29 October 2018

Restorative Justice in the International Community: The Canadian TRC

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) are a controversial topic internationally. Whilst there are still those who still support them as an alternative and effective means to ensure justice where egregious human rights violations have taken place, whereas others see them as a method of releasing those culpable of the crimes and denying victims of their justice. Whatever one's stance on the matter, in South Africa and Canada the TRCs illuminate the strength and weaknesses of TRCs. 2018 is a commemorative year in both Canada and South Africa, with it marking 20 years since the final report was completed in South Africa, and 10 years since it was established in Canada. The evil in South Africa was the apartheid system, a crime against humanity and in Canada it was the Indian Residential Schools, a cultural genocide. To read more about the impact and challenges of the TRC in South Africa please visit SAHA's website.

As amazing a nation as Canada is, it is not without its own dark past (and present). As early as 1831, Indigenous children across Canada were forced to leave their homes and attend residential schools. The residential school system was established to aggressively assimilate Indigenous children into the growing Euro-Canadian and Christian society. It was thought that children would be easier to reform than adults and this assimilation could be achieved by forcing them to attend English-speaking religious schools outside of their communities for 10 months a year, sometimes even longer. The conditions in the residential schools were torturous and subjected the children to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The schools were segregated by gender and the children were separated from their siblings. They were further isolated from their families by way of communication. While children were allowed to write letters home, these had to be entirely in English, which most parents did not understand. Moreover, expressions of indigenous religion and culture was forbidden, and Christianity was shoved down the children's thoughts. The children were not allowed to possess traditional clothing and were given uniforms. Post-Confederation in 1867, the Federal government formed an agreement with the Indigenous population by way of the Indian Act. It promised that the Indigenous youth would be given an education and integrated into society. These schools were not what the indigenous peoples had in mind when they signed the agreement and relinquished their children. Shockingly, these schools  continued to operate until 1996. Over 150,000 students attended residential schools and it is estimated, approximately 6,000 students died while in attendance.

As a result of attending residential schools, children often felt displaced when returning home. They were forced to forget their native traditions and they were not able to speak their own languages. They were not equipped with the skills valued in their native communities and consequently grew to be ashamed of their Indigenous heritage. The TRC declared the impact of the residential school system to be a cultural genocide as it effectively limited the ability of the Indigenous population to continue to engage in their spiritual and cultural way of life.

The Canadian TRC was a hopeful process to deal with and confront the pain of the residential school system. It set out to "reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools ... and guide and inspire a process of truth and healing, leading toward reconciliation within Aboriginal families, and between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal communities, churches, governments, and Canadians generally."  The TRC travelled across Canada and heard from over 6,000 Indigenous people who were affected by the residential school system by way of one-on-one interviews, written statements, and public forums. The TRC acknowledged that revisiting these memories would be traumatizing and offered health support, counselling, and visits from an Elder upon request to help victims through the storytelling process. Unlike the South African TRC, there were no hearings and the Canadian TRC did not have the power to grant amnesty to known perpetrators who admitted to acts of abuse. Instead, the TRC focused on documenting the truth of survivors, families, and communities that were affected by the residential school experience.  

At the end of the process, the Canadian TRC developed 94 calls-to-action, which were divided into the categories of legacy and reconciliation. These calls-to-action include increasing funding for Aboriginal students to attend school, improving the limited health services on and off reserves, and extending the statute of limitations to allow for the prosecution of acts of abuse. Many of the reconciliation efforts have been achieved, as the government has supported many events for the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal population to better understand each other through speeches, songs, and traditional native events.

Yet despite some of the progress that has been made, not all the calls-to-action have been implemented as the Canadian government has selectively applied them. The main reason for this is the revolving door of politicians in and out of office and the political will that is required to carry out this kind of work. Whilst most leaders have often indicated a willingness to face Canada's past head on, the reality is at the end of the day the results are not felt on the ground. This lack of progress in some areas directly impacts a lot of the Canadian youth.

This is evident in the discrepancy in the number of students completing secondary education between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal students which has remained fairly constant over the years. There are other systemic issues that affect the Aboriginal youth, in particular, they are grossly overrepresented in prisons and are disproportionately policed. By addressing call-to-action number 38, a direct plea to the federal, provincial, territorial, and Aboriginal governments to focus on eliminating the overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth in custody, the government has the power to immediately make a difference in the lives of future generations.

South Africa and Canada's TRC's share a commonality in that in both nations the effect of their histories adversely affect the present youth and consequently the future generations. In South Africa, a culture of youth rage has emerged as a result of the government failing to live up to their promises of reparations. The youth in South Africa are stuck in a cycle of poverty, inability to attain education, and consistently high rates of youth unemployment. The same can be said for the Canadian youth who have grown up with parents or ancestors that were put in residential schools. In addition to enduring the same poverty cycle as the South African youth, many young Aboriginals develop dependencies on noxious substances and suffer from staggering rates of foetal alcohol syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Without proper implementation of the calls-to-action directly related to the healing and care of young Aboriginals, such as committing to reducing overrepresentation in prisons and creating spaces for young Aboriginals to discuss and explore their cultural identity, it seems the healing that was originally intended by the TRC will be incomplete and will not proceed to the final goal of restorative justice, which is to successfully integrate all parties into society. 

In light of this brief review, it is clear that the TRC recommendations are not being taken seriously and without a change in the current path, the reconciliation meant to arise from these mandates is not in the foreseeable future. Both TRC mandates were idealistic and the practicalities of changing governments should have been taken into consideration when making recommendations. Going forward, it is important to address this issue and reorganise the implementation of the recommendations and calls-to-action in order to achieve the healing that is sought after and needed in these two great nations.