About This Chapter
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is one of several tools in the process of transitional justice. In this chapter, we will consider what role a truth and reconciliation commission can play in helping a nation, individuals, and groups heal from past trauma.
- What does a nation need in order to overcome a history of conflict and injustice?
- What role can a truth and reconciliation commission play in helping a nation, individuals, and groups heal from past trauma?
- How can such commissions help victims reconcile with the people and institutions that harmed them? Can these commissions help to strengthen the foundation of a democracy?
This chapter is from the Truth and Reconciliation section of Stolen Lives and includes:
- 6 readings
- Connection questions
The residential school issue is not about making others feel bad or guilty. This issue is about truth and understanding. Truth and understanding are two key ingredients that will lead to healing and reconciliation . –Garnet Angeconeb, elder, residential school survivor, journalist
The 2007 agreement discussed in the previous chapter included setting up a truth and reconciliation commission . What is a truth and reconciliation commission? What are its goals? Where does it fit into the bigger picture of helping a nation move from a state of conflict and injustice to one where the groups involved live more or less peacefully?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is part of a complicated series of reconciliation efforts. It is one of several tools in a process experts call transitional justice. 1 Transitional justice is a multifaceted process designed to help victims overcome historical injustice and trauma and reconcile with those who harmed them. Experts say that for transitional justice to work well, it has to include a version of these elements: truth discovery (what really happened?), justice (i.e., punishment for perpetrators, reparations for victims), and reconciliation. In Canada, as explored in the last chapter, the process also included apologies, which are a critical part of reconciliation: the perpetrators—in this case, the churches and the government—show remorse, and the victims can then forgive and begin to heal the relationship with them. 2
In addressing the question of justice, the Indian Residential Schools Agreement allotted monetary compensation to former students—referred to as survivors —of the residential schools. It set aside some $2 billion for about 86,000 surviving students (out of roughly 150,000 students altogether) who attended residential schools. 3 Each qualified person was to receive $10,000 for attending such a school, plus $3,000 for each year at the school (called the Common Experience Payment ). 4 In a separate process, called the Independent Assessment Process , each survivor’s testimony received a “score” from an adjudicating judge based on the abuse the survivor had endured, and the survivor would receive additional compensation. In addition, the agreement set aside $60 million for the truth and reconciliation process—the focus of this chapter.
The establishment and operation of truth and reconciliation commissions has become a commonplace practice since the 1970s. Most of the commissions that have been formed focus on crimes carried out by a government against its own citizens. Since the 1970s, there have been at least 40 such commissions, and some are still active today. They are often not a judicial tool or legal court but rather a way for perpetrators and victims to publicly acknowledge episodes of violence between them (systematic violation of human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide , for example). The primary goal of a truth and reconciliation commission is to help victims express their pain, find out exactly how the crimes committed against them or their loved ones were carried out, and receive the public’s recognition for past crimes. In some cases, victims are able to meet perpetrators face to face. The commission usually serves as a meeting place for former enemies to bridge the differences between them and find ways to move forward. 5 For the most part, these commissions are designed to bring about healing, a process that offers victims solace and reassurance that their trauma will not be repeated or forgotten.
The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission is unique in that it did not include any transformation in government (as was the case in South Africa). It is also unique in that it was funded by residential school survivors and included many traditional elements of indigenous cultures. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on victims and their experience; with a few exceptions, perpetrators did not take part in the efforts to uncover the truth about crimes committed in secrecy. The proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission consisted of numerous local and seven national events, in which people affected by the residential schools shared their experience in writing, in private testimonies, or in public. These events were open to everyone, since the goal was to educate the public about this painful history; some of the proceedings were streamed online or televised nationally. In 2014, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission finished collecting these testimonies, and its final report was published in 2015. The testimonies and all collected documents and artifacts are archived at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, housed at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and are available to the public for educational and research purposes.
- reconciliationreconciliation: A popular term among activists and scholars in the field of indigenous history and issues, reconciliation refers to the act of repairing a fractured or damaged relationship between two parties. In Canada, it refers to the reconciling between the Indigenous Peoples and the descendants of Canada’s European settlers through truth-seeking, education, and efforts to restore indigenous autonomy and culture.
- truth and reconciliation commission truth and reconciliation commission: Truth and reconciliation commissions have become commonplace since the 1970s. They reflect a global trend of paying greater attention to mass violations of human rights. Most of a commission’s work is focused on crimes carried out by a government against its own citizens. Since the 1970s, there have been at least 40 truth and reconciliation commissions established worldwide, and some are still active today. Truth commissions involve a multifaceted process designed to help victims overcome historical injustice and trauma and reconcile with those who harmed them. Part of what experts call transitional justice, a truth and reconciliation commis- sions typically includes the elements of truth-seeking, justice, and reconciliation. Established under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Canada’s commission began collecting survivor testimonies and related historical information in 2010. In an effort to make this information public, the commission’s archive was opened in 2014. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, on June 3, 2015.
- 1For more on the South African process and truth and reconciliation commission, see Facing History and Ourselves, South Africa—The Struggle for Freedom, forthcoming, 2015.
- 2See “What Is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada website, accessed December 3, 2014.
- Indian Residential Schools Agreement Indian Residential Schools Agreement: Signed by the government and representatives of the Indigenous peoples in 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement began a process of reconciliation with former students of residential schools. It stipulated a government apology, a reparations program, and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reparations to former students came in the form of monetary compensation; $2 billion was set aside for about 86,000 surviving students (out of roughly 150,000 students altogether).
- survivorssurvivors: The term survivors was first used to refer to individuals who lived through the Holocaust and other genocides; many believe residential school students share similar symptoms with other survivors, including emotional detachment, guilt, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. First used in the 1990s in the discussion of the experiences of indigenous students in the residential schools system, the term also refers to former students of these schools, individuals who suffered neglect and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their supposed teachers and instructors.
- 3 “Reconciliation…towards a new relationship,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada website.
- Common Experience PaymentCommon Experience Payment: The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement set aside some $2 billion in monetary compensation for about 86,000 surviving students (out of roughly 150,000 students altogether). These funds were distributed through the Common Experience Payment, which provided each qualified person $10,000 for attending such a school, plus $3,000 for each year at the school.
- 4For details about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate, known as Schedule “N” of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, see “Our Mandate,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada website, “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” United Nations Conference Paper, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada website, accessed Dec. 3, 2014.
- Independent Assessment ProcessIndependent Assessment Process: The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement allotted monetary compensation to former students of the residential schools and set aside some $2 billion for about 86,000 surviving students (out of roughly 150,000 students altogether). A portion of these funds went toward the Independent Assessment Process, a separate process through which survivors who suffered abuse received additional compensation.
- genocide genocide: In 1944, Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to describe the intentional and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group. Genocide stems from the Greek word genos, which means “race,” and cide, which means “to destroy.” It was legally defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (the Genocide Convention). When the Canadian government selectively ratified the Genocide Convention in 1952, it excluded crucial elements of the convention. Many indigenous leaders, activists, and politicians have publicly called on the Canadian government to recognize the Indian Residential Schools system as genocide.
- 5See G. G. J. Knoops, “Truth and Reconciliation Commission Models and International Tribunals: A Comparison,” paper presented at symposium on “The Right to Self-Determination in International Law,” September 29 – October 1, 2006, The Hague, Netherlands.
- indigenousindigenous: A generic term for communities of people who resided on territories before they were invaded and/or colonized (primarily by Europeans). Many descendants of these communities have a historical and cultural continuity with their pre-colonial ancestors. For some, the term indigenous is preferable to Aboriginal in reference to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit in Canada.
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