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Reconciliation in Canada

  • November 01, 2017
  • Chief Wilton Littlechild, Q.C.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada was established as a result of the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian legal history when former Indian Residential School student "survivors" said "that's enough, we're suing". Thousands of cases against the Government and Churches that ran the schools were eventually settled out of court on four conditions: one of which was a very unique truth commission. Unique because it was established by the courts; the fi rst to look at children and what happens when you remove them from their parents through a legislated assimilation policy. It was also funded by the survivors themselves. As one of the three Commissioners who were tasked to fi nd out the truth of what happened at these schools, how was the experience?

It was very emotionally diffi cult to listen to thousands of children, now adults, describe their lived experiences. Sometimes through anger, many times through tears. Yet there were days of laughter as they shared the fun times with friends met at these schools that also became extended families. One of my early goals was to seek a balance from the stories. I knew the abuse was there. Having spent thirteen years in three diff erent Residential Schools myself; what I did not know was the serious depth of abuse of children across our country. We heard the most horrifi c stories of abuse: physical, mental, cultural, spiritual and worst of all, the sexual abuse. Many times, I was hearing my own story being told in front of me. Those were the times I leaned heavily on my fellow Commissioners: Justice Murray Sinclair and Dr. Marie Wilson. Our debriefs after each day of hearings helped me get through the day along with the health and cultural/spiritual support workers that accompanied us on this journey.

It was very important for me to search for the good experiences, to hear about the good people with the best of intentions that worked at the schools. There were many. Survivors acknowledged them for their contributions; it must be stated, in the words of some, "it was not all bad!". So, what were the bright lights throughout our search for the truth, to determine "not only what of value was lost?" but also "what was gained as a positive experience?" Some stated "I received an education, I learned a new language, I made lifetime friends..." For many of us it was the "Res School sports". Some indicated "if it was not for the sports I would have not made it". For me these were uplifting moments, as I had shed many tears with the survivors. These stories of good times were the positive balance when we could laugh together about how we won in life.

One area which was not in our otherwise very wide mandate, a mandate which was jointly designed by the plaintiff s and the defendants, was about the missing children. We started hearing early about children that "never came home". The many children that died while at the residential schools. Those that ran away, some drowned while trying to cross a river or froze to death in the middle of winter; beaten to death or died from disease not treated. Many families were not able to do our traditional ceremonies as some did not know how their relative died, when they died or where they were buried. We heard of children burying children. So we decided to include this in our report. While our research identifi ed thousands, the work continues so that families can know what happened. They have a right to know.

So, yes it was a challenge but it was also truly a great blessing to have served on the TRC. The second part of our court-ordered mandate was to recommend a pathway to Reconciliation. What do we do with the truth? We take these stories of lived experiences to inform what reconciliation means, what reconciliation looks like and how we can implement "being well" through our calls to action? How do we restore respectful relationships? How do we build a better, more inclusive Canada? At the outset of our journey, my biggest fear was that our report would be ignored, would sit on a shelf somewhere to gather dust. You see, we have had many studies, many reports with thousands of recommendations. What we need now is action. That's why I felt it important to call on Canada for Action, positive action. But critically important for us to succeed is the fundamental need to "work together".

What were the key learnings after six and a half years of the most extensive national consultation in Canadian history? What were the common threads throughout our public hearings from anyone who wanted to appear before us as to how they were impacted by the Indian Residential School policy and what does reconciliation mean to them? This was what made it all worthwhile. I have visited over one hundred communities across Canada since we presented our final report. I am so encouraged by what I am witnessing. How our ninety-four Calls to Action are being studied, worked on, implemented by various sectors of society. Approximately seven thousand stories were shared in culturally appropriate safe settings and with much in-depth research we decided on ten principles of reconciliation. The most amazing focus for me is on the first principle that "the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the framework for reconciliation at all levels and across all sectors of Canadian society" coupled with "All Canadians as Treaty people's, share responsibilities...". We also grouped our Calls to Action under important themes for follow up: Child Welfare, Education, Language and Culture, Health, Justice... Legal Systems.

Justice, in my view, has an extremely important role to play in Reconciliation. Many times during this "saddest, darkest and most unknown chapter in Canadian history", it was the police, judges and prison staff who came into first contact with us. Others are the nurses and doctors. Often it was without any knowledge of the impacts of residential schools: the trauma, the addictions, discrimination, racism... I am convinced from our hearings that the high incarceration rates, the violence, the illness, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the gangs, the murdered and missing Indigenous people are all directly linked to the residential school legacy.

What is very encouraging is the willingness and leadership in our justice community; of course, we can always do more, but it is very gratifying to see Police Associations, Law Societies, Judges and other legal professionals across Canada answering the Calls to Action on Justice. I have had the distinct pleasure of working with several groups together with Indigenous leaders to deliberate on how we can best work together on "reconciliation". We know it is not easy but it is so worthwhile. For anyone who wishes to join on this path of reconciliation through our legal profession, begin with reading the 94 Calls to Action, listen for the one(s) that speak(s) to you and start there. Reach out to our Indigenous communities as we want to work together with willing partners. Finally, my personal thoughts are that the Treaties, the UN Declaration and the TRC Calls to Action braided together like sweetgrass are a solution!

Chief Wilton Littlechild, Q.C. was a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Chief Littlechild was the first Alberta Treaty First Nation person to receive a law degree from the University of Alberta, served as a Member of Parliament from 1988 - 1993 and currently runs his own practice from the Ermineskin Reserve.