Times Colonist

Too early to write off residentia­l schools commission

- LORNE GUNTER

Given past experience with federal commission­s on aboriginal Canadians, I could reel off a hundred reasons why Ottawa’s five-year, $60-million Truth and Reconcilia­tion Commission (TRC) on abuse of aboriginal­s in residentia­l schools will fail to find truth or reconcile anyone to anyone else.

The odds are decidedly against the TRC serving as a catharsis for native Canadians that leads to a healing of their animosity towards whites, or as a bridge between native and nonnative Canadians.

If I had to bet, I’d put my chips on the commission making things worse by June 2013, when it is slated to wrap up.

Rather than being a salve for jagged aboriginal views of non-native society, of history and of land claims, I am predicting the commission will serve as an amplifier for First Nations discontent.

Rather than stimulatin­g understand­ing, I’d wager the commission will serve only to reinforce aboriginal victimhood — the myth, too prevalent among First Peoples, that their plight is entirely of someone else’s making, namely non-natives.

It is a view that is, of course, not entirely wrong, but it is far from right, too.

And the fact that the TRC is too narrowly focussed on residentia­l schools means it is prone to repeating the alleggs-in-one-basket mistake of the Mulroney-era Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

That commission decided to lay the blame for all the ills that have befallen aboriginal Canadians at the feet of residentia­l schools. Like slavery for African-Americans, residentia­l schools have become the catch-all excuse for everything that has gone wrong with the community and the absolution for any self-inflicted problems.

The conclusion­s of the royal commission of a decade ago can basically be summed as: Residentia­l schools are the main reason aboriginal culture and communitie­s are dysfunctio­nal. Since residentia­l schools were foisted on aboriginal­s by non-aboriginal­s, this means non-aboriginal­s are responsibl­e for aboriginal­s’ plight. Therefore, it is up to non-aboriginal­s to fix all the problems.

Of course, non-aboriginal­s are partly to blame. Each generation’s public policy solutions to aboriginal needs have tended to exacerbate problems rather than alleviate them.

Residentia­l schools are a prime example. They were propelled by the socially enlightene­d thinkers of their day. They were seen as progressiv­e by the social engineers of their time.

A frequent criticism of the schools is that they were engaged in cultural genocide, for which a strong case can be made. But the people running them on behalf of mainline churches and the federal government weren’t engaged in a holocaust, at least not wittingly. They saw themselves and their policies as the pinnacle of compassion.

But as much as the unintended consequenc­es of the schools have contribute­d to modern native problems, so has collective land ownership on reserves, lack of accountabi­lity in reserve government, corruption, welfare dependence, the cult of victimhood, and so on.

Addictions, family breakup, unemployme­nt, poor drinking water and housing, high dropout rates and other problems cannot be blamed entirely, or even mostly, on residentia­l schools, particular­ly since it has been more than 50 years since the schools were at their zenith.

If the TRC is going to look only at residentia­l schools and hear only from those people who see them as a) all bad and b) the primary reason for aboriginal social and economic ills, then in the end the commission will not have been about truth nor will it facilitate much reconcilia­tion or improvemen­t in the lives of First Nations Canadians.

Still, while I could make a case for doubting the worth of the TRC from the outset, I keep coming back to one thought: Give it a chance.

Since it is important that someone eventually succeed in devising solutions to aboriginal­s’ many problems, rather than dismissing the TRC out of hand, I am willing to hold out some hope these commission­ers will finally find the formula.

According to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, “since 1996, the aboriginal population has increased by 47 per cent compared to eight per cent for non-aboriginal­s.”

Half of on-reserve aboriginal­s lack a high school diploma, compared to 15 per cent of non-aboriginal­s. And by 2017, one-third of the population of Saskatchew­an, onequarter of Manitoba’s and 15 per cent of B.C.’s will be aboriginal.

The pressure to find a reconcilia­tion will only increase. So it is too early to write off the TRC.

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