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Truth and Reconciliation: two of the finest ideals and hardest concepts to grasp; two words that don’t appear to fit together at first, until you do the hard work of putting them together for healing. Recently a profound story began to unfold at the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Movement: a 382-page summary of the Commission report came out with 94 recommendations.

In his article for the Globe and Mail, John Ralston Saul wrote that Truth and Reconciliation is Canada’s last chance to get it right. He noted:

… the recommendations were both specific and broad, precisely because the aim of the residential schools was specific and broad. After all, the system was designed to destroy indigenous civilization. So what the commissioners call for is designed to deal with that breadth. And their arguments dovetail with the recommendations of the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which in turn dovetail with those of the 1977 Berger Commission, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland.

… there have been thousands of speeches, addresses and court cases over the last 150 years in which indigenous leaders have laid out the situation. And there is a remarkable consistency in these aboriginal arguments, as well as clarity and generosity, and what I would call patience. Patience as we have repeatedly acted badly on almost every front, attempting to destroy indigenous cultures. We have done nothing to earn the politeness and patience with which we have been treated.”

Commissioners Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson and Wilton Littlechild are trying to make it easy for us. Reconciliation, they explain, is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples. This requires an “awareness of the past, acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes and action to change behaviour.” We must change behaviour, each of us. Then we must make our governments change behaviour.

The Long Walk to Freedom: South Africa, Apartheid, and their Truth and Reconciliation

Historically, Apartheid started later and ended earlier than the Residential School system in Canada, but South Africa, under the wise leadership of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, initiated this amazing process of confessing, finding, digging, confronting, and reconciling.

Truth and Reconciliation was needed because Apartheid was a system legally enforced between 1948 and 1990. In that period, the government formalized and expanded segregationist policies that had existed less formally under colonial rule. “Institutionalized racism stripped South African blacks of their civil and political rights and instituted segregated education, health care, and all other public services, only providing inferior standards for blacks and other non-Afrikaans. Internal resistance was met with police brutality, administrative detention, torture, and limitations on freedom of expression.”

The South African Truth and Reconciliation process took seven years from 1995-2002:

The TRC took the testimony of approximately 21,000 victims; and 2,000 of them appeared at public hearings. The commission received 7,112 amnesty applications. Amnesty was granted in 849 cases and refused in 5,392 cases, while other applications were withdrawn.

The TRC’s report covered the structural and historical background of the violence, individual cases, regional trends, and the broader institutional and social environment of the apartheid system.

The final report named individual perpetrators and outlined recommendations.

Long Walk to Reconciliation

Reconciliation is a big idea. (Timothy Keller writes an excellent article about this in, Serving Each Other Through Forgiveness and Reconciliation). Though a large part of reconciliation is the admission of harm and the dynamics of forgiveness, the point of reconciliation is to restore relationship – now on entirely new terms: walking on broken earth, and limping with a new awareness of honesty.

For the modern-day Canadian Christian, it is not enough to say, “it wasn’t me,” “it wasn’t my church that did that,” it wasn’t my generation that did that.” It’s not enough to “blame the Government of the day that instituted this horror.”  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed layers of neglect and collusion: a nation, a government, and a Church culture were all in on it. Those that bore Christ’s name and did this in Christ’s name, now leave to this generation the job of doing and undoing.

Not just “Cultural Genocide.”

Those who bear Christ’s name in this generation, now a shadow of itself since the institution of the Residential School evils, find ourselves on the other side of reconciliation: we are in need of being reconciled to a people group that were subjected to – not just “cultural genocide” – but full genocide.

The word “cultural” seems to suggest that the Indian Residential School system was designed to destroy cultures but not people, a fact far from the reality of Residential Schools. “Cultural” is a civilizing adjective: it says that our policies were not truly evil, just deeply misguided.

Jessie Staniforth, “Canada committed regular genocide.”

Further, there is no reason for us to be forgiven; we have not “earned” it (no matter how hard we try), and we live in a society where Christians are the brunt of open abuse and scorn.

And why not?

Our Lord Jesus Himself must have bore these evils done in His name, and would have upset the tables of our self righteousness then and now. We are guilty. Period. Thus Philip Yancey provocatively writes:

The scandal of forgiveness confronts anyone who agrees to a moral cease-fire just because someone says, ‘I’m sorry.’ When I feel wronged, I can contrive a hundred reasons against forgiveness.

I am asking our First Nations people not to contrive a hundred reasons against forgiveness, and to teach us how to be reconciled. As Ralston Saul put it, I am counting on First Nations people to exercise patience despite having “repeatedly acted badly on almost every front, attempting to destroy indigenous cultures. We have done nothing to earn the politeness and patience with which we have been treated.”

I suspect this will be a long journey, for reconciliation is more enigma than dogma; it is more relational than propositional. Reconciliation is integral in the life of Christ.

To hear Native Scholar, Terry LeBlanc, speak to the interweaving of Christ and Native Culture, complete with a scan of Residential School history go to Christ and Native Culture: Residential Schools.