Edmonton

Residential school legacy not 'whole story': Global experts warn of gaps in Canada's reconciliation efforts

Delegates participating in the Nelson Mandela Dialogues in Edmonton are warning that historical atrocities against Indigenous Canadians must be fully acknowledged for the reconciliation process to succeed.

'There's so much more buried underneath ... that needs to be acknowledged,' Edmonton area-conference hears

South African freedom fighter Shirley Gunn says Canada's reconciliation process must tell the whole truth about residential schools and allow time for more dialogue. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Delegates participating in the Nelson Mandela Dialogues in Edmonton are warning that historical atrocities against Indigenous Canadians must be fully acknowledged for the reconciliation process to succeed.

The conference from June 26 to 30 drew nearly 40 participants from countries which have also had to grapple with the horrors of their own past, such as Germany, Cambodia and South Africa.

Delegates examined the 94 recommendations made two years ago by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at helping Canada heal from the residential school era.

"The residential school system in Canada is a very, very important focused area of a truth commission, but it's not the whole story," said Shirley Gunn, 62, a commander and freedom fighter during South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle, who has been speaking with Indigenous Canadians. 

"And what I've seen as well is that story of residential schools must go way deeper. Not everyone's had a chance to come forward, not everyone's ready in a time of a limited window."

That story of residential schools must go way deeper ... not everyone's ready in a time of a limited window.- Shirley Gunn , South African revolutionary

Gunn recalled testifying during South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process after apartheid ended in 1991.

She told the commission about her time locked up in solitary confinement, when security police cruelly apprehended her baby for a time, even though she was breast feeding.

Gunn pointed to the limitations of her own country's reconciliation process, such as a short window "hell-bent on putting this thing behind us," labeling those testifying as victims, and focusing on questions about the atrocities they faced.

 "People didn't know how to answer that question. From the moment they opened their eyes they had been abused by structural violence of apartheid, so the full story was never told," Gunn said, drawing comparisons to Canada's process.

The Nelson Mandela Dialogues, launched in 2013 in South Africa, has been held in locations such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka. This year's event in Edmonton was hosted by Native Counselling Services of Alberta and Enoch Cree Nation.

The dialogues took place during the same week tensions ran high in the run up to Canada Day celebrations.

Protests erupted as many Indigenous Canadians demanded the federal government take action on issues gripping their communities such as youth suicide, the disproportionate number of children in foster care, poverty, unemployment and addiction.

German psychologist Jan Wesseler said Canadian residential school sites require markers and signs to acknowledge and educate about their dark past. (Peter Evans/CBC)

When participants toured Blue Quills First Nations College, German psychologist Jan Wessler was surprised by the lack of evidence on the site acknowledging the facility's residential school past.

"The truth had not been documented ... it was not easily available at the sites where it happened and these sites are all over the country," Wessler said.

Their stories were considered crimes against humanity, but yet the actions taken against my family and my people were not.- Jamie Bourque , Metis filmmaker

"And I think to make the memory more vivid and also make learning much easier. These facts should be all over the place, so that you can see it, you can know, 'Oh here's where it happened.'"

Wessler explained it's important to be able to emotionally connect to those markers to learn from the past so it won't happen again.

How to move forward as one nation?

Edmonton Metis filmmaker Jamie Bourque has participated in the dialogues since their inception. But as he learned more about the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge and South Africa's apartheid, he grew angry.

The stories he heard sounded similar to his own, said Bourque, who is from the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement.

"Their stories were considered crimes against humanity, but yet the actions taken against my family and my people were not," he said.

Filmmaker Jamie Bourque warns reconciliation could fail if historical injustices against Indigenous Canadians are not fully recognized. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Bourque said the residential school system is only part of the historical injustices faced by Indigenous Canadians. He criticized what he sees as a failure to acknowledge the full extent of the brutality during early contact, the signing of treaties, and the reservation system.

"There's so much more buried underneath the residential school era that needs to be acknowledged," Bourque said.

He said he hopes the film he's currently working on — The Stark Truth —  an exploration of his family's history and how truth and reconciliation worked in other countries, will help unearth the real story.

Bourque pointed to persisting issues for Indigenous people, such as deficits in education funding and overrepresentation in the justice system.

"If we don't acknowledge the past, then how are we supposed to move on to a brighter future?" he asked, explaining that trauma lives on in all Canadians.

"How are we supposed to move forward as one nation?"

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca 

@andreahuncar