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October 27, 2010

Reconciliation but not with government

Reuel S. Amdur

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Murray Sinclair, who heads up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told an audience at convocation at Ottawa's Carleton University about some little-known aspects of the law surrounding the residential schools tragedy.

Sinclair is the first Manitoba Aboriginal judge.  In 1988, he was appointed Associate Chief Justice of the Provincial Court and in 2001 to the Court of Queen’s Bench.  His law practice focused on criminal and civil litigation and Aboriginal law.  Over time, his practice focused more and more on Aboriginal clients and Aboriginal law.  His parents and grandparents all attended residential schools.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is charged with establishing the truth about the residential school “experiences, impacts, and consequences” in a setting that is safe and appropriate for witnesses.

As well, it is to educate the Canadian public about such matters and is to invite “church, former school employees and government officials in the reconciliation process, if requested by communities.”

It is well known that children were taken from their families and deprived of language, culture, affection, and pride.  But that was not all. 

There were laws that served as an underpinning for this genocide.  “If parents hid their children to keep them from the residential school, they were committing a criminal offence, as was anyone helping them.”  Nor could they protest, for if three or more got together, they could be charged with conspiracy.  They could not seek redress through the courts because to go to court they needed the approval of the Minister of Indian Affairs.  Fat chance that. 

Furthermore, no one could go to court on their behalf, and any lawyer attempting to take such a case faced automatic disbarment.  Could they, then, vote the rascals out?  With a property qualification for voting, an 1891 law took away their right to own property.

In short, the racist legislation left the Aboriginal population totally subjugated.  They could not even complain, and their children were taken from them; in some cases they were never allowed to see them again. If they did see them again, they found the children victims of brainwashing, rejecting their culture, lacking respect for parents and family, and with a self-image as being inferior.

Sinclair told of a man whom he was called upon to visit once he had been appointed to the Commission.  The man was in palliative care.  As a young child, he was taken to a residential school.  He knew no English.  The first day in class, he needed to go to the bathroom. He turned to a classmate to ask how to ask in English, whereupon the teacher hit him in the head with a ruler, causing him to wet his pants.  He was then sat in the corner for the rest of the day.  The next day he again had to go to the bathroom.  Again he asked another boy how to ask in English.  Again the ruler came down on his head.

This was the atmosphere the children lived with.  A group of the boys, rebelling against the beatings, got together one night and went back to the school, where they stole all the rulers used to beat them and burned them.  When the teachers found out what had happened the next day, they got sticks with which they beat the boys to force confessions and betrayals of the other participants.  The experience of the school left him seething with anger.

As an adult, he drank heavily, had children by different women, and got into frequent fights.  He would go into bars and pick fights with white men, beginning first with those that seemed the weakest but later going after tougher fellows.  He spent a lot of time in jail.

So what did he want of Sinclair?  He wanted to see his children, so he could apologize to them.  However, none of them would come to see him. They wanted nothing to do with him because of the way he had treated them and their mothers. 

This story illustrates two aspects of the role of the Commission.  The Commission is to get at the truth, the whole truth, and this man’s story is part of that truth.  Then there is the matter of reconciliation.  Reconciliation with whom?

For Sinclair, reconciliation with the government does not seem to be on the radar.  “I have never met anyone that wants to be reconciled with the government.  One forgives people, not institutions.” 

He sees reconciliation as including families.  This dying man needed to be reconciled with his children. As well, Sinclair sees a need for Aboriginals to be reconciled with themselves, to gain self-respect.

Sinclair says that the cultural and emotional destruction lasted for seven generations, resulting in a high rate of social dysfunction and more recently in an increase in criminal behavior. 

His Commission cannot undo all of that in its four year mandate.  “It took seven generations to create the problem and it may take that long to resolve it,” he observed.

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