The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as part of the settlement of a class-action lawsuit related to the native residential school system in Canada. The purpose of the commission is to take testimony from the thousands of native people who were victimized by the residential schools (both directly, at the schools, and the continuing effects of that victimization), to give voice to people who have been voiceless for too long, to encourage the perpetuators of the wrongs to come forward to apologize, to provide a historic record and, crucially, to link native and non-native people in a process of reconciliation.
The Commission held its Atlantic meeting at the World Trade and Convention Centre in Halifax last week, in order to provide an opportunity to specifically address the wrongs done at and through the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, which operated from 1922 to 1968 in the small town of Shubenacadie, about 50 kilometres north of Halifax. The school was run by the Catholic church---first, directly by the Archdiocese of Halifax, then by the Sisters of Mercy and Jesuits.
Like other residential schools, the purpose of Shubie school was to “take the Indian out of the Indian”---that is, to commit cultural genocide. Students were prisoners---with the help of the RCMP and Indian agents, the children were taken from their parents and, should the children attempt to escape, were severely beaten. They were forbidden to speak their native tongue, the language they spoke at home, and likewise beaten if they didn’t comply.
Testimony given by hundreds of people in Halifax last week relates a horrific institution operated by sadists. Children were regularly beaten and sexually assaulted, and sometimes murdered. I’ve collected much of that graphic and unsettling testimony in a separate blog post, here.
Just as there are Holocaust deniers, there will sadly always be a handful of racists who deny the ugly truth of the residential schools, but the totality of evidence is overwhelming and documented in horrific detail, and the broken lives and communities that resulted from the schools speak for themselves.
Yes, this is a horrendous truth, but it shouldn’t much surprise anyone. We now know that the Catholic Church in Nova Scotia (and pretty much the rest of the world as well) was excusing, covering up and even facilitating (by simply moving offending priests to a different church) the sexual abuse of children in parishes around the province. It should be obvious that even children under the watchful eye of loving parents are often exploited when there’s a trusted religious authority figure around. Take that child away from all watchful eyes, and the exploitation multiplies by an order of magnitude. Put in the context of the child being considered worse than worthless---evil, even, because of his or her ethnicity---and the exploitation multiplies by another order of magnitude. Add an isolated rural location with no meaningful institutional oversight, stir, and you’ve got the recipe for the torture chamber of Shubenacadie.
There were some monsters at Shubie---in particular Sister Mary Leonard and Father Mackey, both of whom raped and murdered children, according to testimony given in Halifax last week.
But we can’t simply write off the horrors of Shubenacadie as the work of a few sadists and wash our hands of it. In the first place, the attempted genocide of native people was part and parcel of the European colonization of North America; that genocide moved much closer to its ultimate goal in what is now the United States, but Canadians are fooling themselves if they think they are somehow clear of that history---as the scalp bounty issued by Edward Cornwallis, founder of Halifax, attests. The repeated attacks on native peoples, the intentional spreading of disease among them (by the namesake of Amherst, Nova Scotia, just 140 kilometres from Shubenacadie) and policies purposefully enacted to destroy native communities, culture and wealth did not achieve complete genocide, but they certainly left the Mi’kmaq in such desperate straits that they could put up little effective resistance when Indian agents showed up to kidnap their children.
Secondly, the Sister Mary Leonards and Father Mackeys of this world can not go about their ugly business without the complicity of the broader society. It is simply impossible to believe that the thousands of responsible adults who interacted with the school over five long decades----the police officers returning frightened escapees, the federal agents signing inspection reports, the church officials presiding over the place, the nuns, priests and staff people working there, the businessmen delivering supplies and buying the produce of the institution, the doctors setting broken bones, the coroners filling out death certificates and on and on and on---it’s simply impossible to believe that not a one of these upstanding citizens suspected anything was amiss. No doubt, some people raised concerns, but no one in a position of authority responded appropriately. The goal was to destroy “Indianness,” and if some children were beaten up, raped or murdered, well, white society could turn a blind eye.
Thirdly, the effects of the crimes of Shubenacadie are ongoing. Sure, the institution closed in 1968 (although, the last residential school, White Calf Collegiate in Saskatchewan, closed only in 1996), but the personal and social calamities continue to this day. The former students call themselves “survivors,” which is entirely appropriate and rightly puts the emphasis on their incredible resilience, but there’s no denying the continuing tragedies of alcoholism and drug abuse, family violence, broken relationships, distrust of each other and of white society, suicide and spiritual confusion---each of which is the fruit of Shubenacadie. Survivors have bravely faced these tragedies personally and collectively, but they need and deserve our help; the society that wronged native people is morally obligated to help make the situation right, at least as far as possible.
Missing from the TRC meeting
Which leads to the most disappointing part of the TRC meeting in Halifax: the poor attendance of non-natives. Prime minister Stephen Harper was noticeably absent; he was in Australia, meeting the queen. Nova Scotia’s premier, Darrell Dexter; was likewise not at the meeting, having decided to instead travel to Israel to promote trade. Halifax mayor Peter Kelly was in town---his City Hall office is across the street from the World Trade and Convention Centre, and his parking space is about 10 metres from the centre’s front door, but there’s no indication that Kelly crossed the street and spoke with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
And while my blogging of the TRC meeting was well received, there were relatively few white faces present in the convention centre itself. By and large, non-natives missed experiencing the impact of hearing survivors’ stories directly, and to that extent, can not completely understand them. For many non-natives, the day-to-day struggle of school survivors is simply off the radar screen, not an issue. So long as that ignorance continues, we won’t rise to the responsibility to help make things right.