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2016 Cooke FionaBy Fiona Cooke

My first entry on this blog has turned out to be a lot more personal than I thought it would be. I didn’t expect to feel as emotionally engaged in my work as I did at certain points these past few months, researching at Avocats sans frontières Québec. Because I’m “only” in Québec City, not some exotic, faraway country, I secretly feared my experience would be somewhat less authentic, or carry less meaning – that I wouldn’t feel it.

However, I was starkly reminded with my second research assignment that Québec City is not so far away from big questions of human rights. The office is situated on Rue Saint Joseph Est, right in the middle of a neighbourhood that is undergoing significant gentrification. In the midst of places like Zara and Crudessence (an extremely delicious but ridiculously expensive raw vegan joint) are community kitchens and homeless shelters. People sleep on the benches lining the street on a backdrop of over-lit high fashion shops and overpriced coffee shops, where young people park themselves all day with their Macbooks.

The second research mandate I was given was to write about “Canada’s experience with transitional justice” for an upcoming forum that ASFC will hold in August on Transitional Justice. Canada’s experience is not typical – the “transition” is not referring to a regime change or exiting a time of conflict. However, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, can be compared to similar settlements in approximately 40 other countries in the world.[1] Canada’s Commission was tasked with collecting the stories, experiences and truths of Aboriginal people all over the country who suffered through the Indian Residential System or its intergenerational effects.

The TRC is based on the principle that true reconciliation cannot come about in the absence of truth. In most transitional justice contexts, this means the right to know “the truth about the abuses they have suffered, including the identity of the perpetrators [and] the causes that gave rise to violations.”[2] In Canada, “truth” has meant more “truth-telling” by the survivors themselves – creating a record that collects their individual experiences so that the magnitude and severity of the violations can be accurately communicated. The TRC’s aim was to communicate to the Canadian public in general the truth of what happened to Aboriginal people in residential schools, and to promote an understanding of the intergenerational effects of this system. The idea is that this will be the first step in healing the relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Canada, along with an apology from the government individual payments as part of the Indian Residential School Survivor Settlement.

The Importance of Truth-Telling

Completing this mandate affected me in three very personal ways that I was not expecting. During the exact same two weeks during which I was working on this project, my own life felt like a microcosmic reflection of what I was reading about. Out of the blue, I received an apology for something that happened to me almost two decades ago, from the person who should have prevented it. It was a very sincere, genuine apology, that I believe came from a true place of regret in this person. However, despite this, I still didn’t feel like I could truly forgive or reconcile with him. While continuing my research at work, I realized why. One of the reasons was – he didn’t know the half of what I had gone through. How could he truly apologize when he doesn’t really know exactly what he’s apologizing for? I felt like, in some very small way, I understood the impulse that drove hundreds or thousands of Aboriginal people to tell their stories at the TRC events. The need to feel like suffering has been vindicated, recognized, completely acknowledged – it feels like an essential component of feeling like justice has been done. And I’m just not sure that the TRC had the exposure it needed – every single Canadian needs to read at least the Summary of the Final Report before society can truly transform in a way that will be conducive to righting the wrongs that have been perpetrated for so long.

Apologies

Another reason for my skepticism about prospects for reconciliation: a true apology is not just words – it is actions, it is changed behaviour in the long term. A true apology can span decades. The apology that I received was followed almost immediately by an excuse, and indications that by-stander behaviour wasn’t over. The apology that the Aboriginals of Canada received not only didn’t address the greater narrative of colonial assimilation, but was also simultaneous to the ongoing destruction of their traditional lands, ongoing funding discrimination, ongoing institutional racism – Matt James refers to it as a “politics of distraction” from the question of restitution of stolen lands.[3] One participant said, “I won’t forgive the government. There’s no way in hell. I’m going to court to protect the land. […] That’s why it’s a lot of bullshit with the government and the apology.”[4] This is why guarantees of non-repetition are fundamentally important in transitional justice contexts – societies cannot let go of their anger if the wrongful behaviour is ongoing, or likely to occur again. I felt/understood the truth of this principle in both theoretical and very personal ways throughout my research on the Canadian TRC.

First Steps

Finally – doing all this research, but especially reading the summary of the final report of the TRC, which is full of survivors’ stories and the history of the indian residential system, had a fundamental impact on my understanding of the current situation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. I wouldn’t have considered myself ignorant before – I knew that the Indian Residential School existed (despite not having been taught about it at school), and I knew that Aboriginal communities had lower health outcomes than non-Aboriginals. I knew that poverty and discrimination abounded. One of my best friends is native, and I had heard of the struggles of her community. However, I don’t think I truly understood the connection between the history of Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people and the current problems. Reading peoples’ personal stories helped me understand that everything feeds off each other. I experienced a fundamental, if almost imperceptible shift in my reactions to hearing about Aboriginal communities’ difficulties. Before, my reaction would have been one of sympathy and frustration about the current state of things. Now when I think about it, to those reactions is added a recognition of my implication in it – of my duty to try to understand the cause and effects, and to understand and respect the anger and resentment. These are legitimate feelings, on a societal and personal level, that cannot be done away with by a simple apology.

Take the TRC reading challenge –

http://trcreadingchallenge.com/


[1] Rosemary Nagy, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Genesis and Design” (2014) 29:2 Canadian Journal of Law and Society 199 at 200.

[2] International Center for Transitional Justice, “Truth Seeking: Elements of Creating an Effective Truth Commission” (2013) at 3. Online at : https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Book-Truth-Seeking-2013-English.pdf.

[3] Matt James, “A Carnival of Truth? Knowledge, Ignorance and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (2012) 6 The Int’l Journal of Transitional Justice 182 at 189.

[4] Anne-Marie Reynaud, “Dealing with Difficult Emotions: Anger at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” (2014) 56:2 Anthropologica 369 at 375.

Revistionist History: St Paul des Métis

2013 AlexandraOlshefsky 100x150By Alexandra Olshefsky

My work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has thus far focused on archival research. One of the major themes that come out in this work is that of revisionist history: how stories are told and interpreted, and by whom. Forced assimilation was viewed as salvation for ‘les sauvages,’ one which settler communities felt should have been met with gratitude. This narrative has managed to survive over the past 150 years, with today’s racism being passed off as a political critique or social commentary.

When I tell people that I am working with the TRC, the most frequent response I encounter is along the lines of, “oh yes, it’s so tragic what happened, but they’ve been given so many opportunities since then.” This concept that indigenous communities should somehow be grateful for the ‘benevolence’ of settler peoples is still omnipresence in our national thinking. In the case of residential schools, it’s interesting to see how early attitudes surrounding the role of the institutions so clearly support our current rhetoric around indigenous issues.

I was recently asked to summarize a French text which outlined the history of St Paul des Métis colony in central Alberta by Historian and Oblate Eméric O. Drouin.

In 1895, Father Albert Lacombe was approached by the federal government to establish an agricultural colony for Métis in what is now east-central Alberta. The community would assure a Roman Catholic presence in a region that saw an increasing number of protestant settlers. Métis families were granted plots whose titles were retained by the government. At 69 years old, Lacombe assigned father Adéodat Thérien the task of organizing the colony. Yet with little training in farming, the community quickly shifted its focus to providing religious instruction to Métis children. In 1902, limited financial resources went towards the construction of a large residential school.1 One year later, a fire started by Métis students lead to its destruction, giving rise to the eventual termination of the colony in 1908.

The historian’s account of the fire required translation, not solely from a linguistic perspective.

The short account of the story is this: 16 year old Ducharme from lac Biche lead 14 students, all boys between the ages of 7 and 16, to burn down the school. Though successful in their plan, the fire’s sole casualty would be Ducharme’s sister, Marie.

In total, 4 were deemed too young to be prosecuted, and 10 were arrested. Of the 10, 4 more were acquitted by a Justice of the Peace in lac la Selle. The 6 others were brought to Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta to attend their trial. Justice McLeod acquitted the children. He relied heavily on the arguments of the defense, reasoning that the children had been provoked by poor treatment, furthering that no reform school for children existed west of Winnipeg.

You could characterize the story as one of struggle, as one of fight, determination and/or desperation by the Métis children against their abusers. This was the position of the defense. Or, you could adopt Drouin’s position, who argued that the accusations were “donc qu’excuses employees par les incendiaries pour attirer la sympathie, et pourtant, on les entretenait gratuiement à l’école depuis des années!”2 The historian furthers that an anonymous group pressured the judge to dismiss the case and that the verdict shocked the community. He quotes Thérien as stating: “Les enfants sont arrivés de la prison — le verdict du juge a supris tous le monde, même les parents. Évidemment ce judge McLeod est un butor.”3 Drouin contended that Cross was counseled by Lacombe not to pursue further action against the youth. He prayed that the case be dropped, as he had seen too many Métis sent to prison. In one final rhetoric flourish, he concludes the incident as follows: “Des simples enfants ont allumé la mèche qui a mis le feu au baril de poudre et fait sauter l’oeuvre qui devait être leur sault.”4

Drouin ostensibly asserts that these ungrateful children sabotaged their own salvation. And that narrative still so strongly inserts itself into our conversations around indigenous issues in Canada today.

***

For his part, Lacombe lamented the fire, which would ultimately bring about the devolution of the colony:

Nobody to-day can understand my trouble, my grief, my disappointment – I have only God for witness of my devoted desire to save this population. I will go down into the grave with this sorrow in my heart repeating ‘Bonum est quai humiliasti me.’ My poor Metis! […] I can only weep in secret.

Historian Heather Devine notes that there was “some debate over whether the colony was a “planned” failure or not. Some evidence suggests that the first priest and manager of the colony, Father Therien, was not only skeptical from the outset about the prospects for success, but was actually more committed to creating a community of French-Canadians in the St. Paul area.” After the fire, Therien “encouraged young Métis to take up homesteads outside of the colony, while quietly encouraging French-Canadian settlers to move in.” In 1908, managers of the colony informed the government that they wanted to terminate the land lease. In 1909, the lease, and subsequent colony was terminated, and “approximately two hundred and fifty French-Canadian claims were registered on the former Métis leases.”5

1 Heather Devine, The People Who Own Themselves: Aboriginal Ethnogenisis in a Canadian family, 1660-1900 (Calgary: University of Press, 2012) at 183-4.
2 Émeric O. Drouin, Joyau dans la plaine (Edmonton: Collège Saint-Jean, 1968) at 436.
3 Ibid at 241.
4 Ibid at 242.
5 Supra note 1.

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