Robyn Benson, PSAC

Truth and Reconciliation

Vancouver reconciliation.jpg

That was some crowd in Vancouver, 70,000 strong, on Canada’s first “reconciliation walk” this past Sunday. It was a grand gesture of solidarity between residential school survivors, their families, and their allies. In BC they take this sort of thing very seriously: the Union of BC Municipalities proclaimed 2013 as the Year of Reconciliation.

The crowds were addressed by Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King: “Struggle is a never-ending process and freedom is never really won, you earn it and you win it in every generation,” she said.

This was not a First Nations-only event by any means: “Thousands of people from all walks of life, from every colour and every culture, are all here as Canadians to share the First Nation people’s pain and healing,” said Navnit Singh, who survived the 1984 Sikh massacre in India.

The organizing group, which put on a whole week of activities, was Reconciliation Canada, a collaboration between the Indian Residential School Survivor’s Society (IRSSS) and Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI). Among other things, the week provided a forum for survivors to share their harrowing stories.

Reconciliation Canada is not to be confused with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which played a major role in the week’s program. The TRC has been around since 2008, part of the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement reached between residential school survivors, aboriginal organizations, churches and the Government of Canada. It got off to a rocky start, but began operations in earnest in June, 2009. With a budget of $60 million, and a five-year mandate for which the clock started ticking in 2009, the TRC has been working against time, while facing serious obstacles.

You can’t have reconciliation without truth and transparency. And the truth of life in the residential system is contained in the experiences of survivors, but also in literally millions of documents.

But the TRC encountered strong resistance from the Harper government when it tried to access those documents. It actually had to go to court last year to win that access, to what should have been theirs to see from the get-go. Only this past January, by order of the court, was the Commission finally allowed to review these important archives. But, meanwhile, time has been getting short, and the government has made no move to extend the Commission’s timeframe beyond next year. There are literally millions of documents to be examined: as things stand, it will likely prove physically impossible to go through all of them and report on deadline. Some paltry resources provided by the government to assist are too little, too late.

This sort of thing puts genuine reconciliation out of reach. Harper’s historic apology in 2008 was supposed to mark a turning-point in this regard. But ever since, it’s just been business as usual.

Not only did the government make the Commission’s work more difficult. It continued to play the old Great White Father role in Attawapiskat, until a court told them to stop it. Instead of recognizing that First Nations children are receiving less social support than off-reserve children in the rest of Canada, it’s been fighting a long court battle, costing millions of taxpayer dollars, to keep things just as they are. The children’s advocate, Cindy Blackstock, has been stalked by government officials, and the government, caught at it, has refused to stop the surveillance. Peaceful protesters have experienced the same thing:

At one point, a group of developers created an Idle No More app that allowed activists to share information and plan protests, flash mobs and round dances. Deputy Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Michael Wernick contacted his communications director to see if the office could surreptitiously piggyback on the app to get its own message across. “Is it in any way feasible to get our backgrounders into the flow of this app without the appearance of [government] ringers calling into an open-line show?” he asks in one document.

A promising move towards reconciliation? You decide.

More recently, the government has rejected calls by the UN Human Rights Council for a comprehensive national review of violence against Aboriginal women. But this wasn’t a matter of human-rights violators on the Council like Iran and Belarus blowing smoke, as opponents of the UNHRC always dismissively claim. That call for a review also came from countries like Switzerland, Norway, and New Zealand.

This pattern of government neglect, obstruction and suspicion is hardly consistent with the spirit of conciliation present in BC on the weekend. And yet the media seem resistant to putting these matters under a microscope. In Ontario, for example, news coverage of Aboriginal issues makes up half a percent of all news coverage—and is generally negative. The media could help to broker dialogue and reconciliation, but they have largely declined to do so, preferring instead to focus on crises and manufactured scandals.

The positive forces for change and for healing and reconciliation in Canada are, judging by that 4-kilometre-long procession of people in Vancouver, alive and growing. But we’re going to need a lot more truth, not to mention plain good faith, before there will be the final and lasting reconciliation our country so desperately needs. How many more walks will it take?

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on September 26, 2013 8:29 AM.

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