TRC draws to a close, but aboriginal issues remain unresolved

Bob McKeon

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

May 18, 2015

In a few weeks, in Ottawa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will come to a close. On June 1 the TRC will present its final report. There will be formal closing ceremonies at Rideau Hall on June 2.

These events will mark an important moment in the long, challenging story of the Indian residential schools, and of everyone associated with the schools.

The TRC was established as part of the largest court settlement in Canadian history. This was a settlement between indigenous organizations, the federal government and the Church organizations involved in the operations of the Indian residential schools.

Survivors of Indian residential schools spoke to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

WCR FILE PHOTO

Survivors of Indian residential schools spoke to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Catholic religious orders and dioceses have had a major stake in the court settlement and the TRC because Catholic entities administered the majority of the schools across Canada. When the TRC was launched in 2008, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed this event "as an opportunity for healing and hope."

In the succeeding years, the TRC has held public hearings all across the country. Seven large "national" TRC events were held, along with hundreds of smaller community events. In Alberta, many of us still remember the four-day TRC event held a year ago where nearly 30,000 people gathered at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton.

At these TRC events, many aboriginal people who were students at the schools spoke of their pain as young children being separated from family, community and culture and often experiencing physical and sexual abuse at the schools.

However, almost always, stories of pain and marginalization were accompanied by stories of healing and a deeply-rooted hope for the future.

Church leaders participated in "listening circles" and gave public statements of apology and reconciliation. Archbishop Richard Smith and other Alberta bishops participated in the Edmonton event.

On behalf of the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, Smith issued a public statement of apology "to those who experienced sexual and physical abuse in the Residential Schools under Catholic administration," and for "Catholic participation in government policies that resulted in children being separated from their families and often suppressed aboriginal culture and language at the residential schools."

The public work of the TRC will end in Ottawa in a few weeks. Hopefully, many of us can participate at a distance. Informative video clips about this closing TRC event are on the TRC website www.trc.ca. The closing presentations and ceremonies will be live streamed on this website on June 1 and 2.

This is a good time to reread the statements given by our Church leaders last year at the Alberta TRC event on the archdiocesan website www.caedm.ca. We can pray for healing and reconciliation with aboriginal peoples at our parish Sunday Masses on May 31.

However, ongoing "listening" conversations of healing and reconciliation need to go beyond the issues associated with the residential schools and be part of a larger, long-term movement of reconciliation and action for justice.

RACISM AND PREJUDICE

Archbishop Smith spoke of these wider conversations at the Alberta TRC last year. He spoke of challenging "attitudes of racism and prejudice that continue to exist in Alberta and Canada today."

He called for finding ways for "Catholics together with other concerned Canadians to support more effectively aboriginal peoples in their ongoing struggles to achieve justice and equity in Canadian society."

Specifically he referred to issues related to land, treaty rights, education, health care, housing, jobs and environmental threats.

These concerns are very much with us today. Take the important issue of aboriginal education. The recent Alberta provincial budget cuts $1.8 million from provincial grants to Alberta school boards for support services for aboriginal students.

The recent federal budget did little to reduce the large shortfall in funding for students attending federally funded schools in aboriginal communities as compared to students in neighbouring provincial schools.

THE ROAD FORWARD

The road forward to right and just relations with our aboriginal neighbours in Canada opens out past the limited time frame of the TRC. This journey is in its early stages and requires long-term commitments.

Justice Murray Sinclair, the TRC chairperson, put it well when he said it has taken seven generations to get to the present situation addressed at the TRC, and it may take seven generations to truly make things right. The time to get started is now.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)