Church not helping reconciliation: Sinclair

By James Buchok

WINNIPEG — The road to reconciliation between Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people over the 150-year legacy of Indian residential schools will be a long one, says Justice Murray Sinclair, and the Catholic Church isn’t helping.

Sinclair is chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with a five-year mandate that was to end in July 2014 but extended to 2015 because “the Government of Canada and the Catholics have not provided documents.”

In 2010, the commission’s research director said the churches involved in residential schools were being unco-operative and suggested the Catholic Church in particular fears more abuse stories will emerge against living clergy.

Sinclair said the average age of school survivors is now 71. “It is important to complete our report so survivors will be around to see,” he said.

Sinclair was the guest for the 11th annual Sol Kanee Lecture on Peace and Justice Sept. 29 in Winnipeg. The lecture is hosted by the Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba.

From 1820 to the 1970s, the federal government removed Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them in church-run boarding schools in what became known as an effort “to kill the Indian in the child.” The children were not allowed to speak their language or practice their culture and many suffered abuse.

Seventy per cent of the 140 Indian residential schools were run by the Catholic Church with the remainder operated by the Anglican Church and United Church and its predecessors the Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist churches.

Sinclair explained how the TRC was created after a lawsuit was brought against the Canadian government and several churches by survivors who emerged from the schools in a damaged state. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2007 became the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history.

Sinclair said the agreement is flawed and the commission believes another 1,300 schools should have been included. “This excludes a lot of students and creates a significant challenge to reconciliation,” Sinclair said, adding that “day students” who did not live in the schools are also excluded, “even though they faced the same treatment.”

Sinclair said the commission has allowed any and all school survivors to present testimony at the hundreds of hearings held across Canada, from the national event in Winnipeg in June 2010 to the conclusion in Edmonton last March.

“For any society to function, its citizens must be taught the great questions of life,” Sinclair said. “Why am I here? How did I get here? Who am I? We all have a creation story and we need to know what it is. For children who were raised in residential schools the answers to those questions were denied to them. The first teacher is our mother and the first classroom is our home. Residential schools denied the children all of that and tried to squash their identities.”

Sinclair said the testimonies of horiffic abuse do not tell the whole story. “Most children were not physically or sexually abused. But all have been changed in some way, some without knowing it. Separation from parents, the atmosphere of loneliness and repression would damage any child.”

Sinclair said the problem and the solution is education. He said public schools have taught that North America started in 1492 with Columbus and text books have portrayed Aboriginals as spectators to history, as savage warriors, as an obstacle to white settlement, as victims or as a problem. “Great damage has been done because non-Aboriginals have been educated to not respect Aboriginal people. The system must teach children to speak respectfully about each other.”

Sinclair said non-Aboriginal people have attended the hearings “and they say, ‘I lived here and was taught here my whole life and I never knew any of this.’ Non-Aboriginals see the dysfunction but they have no idea how it was created. The education system has failed to do that but education can fix what it has broken.”

Sinclair said a “legacy of hope” has started with a number of provinces changing curricula to include residential schools. But, he added, “if this is taught only as an elective I expect that in five, 10 or 15 years I will still hear from people who say they had never heard of the residential schools.”

Sinclair has spoken to ministers of education asking for changes “to ensure that every child is taught about Indian residential schools and the treatment of Aboriginal people in this country. I ask each of you to help ensure that is done.”

He said the residential school system was not so much a school system as a child welfare system. “The government felt the children would receive the upbringing government wanted them to receive and that the government believed the parents could not provide. The schools were really about keeping children away from their families,” he said.

“Reconciliation cannot be achieved in five years,” Sinclair said. “We will establish what the parties need to do to get to reconciliation. The commission knows reconciliation is not going to occur in our lifetimes, but maybe we can start the conversation. The work we do today will immeasurably strengthen the fabric of this country.”

Sol Kanee (1909-2007) was a Winnipeg lawyer and former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and longtime chair of the World Jewish Congress Board of Governors.

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