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But how do we reconcile?

Search for truth, however arduous, will be the easier part

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We know the truth.

Indian residential schools, including the 15 in Manitoba, are a national shame that fractured families, allowed rampant sexual and physical abuse to fester and beat the Indian out of generations of children. That’s the truth, punctuated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s historic apology to First Nations people delivered two years ago Friday.

But what about the reconciliation?

On the eve of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first national event in Winnipeg next weekend, exactly how Canadians and First Nations people will patch up hundreds of years of bad relations is still an open question. Once the truth is out, how can the commission, in the words of one reconciliation expert, construct a new national collective conscience, especially when some Canadians who posted recently on a national news site, said this:

"Time to move on already. Get over it. Put your hands in your pocket. Today's generation of Canadians had nothing to with what happened to your ancestors, so quit crying about it already!"

Or this:

"A $60 million dollar commission to do what? Everything that could be done has been done. The best thing to do now is get over it. Canadians know that the church was full of abusers, the government has admitted they made a mistake in trusting the church to educate children. Stirring the pot means it will never settle down. What more can be done that will help. Sixty million? What a waste of my money."

Or this:

"Canada is the only country in the world that compensates former students for having given them an education at the expense of the state and then apologizes for having done so. It's time that these state-funded citizens put that free education to good use and start to contribute to the society that has fostered them for all these years. Our government has no mandate for this ridiculous gesture."

Comments like that are nothing new to Ray Mason, who was born on the Peguis reserve, went to three different residential schools over a dozen years and is now the head of Manitoba's residential school survivors' society.

"I get people calling my cell phone, making derogatory comments, 'you so-and-so'. I've heard comments like 'Every time I hear about residential schools my wallet cringes'," said Mason. "We need to know that our white brothers and sisters will learn about what happened. Until that happens there's going to be a continuance of nasty comments."

Despite thousands of news stories, including 375 in the Winnipeg Free Press alone over the last five years, Mason said many Canadians still don't really know what happened in the schools and they're especially blind to the impact the schools had on the generations that followed. The thousands of First Nations people in jail, on social assistance, in child welfare, battling drugs and alcohol can often be traced back to the residential schools legacy, a legacy non-Aboriginals have also inherited.

The TRC's process of getting at that truth is massive and onerous, but pretty straightforward. Over the next five years, the commission hopes to take 50,000 statements from survivors, teachers and clerics, gather up all the records stored in church archives and government basements, find the graves of thousands of children who died while at the schools, create a national collection and an online archive and write some definitive histories.

The reconciliation part is much more nebulous and success is hard to define. Even the TRC's mandate offers few clues.

Has reconciliation happened when First Nations people are no longer an underclass? Is it when bigotry abates? When Canadians show collective contrition or when First Nations history is so embedded in school curriculums it becomes as Canadian as Sir John A. Macdonald?

Few people have any clear answers, and other countries with truth and reconciliation processes -- South Africa, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Cambodia -- don't offer many clear lessons. That's in part because Canada's commission is unique. Other commissions often followed civil wars or armed conflicts instead of the more insidious cultural annihilation performed by Canada's government-funded, church-run schools. And, many TRCs only really focused on finding the truth. Reconciliation was often hampered by the fact that many victims felt they never got real justice or compensation for the wrongs that were perpetrated by the government.

In Canada, financial compensation is well under way, and Ottawa and most churches have made plain pleas for forgiveness.

In a recent article on reconciliation, Dalhousie University law professor Jennifer Llewellyn pointed to the slogan of South Africa's famous commission: Truth. The road to reconciliation.

"The South African commission's slogan was an attempt to respond to the same concern that might be raised about the Indian Residential Schools TRC -- that it is heavy on truth and light on reconciliation," wrote Llewellyn, who worked on South Africa's TRC. "It cautions that truth and reconciliation are not one and the same...The lesson of this slogan for the South African Commission was clear. They could not promise nor be expected to produce reconciliation. Indeed, no one process or institution could achieve this goal."

Instead, said Llewellyn in an interview, the TRC offers a space to start a national conversation about what occurred, how we ensure it doesn't happen again and how we structure our basic social and political institutions -- elections, health care, land claims -- to make real the words of Harper's apology.

"The work of reconciliation is a long-term project. It's not one that's going to be accomplished in five years or an extended mandate, and it's not one that any amount of a budget will do," said Llewellyn. "But it is one that needs moments for people to stop and commit themselves to the project and think about what it might entail. That's the significant public moment the Truth and Reconciliation Commission represents. It is for us as a nation to stop and see the need to do that work."

Justice Murray Sinclair Sinclair, the Manitoba judge and chair of the TRC, agrees that reconciliation is a long process that no one group can orchestrate.

In a long interview with the Free Press recently, Sinclair said the TRC is acutely aware of the reconciliation half of its mandate. Besides seven national events scattered all over Canada to raise awareness of residential schools, the TRC will be holding smaller community events, using the arts like theatre and film to make sure the story resonates, holding commemorative events and developing educational material for school curriculums. "There is a certain segment of the population that you are never going to bring around to thinking about this with an open mind. You just accept that," said Sinclair.

But, over the TRC's five-year mandate, Sinclair is confident that the nature of the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people will begin to shift.

"So when they hear a comment among their friends or in their social circle, they are armed with accurate information that can respond to it," said Sinclair. "I don't mind preaching to the choir if it makes them sing better and louder."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, June 14, 2010 at 12:59 PM CDT: Adds full text.

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