Can the U.S. Follow Canada’s lead in Truth and Reconciliation?

Seven years ago this week–on June 2, 2008–Canada created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look at the painful history and long-term impact of its Indian Residential Schools (also known as  boarding schools). Sadly, the United States has not taken up a similar challenge, though there are stirrings of action.

Canada’s Commission will release its final report on Tuesday. A news report from CBC says it will say that at least 6,000 aboriginal children died while in the residential school system, higher than earlier estimates but still likely an underestimate of what happened. According to the CBC article:

Most of the children died from malnourishment or disease. Some children who attended the schools in the 1940s and 1950s were even subjected to science experiments in which they were deprived essential nutrients and dental care.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission  … is writing an exhaustive history of the residential school system. The commissioners interviewed over 7,000 people, and the final report, which is expected to be released on June 2, will span six volumes and include over two million words.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation grew out of the 2006 Residential School Settlement Agreement, which begins with these words:

There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.

The groundwork for Canada’s truth telling has been more than a decade in the making. Here is a brief history of Canada’s move towards reconciliation and healing, quoting from Wikipedia:

  • In March 1998, the government made a Statement of Reconciliation – including an apology to those people who were sexually or physically abused while attending residential schools – and established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The Foundation was provided $350 million to fund community-based healing projects focusing on addressing the legacy of physical and sexual abuse at Indian residential schools.
  • In its 2005 budget, the Canadian government committed an additional $40 million to continue to support the work of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
  • On November 23, 2005, the Canadian government announced a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former students at native residential schools. This compensation package became a Settlement Agreement in May 2006.
  • [Days after the Commission was created] 0n June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology, on behalf of the sitting Cabinet, in front of an audience of Aboriginal delegates, and in an address that was broadcast nationally on the CBC, for the past governments’ policies of assimilation. The Prime Minister apologized not only for the known excesses of the residential school system, but for the creation of the system itself.

The United States also has a long and tragic legacy of boarding schools. The federal government  issued a general apology to Native American peoples in 2009, ” for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States…” However, the apology was buried on page 45 of a 67-page Defense Appropriations bill; there was no public announcement and it received no attention.

Canada’s experience shows this truth telling and healing is a long process. There are signs of a growing momentum in the United States, coming both from religious communities and from the Native communities. For instance, they include actions in recent years by major Christian denominations to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which provided the religious justification for boarding schools and other acts of suppressing native languages, cultures, and religions. In addition, there was the recent creation of the National Native American Boarding Scho0l Healing Coalition, whose goals include securing “a meaningful response from the US government, which may include an apology as well as redress for the Native American individuals [and] communities … victimized in the past and present by the US Boarding School policies and practices, which constituted cultural genocide.”

These are all positive signs, but there is much more work to be done.

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