Alvin Dixon says his family was "broken up and broken down" by the Indian residential school system. A member of the Heiltsuk Nation, Dixon and seven siblings were removed from their home in Bella Bella, B.C., and placed in four different residential schools. Dixon himself spent eight years at The United Church of Canada's Alberni Residential School on Vancouver Island, an establishment that later became synonymous with sexual assaults and a landmark court decision to hold the United Church and the federal government responsible.
But Dixon, 69, says abuse isn't what he and many of the 80,000 other residential school survivors across the country want to discuss. Now helping other former students file claims under the $4.5-billion settlement agreement reached among survivors, churches and the federal government in 2005, Dixon says it's the rest of the story that needs to be aired. The shattered families. The loss of language, culture, community and self-worth.
It's to this end that the federal government, in agreement with the Assembly of First Nations, is set to launch a $60-million truth and reconciliation commission designed to raise awareness, establish the historical record, create a shared narrative of former students and allow for acknowledgement, healing and forgiveness. Precedent-setting in Canada and globally, the commission's success or failure hinges on two unknowns: whether former students choose to share their stories -- and whether the rest of Canada listens.
Though the commission is still stuck in the approval process and may not get going until November or later, its nuts and bolts can be grouped into three components. First, seven national events will be staged to engage the Canadian public and empower former students. Second, communities will host their own smaller-scale events, focused on the healing of former students and those affected by the residential school legacy. Third, individuals will have the opportunity to share their stories with a statement-taker. With the storyteller's permission, these statements will be filed in perpetuity at a national research centre. Overseeing the whole endeavour will be three commissioners, at least one of whom will be Aboriginal.
"It's an incredible achievement," Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), told United Church decision-makers last November. "It is good for survivors and for the country. . . . It is fair, it is just and it is comprehensive. With this agreement, we will be able to turn the page on this sad, terrible, tragic chapter in our history."
The initiative is also charting new territory internationally. Many countries have held truth commissions in the past two decades, most famously, the commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. What sets Canada's effort apart is that it's not following on the heels of an enormous social or political upheaval, such as the end of apartheid, a genocide or a civil war.
"The residential school system is over, but I guess you could say it sort of petered out," says Rev. David MacDonald, the United Church's special adviser on residential schools. "We're talking about a long piece of history in slow motion. . . . It was never an object of much public debate virtually until after the fact."
Another key difference is that you could hardly live in South Africa and not know about apartheid. But millions of Canadians don't know about the residential school system or its legacy. "The vast majority of Canadians are either unaware or unaffected by it," MacDonald says.
Given the public's lack of awareness, the importance of storytelling can't be underestimated. Fontaine credits the United Church for helping to ensure that "knowing, speaking (and) sharing the truth" would be part of the agreement.
Seven years after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People's call for a public inquiry into residential schools went unheeded, former AFN chief George Erasmus challenged the United Church's 2003 General Council to use its influence to start a people's public inquiry.
The United Church soon established a roundtable, which included other churches involved with residential schools, the Law Commission of Canada, the AFN and other Aboriginal organizations. In the discussions that ensued, the roundtable concluded that a public inquiry would be too formal and adversarial. However, a forum similar to South Africa's truth commission could work, particularly if it was "owned" by survivors and included cultural elements, such as a feast hall, potlatch or traditional healers. The roundtable later suspended its meetings and joined a working group on truth and reconciliation set up by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci as part of the process that led to the 2005 resolution agreement.
Jamie Scott, the United Church's officer on residential schools, was part of the roundtable and the Iacobucci working group. He says the inclusion of community-based events within the truth and reconciliation commission is a direct result of the roundtable's influence. "We've heard from survivors that they need the opportunity to talk about what happened in a safe context," he says. "There are a lot of people who have never told their own story, not even to their family members, who are still labouring under prohibitions that the school staff sometimes put on them not to talk about what happened."
But truth-sharing isn't just an exercise for former students. It's also for churches, governments and non-Aboriginal Canadians too.
"The perpetrators, the people who did this, (had) the assumption of cultural and spiritual superiority. This wasn't just about education, this was about turning Indian kids into non-Indian Christian kids," Scott says. Canadians "need to talk about their own repentance and their own learning about racism."
As part of the effort, churches and governments will likely be required to submit all archival documents and photos relating to the residential schools. The materials will be housed in a national research centre and made available to the public.
Some denominations are struggling with this requirement because they consider their archives to be private. The United Church archives, housed at the University of Toronto and at satellites across the country, have been open to the public for the past 50 years -- with one exception. As a standard policy, personnel files are restricted until 20 years after a person's death. Chief archivist Sharon Larade says that even these may become part of the public record. It's a possibility that pits privacy against freedom of information, but Larade is confident that the issue can be worked out. "(It's) part of our taking responsibility and bearing witness to our role," she says.
The greater issue on everyone's mind is whether or not the commission will penetrate the Canadian consciousness. It will partly depend on the three people the federal government appoints as its commissioners. MacDonald believes the job requires at least one person with the stature and profile of a Desmond Tutu.
Dixon, chair of the United Church's residential school steering committee, agrees and adds that the media, churches and government need to play a major role in engaging the public. If, for example, the community-based events only happen on the reserves, away from the public eye, "it will just be an exercise in futility."
Though Dixon sees many flaws in the commission, he still hopes that it will mark a turning point -- that five years from now, the legacy of the Indian Residential School system will be part of the curriculum for every Canadian schoolchild, and that Canadians in general will become more sympathetic toward Aboriginal people.
As for First Nations people, Dixon states his dreams simply and starkly: "Spiritual rebirth. Economic independence."
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