The only way reconciliation is possible for Aboriginal peoples in Canada is if there is justice, says Faculty of Education professor Rebecca Coulter.
Coulter, Aboriginal Education director at The University of Western Ontario, was invited by Ontario Lt.-Gov. David Onley to participate in the Circle of Witnesses, the first of a series of cross-cultural dialogues with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). The event was held in Queen’s Park in Toronto last week.
“I honestly believe that reconciliation is not possible unless we have justice. I’m a historian, so I think reconciliation with the past is really dependent on justice in the present and into the future,” Coulter says.
“The purpose was in many ways symbolic as a start to the very difficult process that the reconciliation process will be,” she says of the event.
The lasting impact of residential schooling has affected generations of Aboriginal families, as more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in residential schools in Canada. Operational from the 1870s to 1996, these government-funded, church-run schools were set up to remove parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural and spiritual development of Aboriginal children.
The TRC was established following a class-action settlement involving former residential school students.
In October 2009, former Governor General Michaelle Jean became the honourary witness and the commission has since expanded its circle of witnesses to include notable Canadians, such as Coulter, and other international guests.
“I think it is important for the people attending who were from the settler societies to listen to the discussion on the panel, to begin to participate in thinking about what our role might be in the reconciliation process. Reconciliation is about relationship and about both sides,” Coulter says.
“The restorative social justice that is required is an undertaking we committed to as well.”
The event included a dialogue on reconciliation with panelists representing members of Aboriginal communities, the United Church of Canada, academics and other interested groups.
“If you go in knowing something about the truth or the stories, and the experiences and what happened, then that begins to make reconciliation possible,” she says. “You can’t have reconciliation when one side is ignorant of what happened or maybe unaware of what happened.”
Part of the truth-telling lies in education, she notes, stressing the importance of future educators to understand the history of indigenous peoples and the reality of their experiences.
It may be a long process towards reconciliation, but Coulter believes evidence in recent history, such as the changes in attitudes toward and rights of women, is proof such change and shifts in consciousness are possible.
“We have to build bridges across those chasms,” she says. “That’s the only way it can work because that’s the way we are struggling toward justice.”
Coulter’s personal commitment is to support the TRC’s work, but also support First Nations communities directly.
“It was reiterated at the meeting that we were all expected to take on the commitment to witnessing; to sharing the stories; to guaranteeing they would never die, that the memory would persist; that the knowledge would be sustained across the generations; and that we would work to right the wrongs,” she says.