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Truth and Reconciliation Commission prods Ottawa to act

The federal government isn't doing its part to reconcile with aboriginal people, says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "Part of the ongoing process that remains a challenge to us is who isn't in the room."

The federal government isn’t doing its part to reconcile with aboriginal people, says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Part of the ongoing process that remains a challenge to us is who isn’t in the room,” said commissioner Marie Wilson during a teleconference on Friday, following the release of the commission’s interim report.

“Who we are consistently not seeing in the room is representatives of the federal government. We often have representatives of the church. We have health support - that’s an obligation of the federal government. But we do not have representatives of the federal government, either at the administrative or political leadership levels.

“And that is, as far as we’re concerned, a glaring hole if everyone is to live up to their ownership of this agreement, this process, each of their articulated responsibilities towards reconciliation.”

Ottawa is also getting in the way of the commission’s work by not giving up crucial documents, the three commissioners charged.

The commission has less than a year left to finish its job of gathering and disseminating the story of residential schools.

The federal government has by far the most information about residential schools in its archives.

Some estimates says there are between five and 50 million relevant documents.

But the commission said it hasn’t even been given access to all of the files submitted to the Supreme Court of Canada for the class-action lawsuit for residential school survivors back in the early 2000s.

The issue may land back in court, the commissioners said on Friday.

Ottawa says it’s the commission’s job to go through all the documents, but the commission says it’s the government’s responsibility.

The same issue has come up with church documents. There are fewer of them but they are not as well organized.

With only a five-year mandate, the commission said it’s absurd to think it could go through all the cardboard boxes, in all the church basements and government archives, that may contain information on nearly 150 residential schools that operated all across Canada.

The federal government holds the main record of what actually happened at the schools.

But with court action looming, and a massive amount of work still ahead of it, the commission doubts it will be able to meet all of the objectives in its five-year mandate and $60-million budget.

It means the commission will have to prioritize and sacrifice some of its objectives, said commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair.

Topping the commission’s “to do” list is getting information about residential schools out to the Canadian public, said Sinclair.

“There is a significant level of ignorance out there,” he said. “The issues around residential school - the history of the schools as well as the impact and legacy of residential schools in this country, not just upon aboriginal people but also upon non-aboriginal people Ð needs to be much better understood.

“There is a lack of knowledge existent in the Canadian population, many of whom simply do not know what went on in the schools and a significant number of whom aren’t even aware that there were residential schools in Canada.”

The commission’s interim report is “a way of serving notice” about things that need to be done, said Wilson.

Its 20 recommendations are aimed largely at federal, provincial and territorial governments. They call for changes to public school curriculums and Health Canada programming. They also ask for broader public education campaigns and a health centre, specifically for multi-generational victims of residential schools, and culture and parenting programs for survivors and their families.

“There seemed to be no value in waiting until the last minute to speak to issues that are deemed to be critical issues right now,” said Wilson.

The recommendations do not include pricing schemes nor do they identify an onus of funding, but that doesn’t mean costs should be ignored, she added.

“Even in a time of budgetary restraint, what is the cost-benefit analysis between spending no money in areas of vital and critical mental health and welfare needs, versus continuing to spend a lot of money, in increasing numbers, in the negative consequences of doing nothing, such as incarceration and child-welfare systems, subsidizing poverty and all those sorts of things,” said Wilson.

“One way or another we are spending money. Are we spending good money that is redeeming and restorative or are we throwing money away in an ever-increasing and resentful way?

“We have not done a cost-benefit analysis. We’ve articulated the need and I think it’s up to those who provide such services to figure out how that cost will be.”

Any recommendations offered by the commission are binding only in “good will,” said commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild.

“But our dream is that they are taken seriously,” he said.

The majority of the work the commission has done in the past four years has culminated in public hearings and events, mostly in the North.

But the commission would like to see more positive stories of the residential school experience shared as the hearings and events continue in southern Canada, said Littlechild.

The commission’s work is to tell the whole history, not just the negative. People who have more positive memories have told the commission they feel the hearings and events are not places for them to share. As well, the commission hears little about the future and what can be done to move on from this tragic legacy, Littlechild added.

One other change the commission would like to encourage is participation from non-aboriginal people, said Littlechild.

The numbers of non-aboriginal people attending the events and participating is growing, but figuring out how the country can move on is a discussion for all Canadians, he said.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at