As a large part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) spent six years documenting the suffering caused by the residential school experience. The TRC published its final report in 2015, but consideration of the ongoing legacy of reconciliation continued with the McGill organized conference on March 9.
Panellists discussed the TRC and the potential for future resolutions with keynote speaker Phil Fontaine.
Fontaine is a member of the Order of Canada, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and a residential school survivor. For Fontaine, reconciliation needs to be considered beyond its basic definition.
“The word reconciliation is thrown around, in my opinion, a bit too easily,” Fontaine said. “For both the victim and the perpetrator, reconciliation must generate a positive feeling of satisfaction that the burden of experiencing the wrong has been recognized.”
Fontaine was one of the indigenous leaders present during prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 official apology for the government’s role in the residential school system.
“In my view, Canada, at that moment, came of age,” Fontaine said. “It was up to each survivor to say Yes I accept that the apology given that day was sincere, and with those words I’ll be able to move on with my life, to a point which I can actually feel that I’ve healed from this experience.”
While Fontaine was optimistic about the future, he recognized that poverty is a debilitating challenge for many indigenous people.
“The biggest challenge facing Canada is First Nations poverty,” Fontaine said. “It’s a stain on Canada’s reputation internationally. [It’s] poverty that paralyzes communities and families and individuals. It is all over this beautiful, wonderful country.”
Hopes for the future
Douglas White, the director of the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation at Vancouver Island, spoke of his beliefs about securing a better future for indigenous people.
“Knowledge of the way my mother was treated in that school […] creates unbelievable, insurmountable personal obstacles for me to even contemplate the idea of reconciliation,” White said. “[But] is it justice that we need, or is it reconciliation that we want to build for future generations?”
In closing the conference, White expanded upon how reconciliation can benefit Canada as a whole.
“I think about what I want for my children and grandchildren,” White said. “What I want for them is to be loved and love other people in this country. Not to tolerate them, not to go to our respective corners and stop hurting each other, but to be wrapped up and engaged in each other’s lives.”
Communities moving forward
McGill Law Professor Payam Akhavan, who chaired the conference and was previously a United Nations Human Rights official, described the necessity of fully addressing indigenous issues.
“I never imagined that we would have right here in Canada, in our own midst, such deep wounds that need healing,” Akhavan said. “If we want to exercise leadership at the United Nations on human rights issues around the world, first we have to clean up our own backyard.”
Akhavan explained that reconciliation is a grassroots issue that affects all Canadians, and commended McGill’s involvement.
“I think that this issue is very much alive in the minds of the McGill community, right here in the Law Faculty,” Akhavan said. “I think we overestimate the power of political leaders and underestimate the power of ordinary people to bring about change.”