IRS TRC and an Aboriginal principle of witnessing

May 8, 2010

On Wednesday, April 27, 2010, the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission (IRS TRC) spoke at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in New York. Justice Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson spoke about the work of the Commission, its progress so far, and some of the challenges that lie ahead.

I had the opportunity to ask a question regarding something I had wondered about for some time. In the first footnote of the IRS TRC mandate, there is a reference to “the Aboriginal principle of witnessing.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, and was glad to have the opportunity to ask the Commission during the Q and A after their talk. They explained that, having inherited the mandate from the previous Commission, they too had been unsure about the meaning behind this footnote. Justice Sinclair explained that although the meaning of the footnote is debatable, Aboriginal principles of witnessing often entail a component of responsibility for maintaining the integrity and longevity of an event. In traditional ceremonies, like namings for example, the witness is called upon to remember the event, maintaining its history into the future. This principle of witnessing is particularly important for cultures that use oral traditions. In the context of the IRS TRC, the Commissioners explained that the circle of awareness will grow larger through witnessing.

The Commission went on to discuss the first national gathering in Winnipeg (June 16-19, 2010) and announced that the following gathering will take place in June 2011 in Inuvik.

Above image: Justice Sinclair (in mid-speech), between Chief Wilton Littlechild (left) and Marie Wilson (right) at the International Center for Transitional Justice.

If people have thoughts on the Aboriginal principle of witnessing, I’d love to learn more about the concepts and experiences it involves.

UPDATE: This post has been re-published up on the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) website. See it here, or check out the ICTJ’s resources on processes of transitional justice around the world.

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