Has there been Reconciliation for Residential School Students?

On December 14, 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its Final Report.  There were 94 recommendations. The release of the Final Report was touted as historic and the beginning of a new chapter in relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.  The fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to implementing all the recommendations has also added weight to this report.

I wonder how residential school survivors felt with this report.  We saw some share their feelings on the day of its release, but did all survivors and families of survivors feel vindication or justice? Did the report have the desired effect?

 My mother went to the Alberni Indian Residential School.  She died in October of 2000.  Under the Residential Schools Agreement, any person claiming under the settlement had to be alive on May 30, 2005.  As a family we were not allowed to claim a settlement on her behalf.  The horrors she suffered under the hands of the people who ran the schools remain unaddressed.  The same holds true for many children who attended residential schools from 1876 to 1996 and did not live until this artificial deadline.

 My mother was a very private person.  What she shared with us was mainly the fact that they were always hungry.  They never got enough food.  And what food they got was unpalatable.  They got food like porridge without milk and sugar as their breakfast.  They had to sneak over the fence to pick apples to supplement their diet.  When she and others worked in the staff kitchen they saw how well staff ate. They saw lots of meat, vegetables, and fruits that they as students never ate.  They were physically disciplined with the use of belts and wooden rulers.  The school was just a ten minute walk from our reserve, and my mother was not allowed to go home and see their mother or be visited by her except for once a year.  How horrendous would that be, as young children not able to see your mother? What else happened to her I don’t know, as this was all she would share. 

She did not live to see the settlement, or hear the half-hearted apology from Steven Harper.  As one of her 5 children, we were not able to apply after suffering the multi-generational affects of the residential schools.  Not from her methods of disciple adopted from the residential schools or from suffering under the hands of leadership in our Nation that was dysfunctional and negative. 

 I have often wondered if the money paid out to residential school survivors really addressed the question of justice and reconciliation.  Many of the abusers were never charged.  Some of this has now been documented in the truth part of the report of the TRC.  The independent assessment process set up degrees of abuse and set a certain price for the kinds of abuse suffered.  Probably not what they would have received in a court of law but it meant not having to go to a court and get cross-examined.  But those that were abused to a huge degree may feel that their compensation was not enough, it was a compromise.

No one has really studied how the compensation under the IAP and Common Experience Payment was received and whether it truly helped survivors. I had a friend who was an adjudicator under the IAP and this was her greatest lament. Why hadn’t anyone evaluated this program to see if it was effective or did it do more harm than good? 

Would money have made me feel any better for my mother’s experience in residential school and how it affected her and our lives?  I don’t think so.  Would it have been enough for my mother?  We will never know. Will implementing the recommendations of the TRC help First Nations people feel justice is served? To some extent it will help but this is based on whether the recommendations are implemented in a good way and whether other considerations are taken into account that were not covered in the recommendations especially in relation to resolving aboriginal title to lands, resources and water. 

What I do know is that no one who went to residential school or suffered the multi-generations will ever forget the long lasting harmful effects of residential schools.  No one will ever forget that the residential schools settlement was a result of First Nations having to go to court and negotiating a settlement or that the apology given by Stephen Harper was forced and not voluntary.  That such an apology came years too late.  How much more significant this would have been if it had been an initiative of the government. 

 Every person must understand the residential schools and its consequences.  Residential Schools must be understood in the context of the colonization of First Nations people. They must understand that it was the attitude of the governments of the day that First Nations could not look after their own children and educate them.  That the residential schools were to be used to take the Indian out of the child by not allowing use of the language, taking the children out of their family, their culture, their language and way of life.  But more importantly, it took the children off the land, try to weaken their connection with the water, land and resources and caring for the land and exercising their rights.

 The final report of the TRC is significant in Canada. These recommendations must be implemented and not just sit on a shelf like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People. It is a wait and see the process and how quickly the Trudeau Government will be in the implementation.  The government of Canada must recognize that this is only a step forward and there is a long journey for reconciliation and repairing the relationships between Canada and the First Nations members, families and communities.  

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