OTTAWA (CCN) — The legal phase of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Indian residential schools is now over, but a new reconciliation phase has begun, say Catholics involved in the process.
On Dec. 15, the TRC released its voluminous seven-volume final report that provides more detail and context for the 94 Calls to Action it had unveiled last June along with the lengthy executive summary of the final report. The report groups the Calls to Action into five categories, such as: child welfare; education; language and culture; health; and justice.
“Reconciliation will require more than pious words about the shortcomings of those who preceded us,” the report says. “It obliges us to both recognize the ways in which the legacy of residential schools continues to disfigure Canadian life and to abandon policies and approaches that currently serve to extend that hurtful legacy.”
It describes the present child welfare system — which today places more indigenous children in foster care than had attended residential schools in any single year — as the “residential school system of our day.”
It blasts the present educational system, describing schools on reserves as a “national disgrace.”
The TRC report exposes disparate health outcomes for Aboriginal people that “would simply not be tolerated by other Canadians.”
It blames cultural genocide exemplified by policies within the residential schools that punished children for using their own tongues for the loss of many Aboriginal languages. The 90 that remain are under threat, it says.
The report also blames more than 3,000 recorded deaths of Aboriginal children through infectious diseases and suicide on “coldness” and “indifference” and says the real figures are probably higher due to bad record keeping. The report argues these deaths were preventable.
The TRC report indicts the justice system, saying residential school survivors were often “re-victimized” when they sought redress for physical and sexual abuse and only a fraction of abusers faced criminal charges. Only 50 people were convicted, the report says. Today, Aboriginal Canadians face higher arrest, conviction and incarceration rates and are more likely to experience violence than non-Aboriginals, it says.
It urges a reformed justice system “based on Aboriginal law and healing practices and under Aboriginal control.”
The TRC will now close down, and transfer its archives to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s a successful commission in that the Canadian public has been made aware of the life and the legacy of the Indian residential schools,” said Montreal-based lawyer Pierre Baribeau who has represented Catholic dioceses and religious orders involved in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA).
“I think reconciliation is very much a grassroots effort,” said Grouard-McLennan Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, president of the 50 Catholic Entities, the legal body formed to respond to the litigation that led to the IRSSA. “It isn’t by making laws you are going to overcome racism.”
“Look at what’s continuing to happen in the United States with black Americans,” the archbishop said. “You still have white cops killing black kids. A lot has to happen at the grassroots and for people to come to a conversion in their own hearts about the issues. That takes time. We’re going to be at this reconciliation project for a long time.”
“The TRC believes that, too,” Pettipas said. “They knew from the beginning they weren’t going to bring about reconciliation.”
The final document is “huge,” he said, but the broad strokes were already outlined even in the interim report of a couple of years ago, and in last June’s release of the executive summary.
“One of the things that struck me and impressed me about the report, is how thorough it is,” Pettipas said. “There is not a stone unturned on the history of the schools; the history before the schools; the way the schools came to a slow and gradual halt; and what has proceeded after the schools in terms of education. It’s comprehensive.”
Among some of the Calls to Action concerning the various churches involved in the IRSSA is a call for the repudiation of the “doctrine of discovery” that gave European colonizers the right to claim discovered lands as their own, Pettipas said.
The TRC also calls for the churches to affirm native spirituality and customs because from the time of contact through the residential school system, “there was a sense their own spirituality and customs were denigrated,” he said.
One area that is going to require more dialogue, the archbishop said, concerns the Christian “missionary mandate” that is found at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, to “go out and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
In recent years, with the Catholic Church’s emphasis on new evangelization, we are called on “to evangelize anew, to bring the Gospel and share it with others,” he said.
“I’ve never believed in forcing people to accept Jesus Christ, and I don’t know if there are examples in history, of people out of some misguided principles forcing people to be baptized,” he said. “You cannot force people to have faith; it’s a question of individual conscience and choice. It’s what we would call a gift of faith.”
“There is no way as a church we are going to deny our commission from Jesus Christ to evangelize,” he said. “But the way that is best exercised is through freedom and not through any kind of coercion.”
“This is where a call to action around those kinds of issues, I think would have to happen in dialogue. I would want to sit down and have a conversation maybe with a few church leaders and a few native leaders and talk about that and get an accurate sense of what that means,” he said.
While the vast majority of Christian leaders and ministers recognize and accept the validity of other peoples’ beliefs, “their having a faith is not going to stop me from being who I am,” the archbishop said.
“If someone is seeking faith or asks me about Jesus Christ and the Christian church I’ll be honest and forthright in presenting that,” he said. “That doesn’t prevent me from honouring their person and their culture.”
What the TRC has helped everyone understand is how the residential schools and the policies that gave rise to them created great suffering for Aboriginal people, he said. “We realize more of this now; we realize what has gone wrong. There has been a lot of headway gained in this whole process. One of things I always look for in this is balance.”
Baribeau said it “appears a very large portion of the Canadian public has reacted already and is trying to take roads to live through the concept of reconciliation.”
Baribeau, who has spent 22 years involved in aspects of the IRSSA process that led to the TRC, said he thinks the “legal period” of the IRSSA is over and now it is time for the “social and economic aspects of this matter” to be addressed.
“They have to be addressed,” he said. “From what we gather from the new prime minister, he declared his intent to follow up on those Calls to Action.”
Pettipas noted Justin Trudeau made campaign promises to adopt all the Calls to Action that “might be a bit naïve” especially since many of them, such as getting the pope to come and apologize in Canada within a year, are not something the new prime minister can deliver. “Many have to be worked out by discussion; they can’t be done unilaterally.”
But, that said, the archbishop said Trudeau “seems to be starting off on the right foot. There’s a certain confidence people have.”
“I sense he is sincerely trying,” and while delivering on his promises might result in “different timelines and not be as inclusive as we like,” he is “taking the Calls to Action seriously.”
Baribeau admitted any report, especially “such a voluminous document,” will “receive its fair share of criticism,” but it’s being received in a “compassionate atmosphere” and reconciliation processes “have already taken their own speed.”
“We really hope it will be a major contribution to Canadian history,” he said. “The dioceses and religious groups have to re-think the ways things have been dealt with and ask ‘How can we now, in the 21st century, get closer to the people who have been suffering, including on a cultural basis.”
Even the dioceses that did not have Indian residential schools now have sizeable numbers of indigenous peoples living in them. Many First Nations, Métis and Inuit now live in large cities, not on reserves, Baribeau said. “There has to be a new dynamic to create expectancy of a second start with First Nations.”
The 50 Catholic entities will soon dissolve as a legal entity once it satisfies the last of its financial obligations. Pettipas said the entities are about to pay the last $1.2 million of the $29 million they owed under the IRSSA.
The IRSSA required the Catholic entities to pay $79 million altogether: $29 million in cash contributions; $25 million of “in kind services” toward reconciliation and healing by the members over a 10-year period; and to make up the balance through a best-effort fundraising campaign, the archbishop said.
That fundraising effort fell short of what they had hoped to raise, even though they hired a reputable firm to undertake it, he said. He estimates it brought in between $4-5 million.