Recent reports have prompted me to recall the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings I attended with a Canadian friend in Edmonton, Alberta, in March 2014. The commission's purpose was to bring light to the dark history of Canadian residential schools, which were modeled after similar schools for Native children in the United States.
Perhaps the fear that we in America will discover similar unmarked graves of Native children who died in the boarding schools we forced them to attend will lead us to seek the truth and attempt reconciliation, as our Canadian neighbors have done.
What would a truth and reconciliation commission achieve? What did it achieve in Canada? Why would we venture on such a path?
On a practical and immediate level, the meetings held across Canada awakened people. It awakened me, the outsider looking in, feeling shame and remorse.
The meetings gave voice to those harmed by the residential schools. One account remains vivid:
A First Nations man described how he lived with his tightly knit extended family of nomadic hunters and harvesters. One day when he was eight or nine a boat came upriver to where they were camped; Indian agents came ashore and an argument ensued. He was wrenched away from his parents, who were screaming in disbelief, and forced onto the boat. As the boat pulled away the last thing he saw was his parents waving their arms. It was the last time he saw them.
When he arrived at the school they cut off his hair and burned his traditional clothes, and fed him food he found repulsive. He could not speak English and no one could speak his language. He slept in a large room among strangers. He was physically punished for doing things wrong he didn't even understand. He had no idea why he was there and why such terrible things were happening to him. Eventually, as he learned English, he was taught that his beloved grandparents from whom "he had never heard a bad word" worked for the devil. Yet he missed his family more than he could express.
He described sexual abuse, corporal punishment and bullying. When he left the school as a teenager he fit nowhere. He had lost his native culture and language, which he had learned to be ashamed of. But he didn't fit into white society, which for him was racist. Like many he fell victim to alcohol and drugs.
His story was one of many.
The second purpose of the meeting was apology. A representative from the Catholic Church, which had administered most of the schools, read a letter that began: "We, the Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, apologize to those who experienced sexual and physical abuse in residential schools under Catholic Administration … also we apologize for participating in governmental policies that separated children from their parents and that suppressed their cultures."
Representatives of the provincial and national governments addressed the audience: "We apologize. Nothing we can say can make this past go away. We may have thought we were doing good, but we were doing something terribly wrong. Hopefully by saying this we can begin a process of healing."
Later, Frank Oberle, Minister of Aboriginal Relations wrote: "Residential schools will always be among the great wrongs of Canadian history. An example of the profound harm that we are capable of when inequality, paternalism and racism prevail over our sense of common humanity."
The third purpose was concrete change. The most important may have been mandating that the unvarnished history of the residential schools become part of the K-12 curriculum across Canada. The commission also produced four lengthy documents that contained the results from their research and public hearings, free and easily available on the web. The overview is found in "Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada," easily searchable.
These reports remind us what humane societies do: they study their missteps, even evils such as slavery and cultural genocide. They admit to wrongdoings and invite those who were harmed to speak. The most powerful speak humbly and ask for forgiveness. Finally, humane and honest societies rewrite their history when new knowledge and new awareness comes to the surface. They do it in the open, in a dialogue where all are invited to speak.
I'd be thrilled if some of the Americans riled up about "critical race theory" would read these Canadian documents and think about what it really means to face up to our past, make amends and move forward.
Douglas Harper, of Forest Lake, is professor emeritus of sociology, Duquesne University.