Unsettling 'truths' of survivors need to be heard


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April 14, 2014

The first concern that one might have about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that only one side of the "truth" was heard at its national events. While one heard numerous testimonies from survivors of Indian residential schools, no one spoke for those, mostly Church people, who worked in the schools. Even less was there any voice for the federal government which held ultimate authority for the schools.

In short, the truth being told to the TRC was one-sided. On that basis, one might question the likelihood of reconciliation emerging from such a process. Reconciliation is a dance in which it takes two to tango.

In response to that concern, one must say that Canada's aboriginal peoples have been hearing only one side of the truth ever since settlers began setting up schools for their supposed benefit. They have been given the one-sided truths about Columbus "discovering" America and about the Canadian government buying the Great Northwest from the Hudson's Bay Co. in 1869 with no thought given to those who lived here. And on and on.

One can complain about the pendulum having swung from one partial truth to another. It would, however, be going much too far to say that the descendants of the settlers are now an oppressed culture. We are still colonizers, squatters on land, one could argue, whose ownership has not been turned over to us. The colonizers are still the dominant culture.

Thus, it behooves us to listen to the stories of the colonized, the anawim whom we have presumptuously sought to assimilate into the dominant culture while doing precious little to understand their assumptions, values and way of life.

The apologies our churches and government have issued have not resolved anything. They are the beginning of a process, not its conclusion. It is a process in which we need most of all to listen so that when we do act, we are not once again going off half-cocked with our fix-everything mentality. We need to listen, and we need to understand how we are still settlers and colonizers.

We also need to urge the federal government to come to grips with the situation of aboriginal people in Canada. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Kelowna Accord both spelled out constructive ways forward. The recommendations of the first and the promises of the latter have been ignored. That can only be described as deeply shameful, omissions that reduce the 2008 government apology to meaningless blather.

A hopeful sign is that many descendants of settlers, such as those who attended the TRC events, are seeking to listen and to learn.

The truth is that aboriginal people and their leaders are seeking reconciliation. The truths told at the TRC hearings are part of that search. The settlers need to hold up our end of the bargain. So far, we and our government are not.