I know a lot about residential schools, more than most. The reason for that is for over 5 years, in the early days of the first claims of survivors of residential schools, I worked as an independent researcher for the federal government. My job was to research and prepare reports on the history of a school, to verify any claims made by claimants (including their attendance at the school) and to be ready to do more research should more questions arise throughout the litigation process. That work was a double-edged sword for me – to try to serve the people through a painful process, to do good work was a great thing – but to have to read and become familiar with the stories that sometimes read like the worst horrors you can’t even imagine was soul-destroying… that is why I left that work. However, there is a teaching in everything – since I left that work I have been serving my community in a different way as a community worker and educator – I have used every bit of the knowledge I have regarding residential schools to educate everyone I encounter about this history and legacy.
To be truthful, I have only gone over the very extensive executive summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) findings – that in and of itself is a weighty 536 pages. I have not read all of the multi-volume findings. The executive summary document does an excellent job of summarising the history of residential schools, Canada’s assimilation policy and the experiences of those who attended those schools who participated in the TRC process. In and of itself this document could realistically be used to educate the unaware about the issues around residential schools. The information contained therein is very impactful.
However, there are a number of issues with the document and the whole process itself that don’t sit well with me as an Indigenous person and particularly as a two-spirit person. The first issue I have is the focus on what happened at the residential schools as ‘cultural genocide’ while making clear distinctions between ‘physical genocide’ and ‘biological genocide. In my mind and heart this minimises to a great extent the reality of the impact of residential schools and the whole of Canada’s steps to deal with ‘the Indian Problem’. (Problem being that Indigenous people still exist who have title to the land and resources upon which Canada has been founded) Let me be clear… Canada’s assimilationist policies and the residential school program, the lynchpin for the policy, was/is simply genocide.
Under the UN Convention on Genocide, Article 2 states:
In the present convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Canada did ALL of those things, in one way or another within the residential school system. I could detail all of this but the reality is that the proof of all this actually exists within the TRC executive summary. That is what makes the focus on ‘cultural genocide’ so maddening. I question whether it is simply a means to continue the practice in Canada whereby well-meaning people believe that Canada is ‘not as bad as others’ in terms of the treatment of Indigenous people. To use the term ‘cultural genocide’ allows people to avoid the reality that genocide has happened in Canada that is very little different from genocide in other countries. Using this term is a great mechanism to allow people to sleep better at night but doesn’t actually get to the teeth of the problem and the scope of its impacts on everyone – not just Indigenous people.
Another issue I have with the TRC summary is that there no discussion specifically of same-sex sexual abuse and how that has played out in our families, communities and in taking back our cultural and spiritual practices. There is no discussion on the experiences of anyone who was gender or sexually diverse who attended the schools. Now, I realise, that such discussions for people of certain generations simply didn’t/don’t happen but, shouldn’t the TRC have made some sort of space for it to possibly happen? Certainly, in the discussion of the impacts of abuse at the schools, even though the mention of same-sex sexual abuse is fleeting, why is there no discussion about how this particular abuse has led to high levels of homophobia in our communities and the impact that has on our gender and sexually diverse youth? Given that children were separated in the schools by gender and supervised mostly by those of the same gender, it is not unreasonable to assume that a lot of the sexual abuse was same-sex. How is it that the specific impacts of that were not explored in any way? Why is it that in the long list of calls to action there is only one line under Youth Programs? Why is it that the youth, who carry that legacy of the impact of residential schools generationally seem to be a minor consideration in this document? So many questions and the only way I can make sense of it is to point yet again to the homophobia that leads to silence in so many venues.
Yes, the TRC has done great work, has provided an opportunity for survivors and their families to begin that process of healing by telling their stories. Yes, they have come forward with a fine list of recommendations that hopefully will not simply sit on a shelf collecting dust but rather will be acted upon in some measure. I believe this is simply a beginning for a much longer process. The process has been challenging at every step along the way – there are many challenges in the final report, how it was written and what it has to say or doesn’t say. We see some of the challenges coming home to roost in the discussions now about whether to destroy or retain the transcripts of those who shared their stories. They had been assured that the documents would be destroyed – that is perhaps why some felt comfortable enough to speak.
For a commission that has focussed so much upon building trust, reconciliation and healing – to change things like this is rather disingenuous. The work is not done; it must continue – like any healing work peeling back the different layers of the onion to reveal what is at the core is the only way forward through the pain to true reconciliation.
Part of that onion is that the legacy of residential schools is far-reaching and will continue to affect individuals, families, communities and nations for a long time, especially if the tools needed to bring true healing are not available to those who need them. Apologies and recommendations are only useful if put into tangible action. Furthermore, the assimilationist program continues because when the residential school program ended the Child Welfare System took over. The 60’s and Millennium Scoop continue to cause the same issues for our people as did the residential schools. Children are separated from families, communities, culture and language still. Their children will undoubtedly carry those impacts to future generations. Indigenous people are treated worse than visitors in their own land, experiencing racism, oppression and systemic violence on a daily basis. If there is to be true reconciliation and healing much more needs to be done – but with the process and findings of the TRC we have, at least, a beginning.
T. Sharp Dopler is a community leader, and a mentor & friend of Canadian Centre for Gender & Sexual Diveristy