A Sacred Job, Barely Begun

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August 15, 2016

By: Kris Magnusson

In my last post, I shared the seeds of my personal connection to the work of the SFU Aboriginal Reconciliation Council (SFU ARC). Today, I would like to take a step back, and provide a bit of a backdrop for the work we are about to do.

In 2007, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history led to the provision of compensation for survivors of the Indian Residential School system, and to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009. The TRC, chaired by Justice Murray Sinclair, embarked on an ambitious schedule of hearings, meetings and public forums all across Canada. The hearings were, at times, difficult and painful; before reconciliation could be considered, the truth had to be told and to be heard.

Over the next 6 years, the TRC produced a prodigious volume of work. The history of Canada’s residential schools was presented in 2 volumes, the first covering the time from European contact in the early 1600’s to 1939, and the second covering the period from 1939 to 2000. Other reports included They Came for the Children (a summary of Residential Schools), What We Have Learned (what needs to be considered for reconciliation to be meaningful), The Survivor’s Speak (memories and testimony of survivor experiences), and of course, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (Final report and recommendations). You can access these important documents at http://nctr.ca/reports.php.

In his forward to the first volume, Justice Sinclair called the residential school system “one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our nation’s history” and “a culturally crushing experience”. But, the members of the Commission pointed the way for Canadian society to move past this dark and troubled past. Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild suggested that “ … the greatest opportunity for positive change is in lifelong learning, holistic education. I also believe these are best achievable if we work very, very hard on unity.”

Education was used as a tool for cultural genocide, and that is a legacy of shame from which no Canadian is immune. But, the commissioners have recognized that education, done well and with respect, is also our most promising path forward. We all share a responsibility for that path forward. And despite the 6 years and innumerable hours leading up to the final report of the TRC, as commissioner Mary Wilson noted, “It is a sacred job, barely begun.”

It is also the case that the TRC recommendations are not the first time public attention has been called to the need for action. Recent history is littered with commissions, reports and recommendations for addressing the needs and issues of aboriginal peoples in Canada, but little has changed. We cannot let this opportunity pass us by, and have the recommendations of the TRC be one more example of action apathy.

It is now our responsibility to take up this “sacred job”. And, the successes of past initiatives, promising practices and increasing awareness notwithstanding, we have barely begun. At Simon Fraser University, we are asking the question, “How might we best respond to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and do our part for reconciliation?” Please join us in this important conversation; you can start by joining the dialogue.