Reflecting on Reconciliation

By Maggie Helwig

(Excerpted from Flowers in the Wall: Truth & Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Melanesia; original here.

To situate myself at the start—I am a settler in Turtle Island/Canada (henceforth referred to as “Canada” simply for convenience), of mixed English, Irish, and German ancestry, living on the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and the Huron/Wendat Nation. I was involved in the East Timor solidarity movement from the late 1980s until, more or less, Timor-Leste’s emergence as an independent nation. I have been an Anglican priest since 2012, and previous to that an Anglican layperson, and as such was necessarily aware of the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the residential school system, in which the Anglican Church played a large role. And, not incidentally, I am a novelist; one of my novels deals with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and another is set, in part, in Timor-Leste. All of which is to say, I am someone with a broad general knowledge of many things, and a specialist knowledge of none, and that is the sort of chapter you are about to read, as I reflect on some of the aspects of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and possible links to issues of truth and reconciliation in East Timor, West Papua, and Indonesia.

Usually, truth and reconciliation commissions are set up as part of the transition from one form of government to another—this was the case, in varying ways, in South Africa, in El Salvador, in Haiti, in Guatemala, in Sierra Leone, among other places. It was the case in East Timor after it won its independence. It was the case in Solomon Islands, which was emerging from an internal conflict. If there is to be a commission for West Papua, it is likely to also come at a transitional moment. But in Canada, the settler-dominated regime which carried out the genocidal policies (and it is important that the commission stated, as a finding of fact, that the Canadian government and churches had committed cultural genocide) has remained in power. No significant political changes took place to cause the creation of the TRC—it was, rather, formed in response to several massive class action suits brought by residential school survivors, the only case so far in which a government has been compelled through legal action to create a truth commission.

The Rev. Maggie Helwig, rector at St. Stephen’s ion the Fields, Toronto. (Photo: Michael Hudson,/Anglican Journal)

This presented problems for the commission, but also some significant advantages. Most notably, once the TRC was set up and operating, it was far less beholden to power than most truth commissions. The TRC, in other words, was independent, not a government body. In general, a new regime, for good or ill, has particular interests that it wishes to see met by its truth commission, and the links between the regime and the commission, however much it may be formally independent, tend to be close enough to ensure that to a large degree this happens. As Patricia Hayner writes in her comparative analysis of truth commissions, they engage in “official truth-seeking.” The Canadian commission’s lack of direct links to the government meant that it had no clear mechanism for the implementation of its recommendations, but it also meant that it could speak and act with unusual freedom.

The Canadian TRC began its work in 2008, following a settlement of legal battles over the toxic legacy left by the Indian residential schools that operated, many of them under church management but always as part of a federal government policy, from the passage of the Indian Act in 1876 until the last school closed in 1996. Some 150,000 Aboriginal children were compelled to attend residential schools apart from their families, where they were forced to work and forbidden to speak their own languages. The TRC held national hearings driven by survivor testimony and carried out extensive research in government and church archives before delivering its final report in 2015, featuring 94 “calls to action.” Among other facts, it found that 4,000 children died in residential schools, and that the federal government had pursued a policy of “cultural genocide.”

It was, interestingly, the only truth commission so far which has had to deal with massive, systemic violations committed, as part of an institutional mandate, by mainstream Christian churches. This is important in large part because our vision of what truth commissions do and how they operate is still strongly influenced by South Africa, where the process was largely, and brilliantly, shaped by the Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, a figure of great moral authority and credibility who consciously drew on the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation to create the South African process. It is not a coincidence that most truth commission since then have been established in majority-Christian cultures—indeed, that the theological and liturgical imagination which Bishop Tutu brought to South Africa has become almost a defining feature of truth commissions in general. But in the Canadian case, the Anglican, United, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic churches were among the greatest systemic offenders in the residential school system, and the “confessional” shape of the usual truth commission proceedings was thereby rendered quite problematic.

The Canadian situation also meant that the handful of surviving perpetrators, and the systems that had been created, were still very near at hand—unlike, for instance, the Timorese commission, which had to deal with the fact that most perpetrators were now living in another country—Indonesia—not necessarily either inclined or obliged to co-operate. On the other hand, because the Canadian commission’s mandate extended back considerably more than a century, most perpetrators—whether individual offenders or architects of the genocidal policies—were no longer alive. Partly because of this, the commission made the unusual decision that it would not name names of perpetrators, nor would it seek testimony from them (though a very small number did speak).

The decision not to name names was greeted with some concern. It closed down space for the possibility of contrition, or for receiving the story of what was done wrongly; and it might have left little opportunity to sketch out the shape of reconciled community. The commission’s stated policy of not naming names was historically and legally reasonable, since most accused perpetrators were no longer living, and therefore unable to speak in their own defence. Without names, the historical record is incomplete, and there is a danger that crimes committed by no one in particular cannot be properly remembered.

In the end, however, the decision not to name names may have, even if accidentally, contributed to what turned out to be the commission’s greatest strength. The TRC’s hearings were markedly less forensic and more discursive than most truth commissions; and by moving the focus away from the acts of individuals onto systems, they were able to dig very deeply into structures of racism and inequality. Their final report is, in some ways, only incidentally about residential schools—in fact, it is a sweeping indictment of the ongoing colonial situation in the country we call Canada. The commission, it is clear from its own materials, originally saw its role as twofold: helping the survivors heal from the trauma by giving them an opportunity to tell their stories, and compiling a comprehensive historical record. But ultimately, and after considerable struggle, the TRC did a great deal more than that. In the preface to their final report, the commissioners wrote:

Getting to the truth was hard, but getting to reconciliation will be harder. It requires that the paternalistic and racist foundations of the residential school system be rejected as the basis for an ongoing relationship. Reconciliation requires that a new vision, based on a commitment to mutual respect, be developed. It also requires an understanding that the most harmful impacts of residential schools have been the loss of pride and self-respect of Aboriginal people, and the lack of respect that non-Aboriginal people have been raised to have for their Aboriginal neighbours. Reconciliation is not an Aboriginal problem; it is a Canadian one. Virtually all aspects of Canadian society may need to be reconsidered. . . . Reconciliation will take some time.

This is probably the first truth and reconciliation commission so far in history to end up calling for a complete reconsideration of all aspects of the society in which it is situated, and its ninety-four calls to action really do present a comprehensive picture of potentially massive social change. Whether this extraordinary aim can be even partly fulfilled is another matter, but the report is, in itself, a small triumph.

Click here to read the full chapter via University of Calgary Press.