Reconciling Canada

Much used term requires wider understanding

The mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) is to seek truths of the Indian residential school experience and promote reconciliation within residential school survivors and their descendents, and between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples. 

Truth is a tangible process of addressing past and present wrongdoings through exposing what happened in residential schools. Its goal is to avoid reoccurrence and to acknowledge and understand the moral wrongs of the residential school system and its legacy.

Reconciliation, however, is a process frequently heralded yet rarely understood. 

In a research study conducted at the TRC National Event this past June, our research team sought to define reconciliation in the Canadian context.

We spent four days interviewing attendees of the TRC National Event about the role of truth-telling, forgiveness and apology in order to establish what reconciliation means and how can it be achieved. 

Truth-telling and truth-listening are often viewed as the means to which reconciliation is the end. Reconciliation is rarely acknowledged as a process itself.

Despite this, we found that reconciliation in the Canadian context can be defined as a healing process for individuals, communities and society via truth-sharing and witnessing.

This process may include perpetrators making amends, survivors engaging in forgiveness and anyone impacted coming to terms with the past and letting go of their pain in order to move forward.

It involves all parties coming together and uniting to establish or return to a positive relationship between peoples for future generations.

Reconciliation is multifaceted. It is acknowledged as a personal journey, a community journey and a societal journey.

For many survivors who participated in the study, reconciliation goes hand-in-hand with healing and personal forgiveness. It is equally about reconciling with one’s own personal history as it is about reconciling one’s personal history with their perpetrators.

For others, it involves face-to-face encounters or open dialogue with individual perpetrators in addition to acknowledgement and effort by the responsible institution. 

Throughout our research, it quickly became evident that personal and community reconciliation were considered more achievable and tangible than reconciliation at a national level.

This is due to the amount of ignorance in the Canadian public on the reality of residential schools as a tool of colonialism and aggressive assimilation. National reconciliation is also the hardest to achieve because of the general public’s lack of willingness to engage in reconciliation.

Nevertheless, national reconciliation is possible if the story of Indian residential schools becomes a part of the shared Canadian memory. This entails not only knowing what happened, but knowing the historical context of why it happened.

The main role of the TRC is education and awareness-raising.

It will hopefully contribute to shaping a truer version of Canadian awareness regarding Indian residential schools and their legacy. The more people who understand what reconciliation is, what actions are necessary in the process and what the major obstacles are, the more likely they are to engage in the spirit of reconciliation.

Education concerning the effects of residential schools in Canada and current reconciliation efforts are the most valuable opportunity to learn about past and present human rights abuses in our society and to combat and rectify the structural violence facing aboriginal persons in Canada.

Reconciliation is a two-sided endeavour focused on building, strengthening and celebrating relationships. Although the TRC plays a large role in fostering these relationships, it is ultimately up to the Canadian public to determine the shape and direction of the reconciliation process.

Whether we believe this is possible in our lifetime or not, work must be put into defining and creating a reconciliation that is livable and sustainable in the future.

Janna Barkman, Nicole Ferland and Bobbie Whiteman are fourth-year human rights and global studies students. They will be presenting their research and video summary titled “Exploring Reconciliation” on Wednesday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. in Convocation Hall. For more information, email

Published in Volume 65, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 11, 2010)

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