You could hear a pin drop. The silence accentuated the muffled cries and spilling tears as Justice Murray Sinclair Chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) presented its final report Dec. 15.
Standing on a stage in the cavernous Ottawa Congress Centre beneath a banner reading, “For the child taken, for the parent left behind,” Justice Murray Sinclair delivered a report consisting of some 3,231 pages.
It was at once historic and devastating. The report detailed the horrendous abuse suffered by indigenous children in residential schools after being kidnapped from their homes by federal government “Indian agents” and placed in strange, unwelcoming surroundings where hunger, sexual exploitation and even death became their tragic watchwords.
On the stage were two empty chairs in memory of perhaps up to 6,000 indigenous children for whom a residential school became their final resting place.
In a moment of absolute anguish, Sinclair asked all residential school survivors and their families to stand. He then addressed them directly: “We did this, after all, for those who were there and for those who were with us. We did this for the children who were taken away and for the parents who were left behind to cry for them. We did this for the children of today who needed to know when and what and why things occurred, so they could understand their lives.”
The report itself is sharp and damning in its denunciations.
“Many students who went to residential school never returned… They were lost to their families. They died at rates that were far higher than those experienced by the general school-aged population. Their parents were often uninformed of their sickness and death. They were buried away from their families in long-neglected graves. No one took care to count how many died or to record where they were buried,” the final report stated.
But mostly that day in Ottawa, we cried for the children.
As Jews, you will understand.
Sitting in the Ottawa Congress Centre, I was reminded of another time in this very same place 30 years ago. I sat perhaps in the same row with my late father, Max, at the first “Gathering of Canadian Holocaust Survivors and their Children.” The pain I felt that day in 1985 was precisely the same pain I was feeling this day in 2015. The tears that were running down our cheeks came from the same well of sadness and misery.
It never really occurred to me before that while the tragedies were different in scope and numbers, the pain of these two genocides was very much the same. Indeed, whether it was the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide or others, the pain is a living, felt experience. The loss of a generation of children at the hands of a power and authority, though different in expression, ends up in that same pit of darkness for the survivors.
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The TRC found, quite rightly, that Canada engaged in what it termed a “cultural genocide” against its First Nations people. I know that many Canadians found such a charge hard to accept. However, accept it we must. A popular Holocaust teaching curriculum that helps other countries come to grips with their own responsibilities and faults during the Shoah is called “Facing History and Ourselves.” Surely it is time here in Canada that we, too, face our historical culpability in order to truly begin the healing process on the road to reconciliation.
On the final pages of the TRC report, residential school survivor Chief Robert Joseph said: “Reconciliation includes anyone with an open heart and an open mind who is willing to look to the future in a new way. Let us find a way to belong to this time and place together. Our future, and the well-being of all our children, rests with the kind of relationships we build today.”
Indeed, words for all of us to live by.