Canada and South Africa both have Truth and Reconciliation Commissions which were implemented as a way to acknowledge the human rights violations of the past in order to build new relationships for a brighter future

Over the next five years, former students, family and community members will have the opportunity to speak out in public, some for the first time, about the Indian residential school experience and the effects it has had on their lives.

The Indian Residential School system was set up in late 1800’s and the last school was closed in 1996. The system was a cooperative effort between the Canadian government and church organizations that saw more than 150,000 First Nations children taken to boarding schools, miles away from their families, to be “civilized,” educated, and converted to Christianity. 

Former students talk of sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of teachers and administrators. Many of the schools were also overcrowded and underfunded with poor heating and inadequate sanitation. The children lacked clothing and there were high levels of malnutrition and exposure to contagious diseases. Reports to the government in the earlier part of the 20th century noted that there was a crisis in the state of these schools and a high death rate among students. In some cases, parents never knew what happened to children who died not even where they were buried.


Oppressive system links Canada and South Africa


Since 1980’s survivors have sought justice and reparations from the government and the churches that ran the schools. Their cases led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007. It is the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. The agreement sought to begin repairing the harm caused by residential schools. Apart from providing compensation to former students, the agreement called for the establishment of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada with a budget of $60-million over five years.  The Canadian TRC looked at other countries’ commissions, including the South African one, as a reference.

Shannon Thunderbird.

Shannon Thunderbird is a First Nations elder, educator, speaker, poet and singer. She said people heard a lot about the South African commission because Canada was vocal in the fight against the human rights abuses imposed by the apartheid system. 

“It is ironic because the Canadian Indian Act formed much of the basis for the oppressive apartheid policies in South Africa,” said Thunderbird. “ It’s kind of an understood custom and practice that Canada’s Indian Act came to be known as the acceptable role model for apartheid policies and there are books and websites that outline all of this.”

Thunderbird said the Indian Act served as the blueprint on how to oppress a people within a democratic system. “It’s actually hypocrisy for Canada to stand forward as a kind of bulwark of protest against atrocities going on in other countries while at the same time we turn a blind eye to our own people,” she said.

Thunderbird said she doesn’t know if talking about the residential school experiences in public will help. She said there has to be recognition that despair exists and that violence and injustice continues to exist and that the First Nations people need to address issues within the communities. Thunderbird said there are issues that need to be dealt without involving non-Native people, or the government and provinces.

“We have to find that core within ourselves that creates a place of trust and healing from the history of residential school system,” she said. “We have to deal with the fall of the matriarchy, the imposition of Christianity and the use of the Indian Act. All those colonialist steps took our identity,” said Thunderbird, who also believes that financial compensation is not the answer to healing.


The two cases differ only in numbers


Maurice Charland is a professor of Communications at Concordia University and has studied the South African commission. He spent a year at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, doing research on the subject. He said it might have been more publicised because it was different from the Canadian one.  South Africa had roughly five percent of the white population dominating the country, depriving everyone else the human. So the transition to end apartheid was a kind of civil war and was settled by creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was set up as a political compromise so that the perpetrators of human rights abuses would receive amnesty if they gave a full account of what they did.

Dr. Maurice Charland.

“It was very different from Canada where as bad as what was done to people at residential schools was, numerically the Indigenous population is not 90 per cent of the country,” said Charland. “In South Africa, you knew you were implicated, there was a new government coming, the people who used to be tortured were now going to be in the cabinet and so the world was watching in a very different kind of way.”


Survivors seek healing


One of the goals of Canada’s commission is to promote healing and reconciliation. Glenn Jourdain is 70 years old and has been working on healing all his life. He is the designated history researcher in Couchiching, Ontario where he gathers information on family histories for the people in his community.

One morning in September of 1948, his parents took him and his sister to a black and white building and left them there. He didn’t know at the time why the two people he loved most would have let him go but later found out that the government of the day forced them to do so. He was at St-Marguerite’s residential school in Fort Francis, Ontario for seven years.

 “What it was like in there is that I experienced a lot of physical abuse.  I’m still rebellious deep down because I feel like I have been forced to do things by other people since the age of eight,” said Jourdain.

The school was only about half a mile from his home, yet he couldn’t go home. He used to stand at the corner of the fence of the boys’ playground and see his parents’ house across the open field.  “Sometimes I couldn’t suppress the urge and I would run away and go home, see my mother, get something to eat and I would have to face my punishment in the evening when the priest used me as an example,” he said. Jourdain has not been to the commission’s hearings but says going to church has been keeping him on track.

Glenn Jourdain.

“People ask me how I can still go to church every Sunday when it was the same church that put me in the school. I still go to church to hear the word because it is the same teaching that the Seven Indian Grandfathers teach just like in the Bible. I learnt that if you’re going to heal, you gotta forgive. I have listened to a Black blues singer whose lyrics said that if you walk around carrying the bitterness of any wrongdoing, you can be ruined by it, it’s about who is in control of your life and so I’m trying to be in control of my anger,” said Jourdain.

As we spoke on the phone he told me that he was sitting in the church hallway where he does his research and he described how, hanging on one section of the wall, are about 800 photographs of community members, 90 per cent of them former students of St-Marguerite’s Indian residential school.

“I’m sitting here and looking at this huge picture from 1950 with 100 students and I’m in that picture. All the nuns that tortured us are in that picture, I have no idea where the apology should come from because I am looking at the picture with the people who actually inflicted the pain directly but they have met their creator,” said Jourdain.

Jourdain has written articles on his life experience in the residential schools. “While I was working on the research, I found out that my dad was one of the first students who went to a residential school but my father never told us, he was born in 1897 and was one of the students in 1906. I am in possession of the original school enrolment record of St-Marguerite’s and when you look at page one, student number eight is my dad. He died in 1970.  I only found out in 1998.” said Jourdain.

He said the biggest effect of the residential school system on First Nations people was the loss of language and the culture. He said he couldn’t understand how children who were not raised by their parents could be expected to become good parents without the opportunity to learn parenting skills from their families and community.


Reconnecting to the lost culture


Jourdain said he never saw a Pow-wow or cultural gathering until he was 29 years old.  He always wondered why he never saw any gatherings when he was young. He came across a letter that had been written in 1923 from the government to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There were complaints that Indians wouldn’t stop dancing and there was an order to go and stop them. Jourdain reads books to learn about his cultural, philosophical, and spiritual identities.

“They did a pretty good job of getting the Indian out of the Indian. I hope that some people will get help through the TRC hearings. I have never talked to a counsellor but I can only do my best to heal,” said Jourdain. 

On June11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave the formal apology on behalf of the Government of Canada to the Indian Residential Schools survivors. He referred to the Commission as a “unique opportunity to educate all Canadians on the Indian Residential Schools system” and “a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.”  Jourdain did not watch the apology. He thought that the government did it for political reasons and it didn’t seem genuine.

Irene Louttit Barbeau.

Irene Louttit Barbeau, works with residential school survivors at The Shingwauk Project Centre. “ I was never abused sexually or physically yet I still had the impact of being separated from my family, mom and dad and siblings and relatives,” said Barbeau, 66, who saw that there was need for healing for some of the students.  The Shingwauk Project Centre was an opportunity to provide a venue for them to start to heal from the hurts that they experienced in all forms.

Barbeau was nine years old when she was taken from her home. Unlike Jourdain, she knew what was happening. Her parents had told her that in order to survive in the non-Native world it was good for her to get an education. “I have been involved in this residential school issue since 1981, long before the government or anybody in mainstream society ever paid attention.” She says that when she talked to victims of abuse, she realised that she was also going through a healing process to get over her own separation anxiety linked to being forced to leave her family behind. She has gathered many stories of residential school survivors and the research contributed to the class action case that led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

“I think for me, all we were asking for was for somebody to acknowledge that this is what happened to the Aboriginal students and that the sole purpose of that system was to do away with our race of people and the policy was done by the federal government. I think that it is never the issue of money but that this system is never put in place again in Canada and that it doesn’t happen to either an Aboriginal child or any other race of people,” says Barbeau who says she would like to see this part of history being taught in schools

“That’s a system that most Canadians never knew existed and my children never knew until I talked about it. I have moved on, with a good career in the federal government and that was my parents’ wish that I be self-sufficient and become a contributing citizen of Canada and that is the price I had to pay,” said Barbeau.


New and healthier ways


Maurice Charland said, differences aside, the South African and Canadian commissions are similar in that they create institutions that help people move through and beyond a painful history of oppression. They help communities think about their place within the country in new and healthier ways. He said it is very important to create public spaces where people can talk about and share their experiences. However, it should be understood that these institutional strategies are not a form of therapy or psychological counselling. 

 “It’s very hard to give therapeutic and psychological help in public hearings but they serve a function of making a different kind of framework and telling stories that bring understanding,” said Charland. “I think that the South African model was very successful in that sense.”

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