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Can Canadians reconcile the truth?

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Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission says it is going to be much more than a dollar short and a day late. After years of foot-dragging, the federal government has just now been forced to find and turn over millions of documents relating to the shameful period of Canada's history when First Nations children as young as six were taken from their homes and put into the hands of strangers, in a stranger land.

The policy is widely seen now as barbaric, and its imprint is emblazoned on whole generations. It's there, in living relief, on Main or Portage, in homeless shelters, on reserves, Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In Canada's jails.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's job is to draw the line between the residential school history and its generational imprint on native people so Canadians can understand viscerally why aboriginals are poorer, sicker, suffer more abuse and addictions and die earlier.

Tough gig.

The degree of its success will rest upon recording the truth -- writing a reliable record of what happened and why. Some 2.5 million records have been pulled from departmental files and many millions more are to come.

Reconciliation turns on how well Canadians understand the enormity of the assault that was the residential schools and the policy's legacy. This history hurts us all.

The commission has heard from more than 5,000 of some 70,000 former students believed to be alive. Most have agreed to put it on the public record.

Only about 200 former staff have come forward. The commission doesn't know how many staff are alive, and concerned it hasn't heard from enough.

Commissioner Wilton Littlechild is uneasy about how that will affect the historical documentation. An abundance of the bad can overwhelm the good that defied the circumstances -- something that is near heresy to say in certain circles -- and distort the story that sticks in the minds of Canadians.

"What I sought from the beginning, myself, is we need to be able to tell that balanced story."

Further, Littlechild's not so sure we got the "reconciliation" bit right in framing the mandate of the commission.

Littlechild was physically, sexually and emotionally abused in an Alberta residential school. A superior athlete who eventually earned a law degree, he found salvation in high school sports.

He's run into a few of his teachers at the public hearings -- one who told Willie "you used to be such a bad boy."

Some teachers expressed regret in being part of a system that hurt so many. Others, including former students, spoke of good times and the close, nurturing relationships they made. That perspective has been well reflected in the commission's interim report.

He learned, in recent Quebec hearings, that kids weren't the only victims of the state-mandated assimilation.

"Nuns in isolated communities, much of their experience was the same or similar." Young religious women, often given as girls to convents by their families -- an offering to the church -- were sent to teach at schools half a country away, in a strange land in a strange language.

"They didn't get very much money, they lived in quarters sometimes as harsh as students. Cold," he says. "I hadn't thought about that myself."

But the larger truth, to be archived at a national research and resource centre, is told by the experiences of all who were in the schools. The commission has found the teachers and some students are hesitant to come forward, intimidated by the running narrative.

Littlechild met privately with some retired Catholic priests, former teachers who did not give statements. They were angry. And, he suspects, hiding from the truth themselves.

"One just attacked me personally.

"I felt some of them were in denial. They might have been abusers themselves."

And so, what of our chances for reconciliation, a soul-searching and searing process by which diverse people nursing long-held prejudices and come to understand, and forgive, each other?

Unlike South Africa's truth and reconciliation commission, where those who killed and maimed met victims and families in public, Canada's model does none of that. Rather, it hived off a private process for students who sought to settle verifiable claims of abuse, and gave the public commission the job of writing the cultural story.

South Africa gave its inquiry power to subpoena, with the ability to grant immunity to perpetrators who co-operated fully. Such confessions brought once powerful men who used violence to assert racial superiority to their knees in humility, begging for -- and receiving -- forgiveness. It laid bare to a nation the incomprehensible and inexplicable nature of the brutality.

"We can't order people to come to testify, and we can't give them immunity. That's partially why we don't have any admitted perpetrators (testifying).

"Personally, as an individual commissioner, I wish we had that ability."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 A15

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