Reflections on the TRC Closing Events
Cyndi Mayhew, Reflections on the TRC Closing Events from a Settler in the Process of Learning (and Un-Learning)
My view on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was initially one of extreme skepticism. It may have been due to my background in post-conflict studies where I found myself reading scholarly article after scholarly article on the severe limitations of truth commissions as mechanisms for reconciliation and their logic of ‘truth as healing.’ I now see this position as overly-simplistic, and the result of a rather privileged (white) academic lens that fails to fully grasp how meaningful a limited but still rather substantive form of reconciliation is to many of the survivors. The Ivory Tower exists to be critical—which inherently entails finding problems with things and focusing on the negative. It’s easier for people unaffected by these histories of oppression and thus ‘far away’ from the lived realities of its damage to dismiss this process. While the TRC can function as a tool for the government to limit its responsibility in changing the power imbalances in the relationship between the state and indigenous peoples, it has also acted as a real vehicle for healing, as well as strengthening a decolonization effort that has been underway for some time.
The negatives. Through the events: the activist and academic panels, and the official unveiling of the TRC’s findings, the shortcomings were loudly articulated. Echoes of Eva Mackey’s criticisms of the Harper apology were expressed over and over. What about land? What about treaties? What about poverty? Does the TRC merely act as a way for the government to contain the “problem”? It does. The TRC in a way mirrors the effort of the apology to contain the wrongs to a particular time (firmly in the past), and by a particular system (just the residential schools). This government has sought to delimit the contours of reconciliation in a way that leaves many people (day school survivors in particular) out and effaces the larger social/political/economic/land issues entailed in actually changing a relationship. Mackey says that an apology asks little of the apologizer and quite a lot from the recipient, and this is true of the TRC as well in some regard. Voice your pain so you can move on. It asks a lot of survivors to tell their stories, with very little being offered in return to ‘reconcile’ this harm. The damage caused by the system endures, yet this is out of the scope of the government sanctioned view of reconciliation. The power imbalance is maintained, and the underfunding of indigenous peoples education, the stolen land which the residential schools further enabled through the weakening and destruction of communities, the results of the state’s systemic patriarchal control over indigenous women which has manifested as mass murders and missing of indigenous women, is left out of reconciliation. In a myriad of ways, the events I witnessed and the frustrations voiced at them reinforce academic’s critical perspectives of the TRC. Yet, a more complex conception of the TRC’s work was opened up to me.
The power of speaking truth is much more profound than I thought when engaging in academic analysis of truth commissions. Seeing and hearing first-hand how individual survivors expressed their stories gives a perspective that a scholarly article simply cannot. When a group that has historically been told through law, through the clergy, through education, through the perpetuation of stereotypes, that they are lesser, and have been the recipients of policies and actors intended to silence them and their experiences, truth and voice really are very powerful tools. These testimonies also have the power of making the historically privileged group understand history from the ‘other’ perspective. The day of the release of the TRC’s findings, the Delta Hotel was standing room only, with overflows from the packed ballroom occupying several floors. Standing behind the chairs and spaces reserved for the survivors, people of many different backgrounds witnessed not only the commissioner’s closing speeches but the reactions of survivors themselves. People don’t really ‘get,’ or are not forced to ‘get’ other people’s pain when it is removed from one’s reality, but when confronted with it like the attendees at the Delta and the viewers watching it on television, it has the potential to invoke a level of empathy, guilt, anger and perhaps even action—that facts alone can’t effect. The events and the TRC itself also reinforced the agency that is often erased in media/academic/popular culture conceptions of indigenous peoples. In addition to the pain and calling out of oppression, there was also so much expression of pride, and happiness and determination that I (and I see my fellow classmates) witnessed too.
As legendary folk musician, feminist indigenous activist Buffy Sainte Marie put it: reconciliation is happening whether you like it or not. It’s doubtful the government can contain and control the momentum that such a project can forward. Invariably truth telling has offshoot effects—links are created or made stronger—within communities and across them. We saw this in the walk for reconciliation with its large attendance that appeared to me as rather diverse in age and ethnic background. The events—the closing day concert, the Delta events, the academic panels and even the media all reproduced the same ‘re-righting’ discourses that challenge the settler narratives of history—and they are seemingly becoming accepted by more Canadians. These histories are being harnessed in many ways not just to re-examine the past but are being applied to questions of the present and future, whether the government likes it or not. Observing the change in political discourses, when politicians are using words like ‘colonizers’ and ‘attempted cultural genocide’ it’s hard to argue that there isn’t at least the beginning of a real shift in this country. Connections are being made theoretically by academics, and politically by activists tying this reconciliation to the need for specific policy changes, and by feminists in their ongoing calls for a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. As a settler I was reminded by these events that while survivors are victims, they’re also agents that have been navigating very difficult situations and are part of communities with long histories of ongoing activism and resistance. This is something that the overly-negative conceptions of the TRC overlook. Reflecting again upon Sinclair’s words “We are not there yet”, it is evidenced by the changing discourses and the consciousness raising that the TRC has strengthened the power and potential of indigenous peoples and the growing numbers of concerned settlers to force substantive change in Canada’s institutional and social/economic/legal/political landscapes over time.
Eva Mackey, “The Apologizers’ Apology,” in Reconciling Canada: Critical Perspectives on the Culture of Redress, ed. Jennifer Henderson and Pauline Wakeham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 47—62.