After six years, countless tears and thousands of emotional accountings of residential school experiences, the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission report came down this week.
Rather than making broad-based, sweeping recommendations that are more a state of mind, the report makes nearly 100 specific action points aimed at such things as helping aboriginal people recapture their culture, educating the general population about the country’s aboriginal heritage, and creating government policies and programs designed to enhance our understanding of the importance of that heritage and the distinctiveness of Canada’s aboriginal people.
The phrase “cultural genocide” was used to describe the systematic removal of aboriginal children from their homes and families and the residential school system’s abhorrent strategy of “taking the Indian out of the child.” It was an attempt to sever the cultural connection that saw aboriginal elders and heads of families pass on their language and other traditional heritage to younger generations.
In the 1960s, leaders in Quebec sought to have their province’s “distinct society” – its majority French-speaking population, unique culture and civil law tradition – officially recognized by the government of Canada. Two attempts to entrench such uniqueness in the Constitution, the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, failed, as have subsequent referendums on separation.
Nonetheless, Quebec and its uniqueness in this country are today recognized as an integral part of Canada’s heritage and cultural makeup.
The same recognition must be afforded Canada’s First Nations. Fortunately, work has begun, little by little, to acknowledge aboriginal distinctiveness in Canadian life. We see it on the West Shore, where schools have offered aboriginal education initiatives for some time. The student population at Shoreline middle school, for example, contains a significant number of young people from the Songhees and Esquimalt nations. As such, their unique culture and heritage is acknowledged frequently and celebrated with the entire school on a regular basis.
Righting past wrongs will take more than simply throwing money at the problem of residual anger and shame over residential school abuses. It will take further inclusionary practices and action by individuals just as much as by governments.
Rather than asking, “What does this have to do with me?” or stating, “It wasn’t my ancestors who did that,” we all need to ask ourselves, “What can I do personally to change the way I feel about and interact with aboriginal people in my community?”
It starts with systemically re-imagining the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people on a personal, individual level. It’s about treating all people as fellow human beings, free of judgment, with respect and compassion.
It’s something we can all do, regardless of what government policies may be enacted in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work.