Truth Must Come Before Reconciliation

Robin V. Sears

July 15, 2021

“I want to know who killed my grandmother’s children! I want to know who led the schools where these atrocities took place.” These are among the so-far unanswered questions posed by second and third generation survivors of Canada’s brutal, racist residential school system. As the number of the victims’ unmarked graves now numbers in the thousands, they are questions Canada can no longer ignore.

There are, living in quiet retirement across Canada, hundreds of former teachers, principals, Indian Agents, bureaucrats and the Catholic Church’s nuns, priests and church officials, who were at least complicit in this appalling Canadian chapter. They are now very old, and quickly passing on. Not one has stepped forward voluntarily to take responsibility for the crimes committed by them or their colleagues. Truth and Reconciliation leader — now Queen’s University Chancellor — Justice Murray Sinclair said privately, when he submitted his Commission report, that the complete absence of supervisory witnesses and accomplices to the industrialized cruelty, was among his greatest disappointments in his six years of evidence collection.

The international gold standard of commissions such as these is the one commissioned by Nelson Mandela and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. It received testimony from dozens of former perpetrators, and well as thousands of victims. Many senior government officials, military and national security leaders, simply refused to appear — one of their TRC’s shortcomings most often cited by critics. Those who did appear, testify and then seek amnesty were mostly the foot soldiers of the apartheid oppression infrastructure. Some admitted to horrific crimes. Their appearance and acceptance of responsibility was no “get out of jail free” card. Of the more than 7,000 amnesty requests, nearly 90 percent were rejected.

Among the differences between South Africa’s TRC and ours was that, in South Africa, at least some of the guilty appeared. Their testimony — including that of President Mandela’s former wife Winnie Mandela — was watched by millions in live television and radio coverage during the first two years of the Tutu commission’s launch in 1996. Critics point to the failure to bring the leaders to justice, but they were named and shamed publicly, and they were chased by local and international media to come clean publicly. In Canada, that we don’t even know our perpetrators’ names is a gruesome testament to the anonymity and impunity that organized evil, left covered up, bequeaths to its perpetrators. The NDP and many Indigenous leaders have demanded a public inquiry into these gaps, some have suggested such a body be given authority to deliver criminal charges against those for whom sufficient evidence is uncovered.

Will we have the courage to allow the children and grandchildren of residential school survivors to know who did this to their parents, grandparents and great grandparents? The urgency will continue to mount as more graves are uncovered, and those responsible die.

A second achievement of the Tutu commissioners was their uncovering of many of the documents and communications about the arrests, torture, and murder of thousands of South Africans. For the family of one of this brutal regime’s most famous victims, Steven Biko, confirmation of his brutal beating and murder and who was responsible was not good enough. They, understandably, demanded justice for those responsible for years after the Commission delivered its final report in 2003. A Canadian inquiry may run into the same roadblocks. But do we not even want to know who the perpetrators were? Does reconciliation not require this truth-telling in order for it to be real and sustainable?

Will we have the courage to allow the children and grandchildren of residential school survivors to know who did this to their parents, grandparents and great grandparents?

The perpetrators may be passing away, but their children and grandchildren are here. Many of them will have heard stories of the atrocities from relatives. The people who presided over these atrocities may no longer be here, but surely there is some documentation of their actions. How is it possible for any government to accept the insolent obduracy of the Church about providing access to these essential records? Establishing the truths about who was responsible for these daily assaults on thousands of children as young as six may require subpoena powers. It may require legal compulsion, but no institution is above the law, not even churches.

The outbreak of church burnings this summer, while reprehensible, may continue as anger mounts following each new discovery. This is the risk that the Church continues to run if they refuse to co-operate with efforts to discover the truth. Anger will continue to grow the longer they remain defensive. It will wound the faith of an increasing number of their members, as many have already declared. It will further damage the reputation of the Church, just as it was beginning to dig itself out from two decades of shame from the pedophile priests scandals. The Church should move now to avoid another decade of shame.

But the ball is now in the government of Canada’s court. It knows where these crimes were committed. It will soon know from investigations, conducted by the media, Indigenous leaders and families, the names of an increasing number of the victims. The names of the bishops and bureaucrats in charge are slowly being revealed. It is up to the government to show the courage and leadership to take the next step: an independent tribunal, made up of judges and Indigenous leaders, and representatives of the survivor families, with legal powers to compel testimony and documents.

The legacy of the South African commission is mixed and still widely debated. If failed to bring the most serious offenders to justice. It failed to win reparations for the victims. Many of its recommendations are still not implemented nearly 20 years later. In that, the frustrating experience of Justice Sinclair’s in failing to get Canadian governments to act on his 92 recommendations, is a Canadian mirror of Desmond Tutu’s struggle. But there are several key differences.

South Africans were seized and educated for years by the drama and detail of the Commission’s daily broadcast public hearings. A sense of release and relief about the end of apartheid was widely acknowledged. The nation was given a chance to begin reconciliation by this gruelling process of revelation. The power of secrecy and cover-up that had compounded the injustice to the victims of apartheid by keeping them invisible through a system of fear and retaliation was finally disarmed. A line was drawn in the sand between the sins of the old South Africa and the promise of the Mandela era. If absolute closure, through the stern application of justice to the perpetrators was not possible, a detailed history of the sins of the apartheid regime’s crimes was.

We should learn from, and then aspire to do better than Desmond Tutu was able to do. We can bring many of the guilty into the light, and some perhaps, to justice. Canada would be more likely to make progress toward genuine reconciliation with Indigenous communities if even that detailed, proven, history was written here. And if the families of the survivors of these deadly “schools” were given new tools to seek closure.

And, as an increasing number of survivors’ families are now declaring, “It’s up to you now, Justin Trudeau.”

Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears. national director of the NDP during the Broadbent years, is an independent communications consultant based in Ottawa.