June 06, 2008 Features & Images » Feature Story

The Dreamcatcher Commission 

Canada’s attempt to make amends with its stolen children

click to enlarge Residential School Survivor Majorie Natrall at her house in Squamish
  • Residential School Survivor Majorie Natrall at her house in Squamish

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“It is not simply a session to say, ‘here’s what went wrong,’ but it’s also, ‘how do we move to reconciliation?’” said Chuck Strahl, the federal minister of Indian affairs and Member of Parliament for the Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon riding that includes the Pemberton Valley.

“Part of it is to basically document for the first time in a holistic way what happened and why… At least part of it will be the truth of what went on in that sad period.”

The commission expects to prepare a comprehensive record on the operations and policies of the residential school system and detail the experiences of students and former employees.

Strahl stressed that the commission is not a criminal court, and that it is intended solely as a vehicle for Canadians to learn the history and experiences of residential schools.

“If people have accusations towards individuals that are of a criminal nature they shouldn’t wait for the commission, they should go to the RCMP,” he said. “If there’s a commission, you can’t simply say someone can be accused of criminal activity, and not be able to defend themselves.”

Those who wish to identify school employees who engaged in abusive acts will be allowed to do so in additional in camera sessions, out of the public eye, according to Jane Morley, one of the TRC’s three commissioners, though it has not been determined how any testimony will be carried out.

“Certainly, absolutely, they’ll be able to do that in private,” she said. “It’s much more about people standing up and saying what happened, and therefore the names of individuals are not what it’s about.”

Though a first in Canada, the TRC is not the first of its kind. It bares a strong similarity with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place in South Africa between 1996 and 1998.

Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it sought to investigate crimes that occurred during the country’s apartheid era. Focusing on human rights violations and reparations, the TRC granted amnesty to anyone, including perpetrators of violence, who agreed to come forward and make “full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective.” Perpetrators could be summoned to testify, but they would suffer no consequences if they agreed to tell the truth.

Unlike in South Africa, Canada’s TRC will not summon anyone to testify.

“We’re not just talking about reconciliation of victims of abuse and the perpetrators of abuse,” Morley says. “We’re talking about a broader form of reconciliation that will hopefully be reconciliation between aboriginal peoples in Canada and the broader Canadian society.”

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