By Jonathan Rudin
Reconciliation cannot be left to others – it starts with you and with me and it needs to start now.
Earlier this month, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its 400-page executive summary of its final report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future.1 It is an important document that provides details and insights into a shameful part of Canada’s past that has only recently begun to come into the consciousness of Canadians.
The report exposes the reality of the residential school system and properly places it as one of the key (but not only) elements in an express government plan to destroy Indigenous people as a people in Canada. The report should become an integral part of the curriculum in Canada’s schools at every level.
The challenge of true reconciliation
The report summary, and the more detailed volumes that will follow, will do a great deal to present the truth of the residential school system; the reconciliation portion will be a greater challenge. For one thing, as the Commission notes, the concept of reconciliation is problematic with respect to the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. The concept of reconciliation implies that two parties who are now estranged were once together in some sort of healthy relationship. As the TRC and earlier reports such as the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Ipperwash Inquiry reveal, by the end of the War of 1812, British (and then Canadian) government policies regarding Aboriginal people had moved far away from any notion of mutual respect towards a conscious policy of disrespect and the active encouragement of cultural genocide.
Part of the reconciliation process is the need to acknowledge harms that were done. In that respect, the apology for residential schools issued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 and this month’s apology by Premier Greg Sellinger for the mass adoption of Aboriginal children in Manitoba are a step towards reconciliation – but only a very small tentative step.
It’s not really that hard to apologize for things that you do not feel responsible for in any personal capacity, when you are apologizing for the actions of others, many of whom are no longer living. While the last residential school closed in the 1990s, most closed during the 1960s and 1970s. The term used to describe the mass adoption of Aboriginal children in Manitoba, and across the country, is The Sixties Scoop. While these events are recent history, they are nevertheless part of history. In that sense, apologies for past wrongs can create the impression that while things were bad before, now they’re okay.
Systemic discrimination of Aboriginal people in the courts
The TRC Report clearly shows that this viewpoint is just wrong. The legacy of residential schools is with us today. It is visible in many places including the courts. It is seen in the levels of over-representation of Aboriginal people in jails, and the rate of over-representation in Ontario is virtually the same as in Manitoba, and in the hugely disproportionate number of Aboriginal children in foster care across the country. These figures provide tangible evidence of how practices such as residential school persist over the generations. In R v Gladue,2 the Supreme Court of Canada referred to over-representation as “the tip of the iceberg”3 in terms of the estrangement of Aboriginal people from the justice system.
Recognizing the corrosive impacts of residential schools over the years is important, but it too can serve to distance people from their responsibilities for reconciliation. The problems faced by Indigenous people in the justice system are also caused by those in the system itself. The Supreme Court of Canada has repeatedly recognized that Aboriginal people in the justice system face direct and systemic discrimination.4
The discrimination that Aboriginal people face in the justice system is not due to the fact that they, or their parents or their grandparents or other family or community members, went to residential school. It is because the system itself discriminates against them at every stage in the process. And this discrimination is not historic, it is current. It occurs today in virtually every police station, courtroom and jail in this country.
This discrimination starts with the police and continues through to court officials, duty counsel, defence counsel, crowns and judges, and then to correctional officers, jail superintendents and wardens, probation and parole officers, and members of provincial and federal parole boards. No one is exempt. The discrimination may not be conscious, it may not be motivated by an articulated bias towards Aboriginal people (although it often is) but what matters is that it still exists.
Recognizing, understanding and healing the harms of the past
True reconciliation means acknowledging wrongs that were done in the past, not pretending they did not exist. True reconciliation also means understanding that the harms of the past do not just vanish over time and that healing takes generations to occur. And true reconciliation means that we must cast a critical eye at what we do in our daily lives, at work and at home, and see whether our actions are moving things forward or perpetuating the problem. Engaging in this type of reflection and analysis does not have to be a solitary pursuit; it often helps to involve others in the process.
There certainly are important steps that governments can and should do to move the reconciliation agenda forward and the willingness of governments to do so is certainly not always there. Ultimately however, reconciliation cannot be left to others — it starts with you and with me and it needs to start now.
Jonathan Rudin is the Program Director at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto. In 2001, he helped establish the Gladue (Aboriginal persons) Court at the Old City Hall courts in Toronto.
- The report can be found at: http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Findings/Exec_Summary_2015_05_31_web_o.pdf
- R v Gladue,  1 SCR 688
- Gladue para. 61
- In addition to Gladue see R v Williams, 1 SCR 1128 and R v Ipeelee,  1 SCR 433