Truth and Reconciliation?

The truth part is easy. It’s the reconciliation that is going to be difficult.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrapped up its six-year inquiry this week. Modeled after a similar venture in post-Apartheid South Africa, the Commission was struck to hear the stories of the survivors of Canada’s residential schools for Aboriginal students, a system that would be described in the report as “cultural genocide.”

I won’t go into the depressing details. I am willing to believe the intent was well-meaning, but that makes little difference when you consider the impact on the students, their families and the aboriginal community. Truly the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

To me the big question remains: does anyone care? I know Canada’s Aboriginal people do. They wanted the opportunity to tell their stories, to detail the abuses they suffered at the hands of the European immigrants. But did the descendants of those immigrants listen while the stories were being told?

Given that the residential school system was run for the government by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, how do Christians deal with the situation, individually and corporately? How does forgiveness work in a post-Christian society? As a nation how do we accept blame? How do we repent of our sins? Is it possible (or desirable) to atone for the sins of our ancestors? Can we merely learn from the errors of the past and vow not to repeat them, or is more required of us? And if so, what?

Longstanding racial tensions and mistrust don’t vanish overnight. The United States may have an African-American president, but that doesn’t seem to have eased racial tensions there. It seems there are more news reports than ever of race-related violence in America. Slavery was abolished in the US more than 150 years ago, yet a lot of the tension remains.

I don’t expect an overnight change from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. The relationship between Canada’s Aboriginal population and those of us whose parents came here later has been an uneasy one as long as the country has existed. The blame for that falls on both sides.

As a non-aboriginal I have on many occasions questioned both government policy and aboriginal aspirations. Policy has been vague and confusing (and yes, at times paternalistic and racist). My perspective though is that Aboriginal leaders have not helped their cause; they have not articulated a clear vision for the future of their people. The perception I have is that some favour a return to the sixteenth century lifestyle, with 21st century plumbing, health care and education. Times have changed; I don’t see that model as a viable option, for reasons too numerous to detail here.

Maybe though the release of this report does signify a new beginning, the first steps to real reconciliation. It won’t be easy.

I did attend one of the TRC events this week though, one that shows that in at least one area Aboriginals and the rest of us can be drawn together. One of the last events in four days of events surrounding the release of the report was a free concert with Buffy Sainte-Marie. Several thousand people of all races turned out for the show. Buffy may be aboriginal, and sings from an Aboriginal worldview, but her music transcends culture. I had seen her in concert before; I knew I wanted to be there.

As she played there was a spirit of unity in the plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. The truth has been told. Reconciliation is possible. And at 74 the lady can still rock.

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2 comments

  1. CA Jenkins · · Reply

    Harbourfront Toronto July 1, 1984. Buffy was mesmerizing. Sorry I missed her as I was teaching at the time. I did go on Monday to TRC and learned a lot. There is still a long way to go….

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