Will truth bring reconciliation? Justice Murray Sinclair says not without education

Justice Murray Sinclair's work as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is wrapping up. He offers his take on what reconciliation really means, and explains how Indigenous Peoples and the rest of Canada can take the next steps together.
Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair speaks at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

It was a massive undertaking. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission travelled across the country for six years, visiting more than 300 communities and listening to thousands of residential school survivors.

They told their stories one by one, some for the very first time.

We understood from that moment, very deeply, not only the significance of what we were doing but the sacredness of it.- Justice Murray Sinclair

Justice Murray Sinclair said he quickly recognized the great responsibility that came with collecting these stories.

The chair of the TRC recalled a young woman from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik who attended one of many gatherings. She cried while listening to survivor testimony before sharing her own story. One of growing up with a father who was deeply affected by his experience at residential school. 

She spoke about his addictions, his violence, his inability to show love or affection and, ultimately, his suicide.

"She spoke for all the intergenerational survivors who said that they now understood that one of the most important acts of reconciliation for the survivors was to be forgiven," Sinclair said.

The TRC collected more than 7,000 survivor stories and millions of documents, a legacy now in the care of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. 

Indoctrination through Christianity

But Sinclair said learning the truth about the schools is just beginning.

St. Michael's Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, B.C., is shown in a 1970 photo. (Library and Archives Canada/The Canadian Press)
"The schools were not about education," he said. "The schools were about indoctrination."

In 1883, Sir John A. McDonald's government intentionally built the schools far away from families and communities, as a way to assimilate indigenous children into mainstream Christian society.

He called this indoctrination the driving force behind the schools that dotted the country from coast to coast to coast for over 100 years.

"[McDonald said] if we leave them to attend schools in their communities we will only end up with savages who can read and write," Sinclair explained.

A typical day began at dawn with children being forced to pray for 30 minutes before and after breakfast. Then came instruction in mathematics, reading and writing.

Sinclair said teachers were not trained or certified in any way and there wasn't even a curriculum in the schools until after World War II. He explained most former students could not write when they finished school, nor could they apply their residential school education toward university or college.

It is from this environment that children grew into broken adults, many marred by abuse, others mired in addiction. They also carried what they learned in residential school, a message that Indigenous Peoples were inferior to Europeans. A message, stressed Sinclair, that was also being taught to non-indigenous children.

"That created a very powerful schism within indigenous and non-indigenous Canada," he said. "We reminded people that... reconciliation is not an indigenous problem, it is for all of Canada."

We have all been taught to believe in aboriginal inferiority and European superiority and that's wrong.- Justice Murray Sinclair

Education key to reconciliation

Sinclair said that education will provide the best solutions to healing that schism.

The TRC recommends the history of residential schools be added to all education material so that future generations know the story. 

"But in addition to that, the way that schools treat indigenous history also needs to be reevaluated and rethought and recast," Sinclair said. 

He explained the beginning of history for Canadian students generally begins with the arrival of Europeans. "There's no history taught about the period before 1492 and that's crazy because there's a whole rich history there that we should be talking about," he said. 

The TRC's 94 recommendations

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will present its final report on the history and legacy of Canada's residential school system on Dec. 15 in Ottawa.

Its summary report was released in June and made 94 recommendations, including ones calling for changes to policies and programs.

Sinclair said while many of the calls to action are echoed in other reports like the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and Manitoba's Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, it is ultimately about reconciliation.

Justin Trudeau hugs Elder Evelyn Commanda-Dewache, a residential school survivor, during the closing ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
"Reconciliation turns on this concept: I want to be your friend and I want you to be mine and if we are friends then I'll have your back when you need it and you'll have mine."

Sinclair added that all Canadians must be part of this journey, whether they are connected to its history or not.

"I really don't care if you feel responsible for the past. The real question is do you feel a sense of responsibility for the future because that's what this is all about."