Whose Truth?: The Canadian TRC

October 5, 2008

I recently attended a conference entitled: Breaking the Silence: International Conference on the Indian Residential School Commission of Canada. The two-day conference, held at the University of Montreal, raised several important questions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada will have many unique challenges in confronting these questions.

First, there is the question of language. The destruction of Aboriginal languages was one of the key outcomes of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system. Children were forced to speak English and were often the victims of abuse if they spoke their native tongues. They were alienated from their culture and stripped of their language. In what languages will the TRC be conducted? Will the TRC actively work to re-invigorate and re-establish these endangered languages?

The next question is one of timing. Why a Canadian TRC now? Grassroots movements have been collecting and archiving testimonials from IRS survivors for years. Many participants at the Breaking the Silence conference expressed distrust for a state-sponsored TRC. The last IRS closed in 1998. In the ten years that have passed, the legacies of the abuse and policies of assimilation are slowly beginning to become a part of mainstream awareness. With Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s public apology in June 2008, the IRS and the Canadian TRC were thrust into the spotlight. Prime Minister Harper’s apology came just months after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar statement. What is the national and international political and cultural climate that has allowed for the Canadian TRC to come into being?

There are a multitude of questions that surround the Canadian TRC. The above questions are simply the beginning. As the process continues, more questions will be brought to the forefront. These questions may include: How will issues of gender be given consideration? What concept of healing does the TRC espouse? How or will the testimonies of the children of survivors be incorporated in the discourse? How will the outcomes of the TRC affect the ongoing public debates and legal battles concerning Aboriginal land claims?

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