EDMONTON – Reconciliation between aboriginal and non-indigenous people in Canada will take place "if we can just stop people from being so disrespectful to each other," said the chief commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Judge Murray Sinclair opened the national TRC event in Edmonton March 27 calling for the fostering of mutual respect among Canadians.
"What we need to do now is to teach our children and grandchildren and future generations how to be respectful towards each other," he said.
"It begins with this: Our leaders today must learn to speak to and about each other in a more respectful way."
The Edmonton TRC event was the seventh and final national event that gave former students of Indian residential schools an opportunity to tell of their experiences in the Church-run schools.
Sinclair was unambiguous in describing the schools as "centres of indoctrination with the intention being not only to take children away from their families, but also to take those children away from their cultures, to take them away from their languages and to indoctrinate them into a different culture and a different language in order that they would be assimilated and become like everybody else in this country."
It took 130 years for people to realize that that would never happen "because indigenous people are resilient people," he said to thunderous applause.
Many people talk about aboriginal people in disrespectful ways because they have been educated to be disrespectful, Sinclair said. "People are not naturally born to be racists. We teach them to be."
Change will occur, he said, if people not only begin to speak respectfully about indigenous people in public, but also in private – at the dinner table or in conversations with friends.
The mandate of the TRC will conclude a year from now and its offices will close, he said. "Then, the obligation for all of this work goes back to the people of this country, including you."
Former prime minister Joe Clark followed Sinclair to the rostrum and made a pitch for Canadians to become more aware of the abuses that took place in the residential schools.
"Canadians as a whole must recognize what deep damage was done in our names by governments, by our churches," Clark said.
Yet, the abuses of the residential schools "are only one part of the unfairness and disrespect with which the larger Canadian population has treated our indigenous citizens," he said.
Treaties were violated and aboriginal people suffer from higher incidences of disease, mortality and imprisonment than do other Canadians, he said.
As well as the historical abuses, "there is now a rising tide of disappointment among responsible indigenous leaders," Clark said. Significant hopes for improvements in the situation of aboriginal peoples were dashed by the failure to implement the Kelowna Accord, Charlottetown Accord and recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
He asked the audience to consider what consequences might occur if the hope engendered by the TRC also fails to bring positive changes. If Canada fails to go beyond apology and regret for the residential schools, "that would be to repeat the profound offences of the residential schools themselves."