In the following selection of presentations for the 2011 Symposium on Reconciliation, Justice Murray Sinclair’s lecture spoke about the meaning of reconciliation in Canada and his work as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Reconciliation, Justice Sinclair notes, is a non-Aboriginal problem as much as to Aboriginal one because it is something that not only happened to Aboriginal people but it is also something that “Canada did to itself”. It is important to remember that as Aboriginal children were taught in the residential schools that their culture and their languages were inferior, hedonistic and worshiped the devil, the same picture were being taught to non-Aboriginal children in the Canadian public school system. This has unfairly contributed to non-Aboriginal children having been raised to believe in the superiority of their own cultures and languages.
The residential schools legacy has left an inheritance that continues to affect Aboriginal families, communities and the institutions. There are high suicide rates, issues with gang, drugs and alcohol abuse, leadership and expenditure issues as well as control issues with Indian Affairs, and not only greater number of Aboriginal children in child welfare but also over representation of Aboriginal peoples in penitentiaries as well as more young Aboriginal women that are having children than equivalent non-Aboriginal young women. While much awareness has been raised in the business and academic communities regarding Aboriginal title and rights, more work and questions need to be asked to understand the historical nature of that legacy as well as the exact nature of the relationships we want.
It is through the history that we can trace the change in the nature of that relationship. While there was violence and oppression in the earliest contacts between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal, for the most part these contacts have been co-dependent and based on mutual respect as well as co-existence. It was mostly after Confederation in 1867 that the nature of the relationship would be very much altered. In Treaties #1 and #2 Justice Sinclair notes that we begin to see a “schools clause” which had been insisted by the Aboriginal peoples to ensure that Aboriginal children would be receiving the same education as non-Aboriginal children. What we find in the Treaties is that it was strictly the responsibility of the Government of Canada to not only establish the schools for Aboriginal peoples but that these would also be on reserve. Justice Sinclair argues that it was in 1874 with the first “Indian legislation” and its expansion into Western Canada that we see a change in the nature of that relationship. Schools would no longer be established on reserve but moved toward the “boarding schools” American model, thus taking children from their homes and educating them in a very “comprehensive” way collectively. The reasoning is believed that Aboriginal peoples needed to be changed and taught how to become citizens. In order to ensure this, Aboriginal children needed to be taken off reserve and not permitted to return in the care of their families for prolonged period.
The class action suit brought out the many abuses and serious losses that occurred at the residential schools when Aboriginal children were removed for the purposes of ensuring that their cultures and languages would be not only taken away but replaced with another language and religion. The Prime Minister’s Official apology, contends Justice Sinclair, as “evidence” of the wrongness of the schools. We must remember that the residential schools did not just affect one or two but seven to eight generations of Aboriginal families and communities. The question of the harm inflicted not only upon their culture and language but through the intergenerational legacies is indeed considerable and significant.
Justice Sinclair concludes however by speaking about the many different aspects of what reconciliation means and its different processes once we consider the different contexts in which it can be legitimately sought. We must ask ourselves, he insists, “what is the nature of the relationship that you want to have with the other party in the reconciliation discussion”? We have to be clear about what we want and need. We must recognize that this question applies not only to government but to ourselves as individual. The question may vary depending on what is important to you. If a relationship with the churches is important to you or not, then reconciliation with the Churches involved in the management of the residential schools may be important to you or not. The question may further vary for survivors and reconciliation with their children. We need to ask ourselves what is the nature of the relationship that we want. Justice Sinclair insists that reconciliation with our children is perhaps the most important one that we can work on today. This new generation must be educated about this darker Canadian history and form part of the collective national memory of what occurred.