Wahrheit und Versöhnung

Truth and Reconciliation

Truth and Reconciliation

In May the remains of 215 indigenous children are found on the grounds of a former residential school. The discovery is connected to the Truth Commission established in 2008. A report on efforts to come to terms with colonial violence in Canada.



Capital: Ottawa
Inhabitants: 38 Mio.
Languages: Canada’s official languages of equal status are English and French, with 20.1% of the population claiming neither as their mother tongue. In Canada’s Northwest Territories, several First Nations languages also have official status.

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Wahrheit und Versöhnung
Photo by Melissa Griffin on Unsplash

When a phase of war or exploitation has ended, the question arises each time as to how people can shape a common future out of the ruins of the past. In the vast majority of cases, attempts are made to punish or pay reparations, but a common future does not result. Those who were previously perpetrators now feel like victims, while the previous victims have by no means overcome their suffering through apologies and/or money. Another way must be found. A way that only comes about through shared experiences. For this reason, after the end of apartheid in South Africa, a Truth & Reconciliation Commission was founded, which had the task of letting the victims have their say in a long series of public events. This process led to two results: what had previously been tolerated under the cloak of secrecy was dragged into the light and the perpetrators who could still be identified were brought to justice. This prevented individual violent revenge actions that would have driven the population even further apart than it already was. This example was followed first by Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and then by Cambodia, which had not yet overcome the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) even in 2001. In the process, there was a shift in the goals being pursued. Whereas in South Africa and Rwanda the aim was not only to shape a common future but also to punish the perpetrators, in Cambodia the perpetrators had died long since or had become so old that their punishment hardly brought any relief to the victims.

The country that is still the last in the series of Truth & Reconciliation initiatives is Canada. The Canadian initiative began in 2008 and was supposed to last until 2013. The part of Canada’s history that was to be overcome in the Canadian Truth & Reconciliation Initiative is, in contrast to the events in Cambodia, South Africa and Rwanda, little known worldwide. These are the so-called Residential Schools, in which the children of the First Nations (indigenous population) were to be assimilated into white society. Over the course of 120 years (1876-1996), First Nations children were placed in residential schools at the age of 6-7, where they remained until the age of 16/17 and were to be prepared for a life in the ‘society of the majority‘.

This is how many interviews the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) conducted with those affected.

In the course of these 120 years, thousands of children in over 3.000 homes were alienated from the culture of their families and psychologically destroyed to such an extent that after leaving the homes they could neither settle with their parents in the reservations nor in the cities of the ’society of the majority‘.

When I moved from Madagascar to Canada with my three children in 1995, I knew nothing about all this. It was not reported anywhere, neither in the Canadian nor in the international press. In Madagascar, we had lived in a village with about 2.000 inhabitants. There was running water only in the rainy season, because then it ran everywhere. Electricity was only available in the dry season, because then the lines stayed dry enough to conduct electricity. Our children went to the American school but their social environment was the children and families in our village. The Madagascan way of dealing with children is very different from that in western countries. In Madagascar, children play an important role in society and receive the appropriate respect for their contribution. This is also how our children were socialised. Their relationship with adults was at eye level. Therefore, arriving in Canada was a shock for them, and after their initial interest in playgrounds, baseball, cinema and television, they longed to return to the social connectedness and human closeness of the Malagasy. In search of a social environment where they would feel secure, I contacted the council of elders of the reserve, which was close to where we lived. There I asked if our three children could spend the summer on the reserve. At first I was looked at very suspiciously, but after I explained our situation, our children were accepted.

This reserve was one that was close to a town and whose children went to school in the town. This protected them from being placed in shelters. I did not know all this. Only in the course of that summer did I gradually find out why the council of elders had initially been so suspicious of me. For the members it seemed like a new threat. Some white people were taking their children away from them and the other white people wanted to bring their children to them because they couldn’t get along with the white people themselves. I was affected, angry, felt complicit, and was immensely grateful. That summer, our children learned that the values they had been taught in Madagascar also applied in Canada – just not among the white people.

Photo by Marie-Michèle Bouchard on Unsplash

In 1996, the last residential schools were closed. This ended that particular part of the First Nations’ struggle and a new chapter began. Reserves needed schools. Children who were to go to secondary schools had to be placed in the cities. The children of those who had themselves been raised in homes had parents who knew no family connection, could find no work on the reserves, and had no picture of their own future or that of their children. Alcohol flowed freely in the reserves, children numbed the feeling of abandonment and hopelessness with benzingases.

In parallel, however, there is also a core of First Nations who are resisting all this. From the west coast to the east coast, Canada has over two dozen different First Nations living on widely separated reserves. In each of these nations there are some people who are working together to develop a future for all First Nations, supporting each other across this great land. The future is to be determined by the First Nations themselves. Strategies are being developed and also implemented. These strategies include: (I.) maintaining First Nations status, (II.) population growth, (III.) training their own doctors, lawyers, teachers, police, nurses, etc., (IV.) participation in federal and provincial politics, (V.) reinterpretation of old treaties between First Nations and white people, (VI.) revival of traditional festivals, (VII.) close cooperation among First Nations in Canada and with those in the USA, (VIII.) making the reality of their lives visible through events and media. (IX.) Many reserves also ban alcohol. (X.) In British Columbia, one of the reserves won its independence from the national government, (XI.) an additional administrative territory was created for the Inuit, whose territory lies on the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and (XII.) their own companies, banks, schools, radio and television stations, etc. are opened, not only on the reserves but also in the cities of the society of the majority.

First Nations status includes the right to social support from the state. Those who live on the reserve have the right to financial support from the federal government. Those who leave the reserve are financially supported by the respective provincial government. To be eligible for this right, one must be at least 25% indigenous. So, if the son of an indigenous person and a non-indigenous woman (=50%) has children with a non-indigenous woman, then his children are 25% indigenous. If they then want to have children and they are to keep their status as indigenous, then the respective partner must be at least 50% indigenous him- or herself.

What can be summarised so easily here was or is a decades-long effort, which of course did not start with the abolition of residential schools. But this step was the moment when everything else picked up speed.

This included the Truth & Reconciliation Commission events. In 2008, the first public events began. Representatives from the Canadian government, provincial governments, municipalities, churches, police, schools, associations, hospitals, banks, chambers of commerce, corporations, etc. were invited to share the First Nations experience. On stage were First Nations representatives who had all been held in residential schools for years. They spoke about what it was like for them as young children to be caught by the police on the reserve, how they had their long hair cut off when they arrived at the residential school, which they had grown with a lot of pride and care, how they were beaten as soon as they communicated with each other in their respective mother tongues, how they were abused, and how they were unable to gain a foothold in the reserves after leaving the residential school. They spoke of their attempts to live and work in the white cities, of the impossibility of finding a job, of sinking into the sex trade, of alcoholism and drug use. They spoke of how family members had been picked up in the cities by drunken white people and abandoned in the wilderness in the middle of winter. Their frozen bodies were only found after the snow melted in spring.

During these events, First Nations representatives relived these events through storytelling. Pain, tears, despair and anger were no longer lived in secret, but were made visible to the world. The perpetrators were not given the opportunity to deny responsibility by objectification. There were no discussions, no question rounds, and no debates. The goals were to listen, to understand, to know and to share. At least a small part of the burden was to be redistributed onto the shoulders of the white.

At some events, there were attempts to disregard the pre-established rules. It happened that church representatives wanted to hand over white sashes during the events to express their concern or apology. These sashes were rejected because the First Nations were not concerned with guilt or apology, but with the shared experience on which they would later try to build a common future. At some events, First Nations representatives incorporated ceremonial gestures of connection with each other. Ceremonial pipes were smoked, the room was cleansed with the smoke of certain plants, traditional costumes were worn, and much more. The living power of First Nations was made visible and was used to strengthen each other and overcome the fear of exposure. Much of these events were publicised in the public and private media. Action groups developed, universities took up various topics for master’s theses, funding was made available for mental health treatment for many of those affected, and forensic research began to address the events. In 2021 alone, several mass graves containing hundreds of children’s skeletons were found on Residential Schools property. First Nations have always known of the existence of these graves but had neither the means nor the authority to open them. They only gained the right to do so when the events were made visible and the silence ended, through the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

The work continues today. When the Commission ended its work in 2015, it was not the end of development, but the beginning of the next phase of social processing and reshaping the lives of First Nations in Western society. Their goal is to determine for themselves how to implement their traditions and lore in today’s world. They want to bring their strengths to bear in overcoming the world crises. They neither want to be victims nor to be seen as such. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission has made not only the suffering but also the strengths of the First Nations visible and thus accessible to all.

Dr. Imme Gerke

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