Truth and Reconciliation Commission announces a four-day hearing in Montreal
Montreal will host a four day national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing this April.
TRC hearings in Quebec have already taken place in Mani-Utenam, near Sept-Îles, and Val-d’Or. Two more hearings will be held next month, in La Tuque March 5-6 and – crucially for the Crees of Eeyou Istchee – in Chisasibi March 19-20.
All these hearings will lead into the TRC Quebec National Event, to be held at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel April 24-27. Everyone is welcome to attend and those who cannot can watch the hearings live on the internet (at www.trc.ca).
Discussion of the issue of Indian residential schools (IRS) and their survivors is an unhappy and difficult activity, and the tone of speakers at the February 7 press conference to announce the event ranged from grave to truly upset.
It began with an opening prayer by former Kahnawake Grand Chief Andrew Delisle Sr. (1968 to 1980), who also welcomed guests to Mohawk territory.
“I live in Kahnawake,” said Delisle, “and it feels very restricted for me. I remember my ancestors used to be able to travel the lengths of America without any boundaries, and without anybody stopping us. We used to take the resources and live from that. But now we’re restricted.”
Desisle attended a residential school in Victoriaville in the 1940s and 1950s, but said he was fortunate that, unlike so many IRS survivors, he went to a school where the priests were interested in learning Mohawk culture from him, rather than destroying it.
“It was very different from the experiences of so many other people,” he said.
But even for those few who were fortunate enough to have had experiences in residential schools that were not genocidal, he added, “each reservation is a residential school. We are all ex-students in residential schools, because our reservations used to restrict us from talking our languages, in many cases. They took away a lot of our customs and cultures. We had to ask permission to leave the reservation. We had to ask permission to sell the products we made. We had to give up hunting and learn planting. So I make that comparison sincerely. People who were in residential schools suffered more than we did. But we also, on the reservations, experienced a form of residential schools.”
Delisle went on to underline that Mohawk society is structured around peace, honour, trust and respect, and encouraged the process of the TRC.
“We need to forgive each other,” he said, “or at least appreciate that somebody is trying to do something to correct the problems that exist. Residential school survivors are suffering. But I also wonder if non-Indian society is suffering as well, for what their brothers and sisters did to us. Whether people in the modern day are sorry for what their ancestors did.”
Following Delisle, Marie Wilson, one of the three TRC commissioners, spoke.
“Our base goal is something very important, which is to contribute to healing: the healing of individuals, of families, of communities, of nations, of relationships between nations, of churches, and of society at large. But it’s also to contribute to education. Education inside families, where silence that denied the deeds of the past was common for decades, and where children did not know what had happened to their parents and their grandparents.”
Brian McDonough, director of the Social Action Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal, is the spokesperson for the churches participating in the TRC.
“Not everything that took place in Indian residential schools was negative,” McDonough claimed. “Many people worked in these schools with goodwill and great generosity. Nonetheless, these schools reflected a policy of assimilation of Aboriginal peoples.”
The TRC must go beyond expressions of regret and demands for forgiveness, McDonough observed. “We must work together with Aboriginal people toward building a future based on mutual respect. For Christian churches, the Truth and Reconciliation Council offers a position from which to build a respectful future by honestly examining the past – its dark sides, but also its positive sides.”
McDonough’s statements led to aggressive questioning from the media. McDonough seemed flustered and defensive, and asked the media to recall that Christian churches also made positive contributions to Aboriginal culture and languages.
“The pangs of conscience that we feel today are different from those someone might have felt in 1840 when these policies were instituted,” he said. “And I must underline here that religious men, Christians, also contributed to the preservation of these cultures, such as through the invention of the written lexicon of Aboriginal languages by missionaries. But this does not hide in any way the fact that Indian residential schools alienated and excluded young people from their families and their futures in a way that is, today, absolutely unacceptable. That is why we are participants in this work toward healing.”
The press conference ended with the introduction of two new honorary witnesses, members of the general public whose role, according to the TRC, is to “[safeguard] historic moments by bearing witness and carrying forward to others the truth and importance of such events.”
The first witness, Charles-Mathieu Brunelle (director general of Montreal’s Space for Life, which includes the Biodome, Insectarium, Botanical Garden and Planetarium), was overwhelmed with emotion during his speech, pausing several times for air.
“I want to be a person who helps to multiply the message of marginalized peoples,” he said. “I want to play a role in modifying perceptions, to destroy prejudices that exist. In collaborating with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this is for me a way to reinforce and celebrate the riches of First Nations cultures. We place our hands in theirs, and we look into their eyes as we ask them to guide us toward a better place.”
Éloge Butera, the second honourable witness, is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. He recalled being singled out as a young child in Grade 2, along with other members of the Tutsi ethnic group, by his Hutu teachers called Tutsis “cockroaches” and “sub-humans.”
Upon arriving in Canada a decade ago, Butera said he was shocked to learn of the history of residential schools.
“Even here, in the one home where I would at last be safe,” he said, “the one place I would at last be free to pursue my dreams and education, a grave injustice had yet to be redressed. And indeed, the harm done to First Nations in this country was awfully reminiscent of some of my own experiences as a child. A policy that was meant to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ is certainly not worthy of Canada.”