to understand that Canadians who are not Indigenous to understand that they too are too victims of this history. While Indigenous kids were taken away from their families and placed in residential schools and told that they were heathens that they were pagans, that they were backward and uncivilized, that they had no culture worth protecting or worth defending or worth speaking about, that they stood in the way of Canada’s nationalism and that they didn’t have any rights and that they should strive to be like every other Canadian and have no claim to any additional rights, that was all part of what was being taught in residential schools but it was also what was being taught in the public schools in this country too.
“We point out that only about 35 per cent of Indigenous children were ever sent to a residential school but the remaining 65 per cent were sent to public schools which essentially taught them the same thing therefore they grew up believing what the school was teaching them. That is that they were inferior and that white Europeans settlers were superior. That belief not only affected the Indigenous kids that were there, but affected the white kids that were there too. That’s why we have this dichotomy of non Indigenous people who have come through our public school system have been taught essentially a white supremist belief system which is that they are better than us. And we have a lot of work to do to change that.
“I think there is a growing body of reasonable people out there who are trying to figure out what to do and what they can do to contribute to the process of reconciliation but the difficulty they face, the difficulty that Canada faces generally is that there is a group of very vocal, very influential people in Canada who hold significant positions of power who are working hard against reconciliation. People who are holding positions of privilege, who are benefitting from the riches of this country that have been taken away from Indigenous people. The people who have been taught to believe that they are superior to Indigenous people and don’t want to think they are not. I said at the end of the TRC report getting to the truth was hard but getting to reconciliation will be harder because I knew that there would be people working very hard, very forcefully, even violently against reconciliation.
“And so one of the things I make sure non Indigenous people understand is we don’t need you to help heal us, we need you to fix yourselves. We need you to get those people out there who are perpetrating this process of working against reconciliation under control. We need you to straighten yourselves out, we don’t need you to just step forward and say well here is what we can do for you because my question is always, what are you doing for yourself? What are you doing to get rid of that violent vocal force that is holding us all back, holding us all, holding this country back? Because that is what’s going to stop reconciliation.”
MR: “There is a whole new generation of children that is well aware of Canada’s history and the truth of that, what else can teachers and parents do to further the reconciliation of the agenda of what these kids all now know? These kids all have it in the back of their mind, they all learn it in school.”
MS: “There are many who believe that reconciliation is for non-Indigenous people to do. That they are the ones who have to change their ways. In many ways it’s like the couple who is coming out of a very violent marital relationship. The one who perpetrated the violence is really the one who has to change his ways or her ways. But also the victim of all of that violence also needs to take a look at what the impact of what the violence has had upon their lives, and their own sense of their victimization and their sense of looking to the perpetrator to heal them or to help them or help them get over it.
“We can’t expect a government that has come from this long history of oppression is going to be holding the answers for us. And the answers are going to have to come from our own culture, our own ways of doing things, our own belief systems, our own teachings. So what I have said to Indigenous leaders since the TRC report files is that we have our own internal process of reconciliation to do and that is we have to start teaching our children their culture, we have to start teaching our children their language, we have to start teaching our children that they are just as valid as the non indigenous kids out there and that our ways of doing things will still work today. And it’s up to us to figure out how to make that happen.”
MR: “A lot of people are using the term genocide now – probably more than in the past and again it’s probably because of the graves. What do you make of the stronger language that people have about Canada’s history?”
MS: “Well, genocide was an often misused, misunderstood concept over the many years since the Second World War particularly because we always equate the concept of genocide with the holocaust and the holocaust was about murdering people, putting people to death in gas chambers and doing violence to them and that indeed is a sincerely important to recognize form of genocide and we can’t ignore it. But genocide also includes any action that deliberately intends to eliminate a race of people – and that can be a physical action of destruction.
“It can be things like preventing women from having babies for example so the idea of eugenics for example is about an act of genocide. Preventing mothers from being able to raise their own children in their own culture is an act of genocide, so taking children away and placing them into non-Indigenous foster homes or foster care, or institutions like residential schools is an act of genocide – deliberately starving people like the government of Canada did for a significant period of time.
“We suspect that we will discover, if we did a proper investigation of the reasons children died in residential schools, we suspect that we will find that they were underfed, malnourished and may have starved to death because of the way the schools were prevented from being able to feed them properly. We talked to people who worked in the schools and they all tell us to a person that they were deliberately given short budgets to buy food for the kids. So that’s why they had gardens and that’s why they had farms on residential schools so they could grow their own food supplies but not all schools could do that. And a kid doesn’t have to die of starvation to be impacted by food policy like that, be so weakened by the act of starvation or the process of poor food that they will simply not be able to fight any kind of disease or any kind of illness that they encounter.
MR: “What does justice and accountability look like for those survivors and for those children who didn’t come home?”
MS: “First of all I think it’s awareness and acceptance on the part of the Canadian people that this in fact happened, is part of that process. There are many who say that we’ll never have justice until those who perpetrated the acts are brought to justice or prosecuted, imprisoned or something is done to them.”
MR: “Do you think that will happen?”
MS: “The problem we have with that is most of the people who committed these acts or misdeeds are passed on. And many of them will probably be in their 80s and 90s and while we can lock somebody up in their 80s and 90s, what impact is that really going to have upon their lives? They will die in public institutions but I think more importantly the real question is, are we really going to feel a sense of justice if we work hard to perpetrate some form of violence against the perpetrators when we now have an opportunity to come to terms with establishing a relationship of peaceful coexistence? If we can do that then I think we should really focus our minds on doing that.”
MR: “Is there anything else you wanted to say on this day?”
MS: “I get asked that a lot by interviewers and I’m always at a loss as to what to say but I want people to know that September 30 is a day that we’re going to stumble on initially to figure out what to do with it. We may not get it right initially the first few times but I think we will learn from our experience and I think that we should not give up on ensuring that our days of honouring those who involved in residential schools and our acknowledgement of the nature of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in this country has come to an end, must come to and end, and that we will recommit on September 30 to having a better relationship with each other. It’s like renewing our vow that we put into the treaties.