A Record of my Attendance at the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner’s Talk, May 1, 2015
I was at the Truth and Reconciliation discussion on May 1, 2015. Murray Sinclair, the head of the commission was speaking at that event. It was held at the church of the Redeemer in downtown Toronto. I was one of the younger audience members; I think there were about six others close to my age. The rest of the participants were older to the point of having retired. There were about two hundred people in attendance.
The talk started with a history of the Indian Act in Canada. Sinclair pointed to some truths. First, Sir John A Macdonald decreed that the government could not be sued for their actions. The indian commissioner – (Macdonald) could not be sued personally for his actions. As well, any lawyer in Canada could not give any native person legal advice whatsoever, on pain of losing their right to practice law in Canada forever.
Then there was a discussion of the residential schools. The idea of the residential schools was not to educate; it was to indoctrinate and destroy the native culture itself. The main way this was done was by denying those native students the right to speak in their own language. As well, it was pointed out that someone coming to the residential school would have their head shaved. In native culture, your hair, even if it is cut off, is part of you. The ritual is that your hair is burned; however this did not happen in the context of the residential schools.
Two videos were shown: the first was a documentary from people who had lived in residential schools and they described what happened to them. This was a very painful video to watch, and it was at this point that some audience members got up and left. The stories of pain and hurt were radical and deep. They had no comfort in the narratives and the people who experienced the residential schools – even decades before they spoke – spoke with an immediacy that brought the events into the present.
The question and answer period was interesting, and one consensus was that people were saddened and angered at this hidden part of Canada’s history. One thing Mr Sinclair said was that the young people he saw at one large gathering out west were determined to keep the history alive so that the same mistakes did not happen again.
I asked two questions:
In the narratives he heard of and saw, were there any intersections between Canada’s sterilization laws and the residential schools?
What was going to happen to the data accumulated as records, since I had heard those records were not going to be released and they would be destroyed?
The first question was answered as follows: Mr Sinclair did not hear of any points of contact explicitly, but he heard of times when those intersections were made. Because the data on those sterilizations was provincial data, and the provinces involved refused to release the data, that information might remain hidden.
The second question was answered as follows: the data on the residential schools was stored in the government private archives; it was also in the hands of a group regulating the residential schools. Apparently there is a complete data set, and there might be another, but Mr Sinclair was explicit in saying that his commission did not have access to that set, nor did they have authority to demand a copy.
This was an evening of learning. The information given was supported by the videos. I did not get a chance to take away any of the handouts that were present; but I did look at what was happening and went in with the idea of learning about this. There is available online a document written in 2012 from the website, which outlines the residential schools. It is available online at
I am not sure where the article is found precisely, but Mr Sinclair invited me to access it.
This is a part of Canada’s history which has been carefully hidden. We need to expose this part of history, both for the awareness it would bring and the opportunity to learn about this history. If it is hidden it can be forgotten; if it can be forgotten, it can be repeated. We do not want that to happen. People do want to know more about this history, given that there was a full house that night.
The intersection between native rights and disabled rights is not clear to me at this time, but there are parallels. The idea that the native communities were highly regulated and hidden away from public view; the notion that rights were curtailed as a means of achieving goals; the notion that regulations and not people came first in these narratives. These are only the points of contact I can think of off the top of my head. This must not be allowed to fade; we must not forget this. In addition, we must not allow those hurt voices to be silenced.
The same is true for the disabled community: we cannot afford to allow this residential schools history to go unnoticed and unremarked; we have a stake in this too. The reason is not for the purpose of colonization, but more for the purpose of learning and sharing to avoid these traps into the future. Human lives were at stake then, and we did nothing. We must not allow that to happen again.