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Reflection on the TRC in Edmonton…

Listen, Remember, Change...

Her name was Ethel and she said it a number of times: “I want you to remember him — Michael Antoine.” Her testimony was devastating, about herself, her own experiences, but also those of her young brother, 12 years old, and how he had died in hospital after being beaten at residential school. I know I will never forget him.

That is what this Truth and Reconciliation process is about—truth and memory. A truth about our country that is still relatively unknown, but one that must be revealed and remembered if we are to move forward as a nation in honesty and respect.

The seventh and final National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was held in Edmonton, March 27-30 2014. The TRC was created to address the grim reality of the Indian Residential School system. Over a 130-year span, more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended boarding schools funded by the government and run by churches. Isolated from their families and communities, many children suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse and were often prohibited from speaking their languages or expressing their culture.

The schools were part of an official national policy of assimilation. The Statement of Apology delivered by Prime Minister Harper on June 11, 2008 confirmed this intent: “Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.”

In Edmonton, survivors like Ethel gave direct testimony of their traumatic experiences while others spoke to the destructive impact of inter-generational loss and pain. As with all TRC National and Community Events, the testimony was heart wrenching. Perhaps most difficult were the stories of what survivors did to escape the pain, and how this could sometimes include hurting the people they loved most.

Christians and Colonization

And yet, alongside this deep grief, consistently and impossibly present, was a tangible sense of hope. I found hope in the incredible courage of people who choose to remember the very things they want to forget. I saw hope in the ways that people survived incredible suffering, displaying inconceivable resilience. Hope showed itself in the fact that against all odds Indigenous peoples have preserved or recovered languages, cultures and traditions and ‘thriving’ has replaced ‘survival’ as a personal and community expectation.

Early events in this process, involved only those churches who ran the schools: Anglican, Presbyterian, United and Roman Catholic. In different ways, all have offered their form of confession, making apologies for the particular way their church collaborated in this disastrous project.

However, as the process has unfolded, more and more churches have become involved, understanding their place in the broader process of colonization in which the schools were one part. Churches across the range of denominations have begun to acknowledge that colonization, so often advanced in the name of Christ, was spread through missionaries of various denominations, many also intent on remaking Indigenous peoples in the European image.

The TRC was created to reveal the truth. And it is surely a bitter one, but it sits beside another truth. This policy to erase the identity and diverse cultures of Canada’s original peoples left virtually no family, community or nation untouched. But ultimately it failed. The truth of this Truth and Reconciliation process is that Indigenous nations, in their diversity, refuse to be erased from Canada’s story.

Equity Must Follow Apology

From the National Events I have learned that the past, present, and future are connected. An honest assessment of our history is required to deal with the injustices of our present and to open possibilities for a shared future. Whether it is the continued reality of missing and murdered Indigenous women, boil water advisories, or deficiencies in First Nations’ education, current discrimination and inequities threaten to undermine words offered in apology.

Alongside truth, it is the role of the TRC to foster habits, practices and processes of reconciliation. Into this work, the churches have been called and, in gestures of reconciliation offered at the Edmonton National Event, the nature of their response is revealed. Commitments to support healing, to further education, to respect spiritualities and practices, to foster connection across communities, and to fight racism and advance justice for Indigenous peoples—all form parts of church’s stated goals for a shared future.

While the last National Event has come to an end, the process is by far complete. The truth will continue to be revealed, including the truth about Indigenous wisdom that Canada tried to obscure. We need Indigenous cultures and traditions to complete Canada. We need Indigenous world views to help us deal with complex national dilemmas, such as the ecological crisis, that dominant world views seem unable to address. For this there is still much listening to be done.

And reconciliation is still tentative. What I find most hopeful is how so many Indigenous peoples continue to offer welcome and to claim that our future is a shared journey of living into the ancestors’ original visions of mutuality. We are all treaty people, and it is possible to realize shared responsibility through honesty and respect. It’s a humbling invitation. Churches could be essential leaders in Canadian society in modelling a renewal of treaties and genuine acceptance of the original invitation to shared responsibility.

Reconciliation will not be accomplished by the time the Commission mandate wraps up in June 2015. But it has begun. Each Canadian can contribute to the renewal of our country in justice and reconciliation. If we listen, remember, and change…a shared and hopeful future may just be possible.


  • Jennifer Henry has been a social justice advocate for Canadian churches for over 20 years working in areas of economic justice, social policy, international human rights and indigenous rights. She is currently Executive Director of KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

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