Survivors of abuse at residential schools must be heard

Posted September 26, 2013

(This post originally appeared in the Times & Transcript on September 26th, 2013, and is shared with permission.)

This week’s column won’t be sharing an opinion so much as an experience, as I would like to give an account of my time at the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event that I had the privilege of attending last week in Vancouver with YWCA Canada.

To give some background, the Commission has been operating since 2009 and will wrap up in 2014. The Commission was established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which is an agreement that went into effect in 2007 and laid out measures meant to, according to the Government of Canada, “achieve a fair and lasting resolution of the legacy of Indian Residential Schools.” The Settlement Agreement was reached by respective legal counsels for former students and for Churches, as well as the Assembly of First Nations (and other Aboriginal organizations) and the Government of Canada. The Settlement agreement included payments to some residential school survivors, an assessment process for claims of abuse by survivors, funds for commemoration initiatives, financial support for healing initiatives for survivors, as well as the Commission.

The Commission itself was tasked with holding seven national events, providing support for community-level events, creating a public historical record, and to promote learning and awareness of Residential Schools and their lasting legacy.

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are not an invention of our government. Commissions have occurred around the world for decades and are typically held in response to systemic state human rights abuses. While different Commissions have different mandates and processes, they are generally premised on restorative rather than punitive justice; the process is focused on meeting the needs of victims (both individuals and communities) rather than legal proceedings that will result in criminalization of perpetrators (Commissions have been criticized for the impunity that perpetrators enjoy).

Commissions aim to provide opportunities for survivors of the event or institution in questions to share their experiences via statements and have them recorded for posterity to help correct or prevent historical revisionism. Commissions ask perpetrators are asked to take responsibility for the abuses committed, and to acknowledge the lasting effect that has resulted from abuses. Ultimately, Commissions attempt to resolve conflict that endures as a result of the abuses and to find a peaceful and just way forward.

In the case of Canada’s Commission, intergenerational survivors (meaning Aboriginal persons who did not attend Residential School but were affected by the institution's effects, such as children or grandchildren of survivors) are heard as well as those who survived the Schools first-hand. (It should be noted that the Métis Nation has largely been excluded from the Government of Canada’s efforts to address the Residential School system, though the work of the Commission does explicitly mention and include the Métis peoples. Two residential schools in Canada were designated for Métis children.)

Part of the emphasis of Canada’s Commission is on witnessing. The Commission itself is a witness, those who attend national and community events are witnesses, and the Commission has individuals (including Governor General Michaëlle Jean) who are named as honorary witnesses and attend some national events. According to the Commission, “The term witness is in reference to the Aboriginal principle of witnessing, which varies among First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples… witnesses are called to be the keepers of history when an event of historic significance occurs…Witnesses are asked to store and care for the history they witness and most importantly, to share it with their own people when they return home.”

The importance of witnessing became clear to me when one survivor of Residential Schools was giving his statement and stressed that audience members—particularly non-Aboriginal audience members—needed to hear, see, and believe the testimonies given. That simple request—that he be believed—resonated with me, perhaps because I spend so much time talking about how women who disclose abuse are often not believed.

So, I am taking this column as an opportunity to take my personal act of witnessing and render it more public, to “share it with my own people” now that I’ve returned home. I am also taking this opportunity to tell the survivors, both first-hand and intergenerational, of the Indian Residential School system that I hear them, I see them, and I believe them. I believe their stories of abuse in Residential School and their accounts of how the trauma of that system has continued to deeply impact their communities.

I also need to tell of the incredible strength I witnessed from Aboriginal individuals who gave statements at the Commission national event. Those giving statements bravely bared their wounds in front of us so that we could know the truth. The pain of watching individuals relive their trauma was intense; I can’t begin to imagine the pain of their first-hand experience. Some of the most anguished statements came from those who spoke only briefly of their experience in Residential Schools and focused more on the trauma that persisted when they had returned home and started families. Parents and grandparents spoke of the life skills they did not acquire in their youth and apologized to their children for not being “better” parents. It was devastating to witness such pain, but also amazing to see these individuals speak their truth. Voices may have waivered and choked up, but the commitment to truth and to movement forward was steady.

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