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After The Apology

With the launch of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools this fall, Canada joins the ranks of countries such as East Timor and South Africa, struggling with human rights violations too big for the courts. It will span five years and cost $60 million, but will it help?

BY Catherin Rolfsen
Photography by Reuters: Chris Wattie

Lyana Patrick perches precariously on a tall chair and sips herbal tea. With her black hooded sweatshirt and purple-streaked hair, the 33-year-old UBC premed student looks at home in this crowded East Vancouver coffee shop. I sit down across from her with a cup of my own, and we launch into conversation. She laughs easily, pauses often, and before long we’re at the heart of the reason I’ve asked her to meet me. She’s trying to explain the legacy of Canada’s residential school system.

“Everybody’s affected by it,” she says definitively. “Everybody. To different degrees, right, but I think everybody’s affected by it.” Patrick knows she’s got some convincing to do, which is why she’s developing an unusual course for the university to help students understand the reality of residential schools. In collaboration with the University of Melbourne in Australia, a country with its own shoddy record on indigenoussettler relations, the curriculum covers the continued toll of colonization on Aboriginal people in both nations.

The course is called “Is the Past Present?” It’s a personal question for Patrick. Her father, a member of the Stellat’en First Nation, is still recovering from his own childhood marked by physical abuse at Lejac Residential School in northern B.C. He was one of an estimated 150,000 Aboriginal children taken from their families during the time of Canada’s residential school system, a policy remembered, at best, as a misguided exercise in assimilation and, at worst, as an attempt at genocide.

One of the thousands who’ve come to be termed “intergenerational survivors” of residential schools, Patrick, on the surface, appears to be well-adjusted, if overworked. Our conversations bounce between school and gardening and what her fiancé (now husband) is cooking for Valentine’s Day dinner. It takes a bit of prying to understand how she, too, has been affected by her father’s time at school.

“My dad had huge anger issues and a really bad temper, and, you know, we were the brunt of it because we were his family,” she says. Patrick, in turn, struggled with anger and depression from childhood. For a while, she used drugs and alcohol to escape her problems. “It’s not like it happened and it ended and it’s done and that’s it. It reverberates down through the generations. I consider myself fortunate,” she says. “My mother, who’s white, really held our family together a lot of times.”

She regrets that her father never taught her his native Carrier language, only English, “the language of survival.” To me, loss of culture is an abstract concept tossed around in anthropology classrooms. For Patrick, it’s an acute reality. “The world practically becomes unbearable when you think about the impacts that colonization has had,” she says. “It’s a huge challenge to deal with just day-to-day.”

These are common themes among children of former students: loss of language, the inability to parent, inexplicable anger, generations of silence. Like the estimated 80,000 living survivors, their families and their communities, Patrick is left trying to sift some hope, or at least meaning, from this history she’s inherited.

Now Canada is about to join her. When Stephen Harper delivered his much-anticipated apology for the federal government’s role in residential schools in June, he promised that the nation was ready to share the burden of the past. His pledge hinges on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which aims to create a comprehensive public record of the abuse that occurred during more than a century’s worth of residential schools in Canada. The extraordinary effort is based in the belief that hearing the truth will let Aboriginals and other Canadians get beyond the violence of the past.

The TRC’s chair and two commissioners will oversee seven national events and several community forums to be held across the country over five years. The locations and formats have yet to be revealed, but the first will likely be this fall after a summer-long planning process. The commissioners plan to collect testimony—both orally and in writing—from anyone affected by residential schools.

With the TRC’s creation, Canada will join the likes of East Timor, Peru, Sierra Leone and South Africa, countries struggling to remake shattered societies and address human-rights abuses too vast for the courts. But ours will be unique. No previous commission has focused exclusively on violations against children. Few have been part of a negotiated response to lawsuits that already include monetary reparations. And our scope of scrutiny—more than 150 years of history—is one of the longest durations ever examined by a TRC.

It’s a heady and hopeful moment for anyone worried about Canada’s fraught relationship with its indigenous population. But the faith vested in the TRC, which will cost $60 million, is enormous. On the eve of its first events, there is little consensus as to whether it will be a watershed moment or a futile sideshow in the stubborn task of healing our nation.


I was a journalism student looking for a good story when I first heard about the TRC. I was immediately compelled by the notion that my country was about to air its dirty laundry in the way South Africa confronted apartheid.

As a young white woman growing up in Vancouver, I’d worried vaguely about the situation of First Nations in Canada. Throughout my life, I’ve heard the residential-school horror stories of child abuse and unmarked graves. I feel the gulf between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities every day when I take the bus through the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in North Vancouver to my home on the other side.

But these faceless sorrows and entrenched inequalities never had much to do with me. Until, that is, the TRC posed its challenge of reconciliation, putting the impetus smack at the feet of non-Aboriginal Canadians. So I started looking for former students—and they were shockingly easy to find, given that the last Canadian residential school closed just over a decade ago— to ask confounding questions like: What truths do Canadians still not understand? What does reconciliation really mean? and Why should we repent now for the sins of our ancestors?

The survivors answered with stories. I heard of a six-yearold boy being ridiculed for speaking nothing but his native language. I heard about a sister and brother, separated by stints at residential school, who never shared a hug until both were grey-haired. I heard of a 12-year-old boy being beaten so hard his arms swelled up like Popeye’s. And, quite often, I didn’t know how to reply.

Patrick’s been through a similar process of dredging up the past. More than a decade ago, she decided to interview her dad for a university history paper. She knew he’d attended residential school, but she didn’t know the extent of the physical abuse he suffered. “I had nightmares,” she says. “That was the first time that he really talked about it. To think about these things happening to my dad, and to other children, was quite harsh. Really brutal. But to begin to hear about it and know more about it was good as well.”

A few years later came another uncomfortable realization. Patrick’s godfather, the man who once sent her chocolates every year on her birthday, was charged with 21 counts of sexual and physical abuse related to his career as a residential school supervisor. Edward Fitzgerald, last known to be living in Ireland, worked at Lejac when Patrick’s father returned to the school, as did many Aboriginal people, to take a job as principal. They were friends. At the time, there were a lot of secrets buried in residential schools, and the lines between abuser and abused were not yet painted in full.

And just this year, Patrick was faced with her father’s history all over again when she accompanied him during the legal process of claiming damages for the abuse he suffered. She was proud of his courage as he frankly answered the lawyer’s probing questions. “Being able to go through that process, and really disclose so fully, really be able to disclose his soul for the record, was really a catharsis,” she says. “I really wish the rest of my family could have been there to hear it,” she adds. “You know some of the stories, and you know some of the history, and to actually finally hear it all laid out, it kind of—what can I say?—it just puts things into perspective.”

“We’re not just fucked-up, uncivilized people,” Patrick says. “We’re people with a history that was displaced, that was torn from us, and there are a few individuals that will always retain that history.”

This kind of revelation-through-storytelling is the logic on which the TRC is based. The story of her father’s past is painful, but Patrick believes it can help with her family’s healing. However, she’s unsure whether experiences like hers can be translated to a national platform such as the TRC.


A decade in the making, Canada’s TRC is part of the largest class-action settlement in this country’s history; the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, estimated to top $4 billion, was negotiated between the federal government that funded the schools, the churches that ran them, lawyers working for survivors, the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit representatives.

The settlement agreement, signed in 2006, is an octopus of remedies aimed at tackling the residential-schools problem from all angles and settling once and for all the thousands of court cases launched by former students. There’s the “common experience payment,” a lump sum available to most former students, of $10,000 for the first year in school and $3,000 for every subsequent year. For those who suffered sexual and physical abuse, there’s the “independent assessment process,” a grim points system to tabulate abuse for additional compensation.

The TRC is by far the most ambitious and anticipated aspect of the settlement. Its legal mandate promises “a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future.” The International Center for Transitional Justice—a New York-based institute that advises nations on truth commissions—called ours “a groundbreaking effort.” Church officials have lauded the beginning of the TRC as a “historic and sacred moment,” and some Aboriginal leaders have characterized it as an answer to prayers. Harper’s apology to residential-school survivors concluded by looking forward to the commission, calling it “a cornerstone of the settlement agreement.”

Already, the TRC faces considerable obstacles and criticism. Even the commissioners aren’t quite sure how it’s going to live up to its aims. “We want to paint an accurate picture. We want a whole picture, a true picture,” TRC commissioner Claudette Dumont-Smith explained to me over the phone in June. “I believe if we hear from both sides or three sides or four sides, the Canadian public will be more receptive to our report.”

She and her colleagues are in the midst of planning how to flesh out the bare bones of the TRC’s court-ordered mandate. This spring, the federal government appointed the trio at the helm. The chair, Justice Harry S. LaForme, is a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation and a specialist in Aboriginal rights. Dumont-Smith, of the First Nations Algonquin community of Kitigan Zibi, is a nurse and native health expert; and Commissioner Jane Morley, a B.C. lawyer and mediator, worked as an adjudicator for the settlement agreement’s Independent Assessment Program.

The group’s report, Dumont-Smith says, will be an “executive summary” of the commission’s findings, including “snippets” of stories they’ve heard. “I don’t think anyone has really spoken to the number of survivors we will be speaking to,” she says. “But I think now we’re going to put a face to this history. We’re going to hear these stories and we’re going to hear as well what the mindset of the Canadian government was at that time.”

Many will be watching their work. The commission’s June 1 launch made headlines in Australia, the Netherlands and India. Comparisons with other TRCs are inevitable. First popularized in Latin American countries recovering from military rule as a way to investigate the fate of the “disappeared,” the model has spread to dozens of countries to address the trauma of civil war, genocide or, most famously, apartheid.

Canada’s commission, however, is shaping up to look very different from the high drama of South Africa’s. There, amnesty was offered to those who fully disclosed their crimes and proved they were committed for “political objectives.” It was arguably the most controversial element of the commission: although the majority of amnesty applications were rejected, some victims’ families watched murderers go free. However, the amnesty hearings, often held in public, could be the only place a widow got to look her husband’s murderer in the eye and learn how he died. Whether or not this kind of confrontation leads to healing is still hotly debated. At any rate, residential-school survivors likely won’t get the opportunity to find out.

Canada’s TRC will lack the power to subpoena or grant amnesty. And its legal mandate forbids the naming of alleged perpetrators except in an in-camera hearing, which the commission is free to set up at its discretion. With nothing compelling them, pedophiles or child abusers are unlikely to come to the events. Dumont-Smith says former school employees will be invited to attend—but with the weight of public reproach looming, it’s hard to expect well-intentioned teachers to show up en masse either.

People involved in the TRC’s planning are quick to explain that individual accountability is not its aim. The commission isn’t a courtroom; its work is separate from the legal charges against those who beat and raped students.

Dumont-Smith admits the commissioners are still discussing how to deal with the censorship issue. “I don’t see how you could invite people to speak and then tell them, ‘Well, you can’t name a name.’ But, like I said, I’m not a lawyer.” You can bet there were plenty of lawyers, however, scrutinizing the fine print of the TRC’s mandate before government and church representatives signed off.

Such restrictions have bred skepticism about the TRC’s purported search for truth. When I tell Gerry Oleman, a residential- school survivor and 59-year-old member of the Stl’atl’imx Nation, about the prohibition against naming names, he lets out the laugh of someone who’s seen it all now. He says it’s an oxymoron to put such limits on the “truth-telling commission.”

As I began researching residential schools, I kept hearing about Oleman, a community support worker with the Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society, a B.C. group established to provide counselling and help for former students. Patrick credits much of her father’s healing to workshops with Oleman. So I’ve come to ask him whether the TRC has a hope of accomplishing what he’s spent a career doing: righting the wrongs of residential schools.

Sitting in his office at the Survivors Society, it’s clear I’ve come to the right place. Two photos have prominence: in one, Oleman grins next to a homeless man; in the other, he stands before the Dalai Lama, whose head is bowed as Oleman welcomes him to Canadian soil. There’s a yellow sticky note pasted to his computer monitor. On it, he’s written in small black print:

- to restore to friendship or harmony
- settle differences
- to accept something unpleasant.

Oleman has a habit of looking up words that puzzle him, and will halt a conversation to recall their meanings. Trauma: “To be pierced.” Health: “To have a sound mind, body and spirit.” Heal: “To become pure and original again.” Forgive: “To let go.”

“People don’t treat words seriously,” he says.

He’s looked up this latest one in response to my queries.

“I think reconciliation is the wrong word,” he says definitively. “When have we been in harmony?” he asks, referring to the first bullet on his sticky note. “I don’t think we’ve had a relationship that we’re going to mend.”

Oleman admits he’s in the minority, especially among his colleagues at the Survivors Society. “There are people that are really sincere … hoping that it’s going to do something really big,” he says. “I myself, I have my doubts.”


For many Aboriginals, residential schools are the defining element of a 500-year history of oppression, abuse and assimilation of their people by European settlers. Though some schools in Canada predated Confederation, it was at the end of the 19th century that the nascent federal government and Canada’s major churches formalized the residential-school system as a way to remake Aboriginal children in their own image—or “get rid of the Indian problem,” as Indian Affairs deputy superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott described his objective in 1920. It was the same year he made attendance at these institutions compulsory.

For Oleman, entering residential school marked the beginning of an alienation from his family, his culture and his identity. From age 12 to 18, he attended Kamloops Indian Residential School, a place he’s been trying to remember and forget ever since. “Most of it I have no memory. It’s a huge blank spot,” he says. “I think it’s the same for a lot of survivors. Just blacked out.”

He remembers the “paramilitary, structured atmosphere.” He remembers the violence between students. He remembers the miserable food and the interminable hunger. “I remember we’d sort of hang around … wishing for something to eat and not talking about it.” He remembers how, in the darkened dorm, boys would set up elaborate systems of threads tied to cans and bottles “to be awakened if somebody came, they were so scared of sexual abuse.”

Violence, mismanagement and perversion are now recognized as the hallmarks of the residential-school system. But even early in the social experiment, inspectors were noting its many failures. Overcrowding and poor sanitation were blamed for the high rates of tuberculosis among children. In a 1907 report that surveyed 15 institutions, Indian Affairs’ chief medical officer Dr. P.H. Bryce found the death toll among students to be 24 percent, with some schools losing up to 47 percent of their charges. Scott admitted that “50 percent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they have received therein.”

The impact of these institutions, in the words of former student Grand Chief Edward John in a 1992 letter to then-justice minister Kim Campbell, is “like a disease ripping through our communities.” Families were irreparably severed. Parents without children turned to alcohol. Young men and women left the system in limbo between white Canada and their Aboriginal cultures.

For a time, Oleman was among the human casualties. When he left school, he spent years drinking, drifting between Alaska, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Seattle, selling his blood for liquor money. “I hated all white people,” he says. “I hated all Christians, and I was getting sick. Sicker by the day. Hate does awful things to your body.”

In time, Oleman recovered from his alcoholism and his anger, eventually becoming an addictions counsellor in his home community of Seton Lake in 1976. But for over a decade, he carried the unacknowledged burden of his sexual abuse in school. Similar secrets were—and no doubt still are—harboured by former students across the country. It was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that many began to go public with stories of how they suffered, prompted largely by Phil Fontaine, now the Assembly of First Nations national chief, who, on national TV, became one of the first Aboriginal leaders to publicly disclose his own sexual abuse.

The floodgates of memory were opened. Thousands of survivors filled Canada’s court system with allegations of physical and sexual abuse that landed several former school employees in jail and brought some churches near bankruptcy.

As the accusations mounted, so, too, did dissatisfaction with the court system as a venue for resolving such sensitive and wide-reaching complaints. Going to court is costly, and criticism quickly emerged of well-placed lawyers as the real winners in disputes. For victims, the antagonistic nature of the court system is often traumatic.

In his work supporting survivors, Oleman has sat through more legal proceedings than he can count. He remembers a particularly distressing case of a drug-addicted man accusing the church and the government of sexual abuse. “The lawyers were questioning him and questioning him. And I told them, ‘You already beat him. Why do you keep going?’” Oleman recalls. “The most severely damaged that go into this system are going to get the least because they’re easily confused.”

Such critiques led to the creation of an “alternative dispute resolution” process for settling residential-schools claims, an umbrella category including everything from formal adjudication to informal negotiation. But the system had many of the same shortcomings of the courts—namely, the oppositional and narrow definition of dispute resolution.

One of the first voices calling for a TRC in Canada to resolve the legacy of residential schools was Dalhousie University law professor Jennifer Llewellyn. In a 2002 article in the University of Toronto Law Journal, she argued that a restorative justice approach was the only way to address the impact of residential schools and work toward mending relationships rather than perpetuating adversity. The idea caught on, and the Assembly of First Nations asked her to help craft a proposal for a commission to be included in the forthcoming settlement agreement.

Llewellyn argues that a TRC can get at the broader impacts of residential schools outside the narrow scope of a courtroom. “What’s missing thus far,” she explains to me on the phone, “is a space to understand the nuances and complexities of these harms, and the extent to which they move beyond the individual to affect the next generation and affect communities.”

Llewellyn has first-hand experience of the potential of truth commissions. Over a decade ago, she worked with the South African TRC’s research department in Cape Town.

Although she strongly cautions against cookie-cutter solutions, she thinks that country’s groundbreaking attempt at restorative justice can be a useful framework for Canada to look at.

The legacies of apartheid and residential schools are vast and varied, but they have one thing in common: both contributed to a society divided by racism and misunderstanding. That’s where a TRC comes in, Llewellyn says. She remembers how, during the South African commission, parts of the Afrikaner community were extremely skeptical of the claims of black people who suffered under apartheid. Some thought the TRC was politicized bellyaching. But, she says, when they were confronted with the testimony of little old ladies, defence and denial became impossible.

“You can only really keep up that fiction, or that fantasy, or that delusion, if you don’t have to hear the stories of actual experiences, if you don’t have to hear the voices of those [victims],” she reflects. “They’re harder to dismiss. And it’s a very important space for people to actually start to reckon.”


If Canada’s commission is looking for truth, it’s not on the small scale—those dirty details of who did what to whom. It’s seeking Truth in the Enlightenment sense. Former students say what’s needed beyond retributive justice is to tackle the ignorance they still see in Canadian society about residential schools. They speak of letters to the editor saying Aboriginals should be grateful the government and churches cared enough to teach their people. They cite the common comparison between residential schools and the British boarding-school system. They point to those who use the happy memories of some students as an excuse for the entire assimilative project.

Most of all, Llewellyn argues Canadians haven’t made the connection between residential schools and the problems facing Aboriginal communities today. “We don’t talk about the extent to which sexual abuse and drug abuse and alcohol abuse in these communities has a great deal to do with the kind of alienation and isolation and harms that were done in residential schools,” she says. “We know that our prisons in some areas are full of Aboriginal people, and we don’t make the analysis at all that we’ve basically, actually, transferred a generation that used to be locked up in residential schools, and now we’re locking them up in prisons.”

For mainstream Canadian society, reckoning began on June 11, when our prime minister stood up in the House of Commons to apologize on behalf of all of us. In his speech, Harper named not only the failings of the residential-school system—from inadequate food to sexual abuse—but also acknowledged the lasting impacts of the institutions: destruction of family, culture and language.

“The burden of this experience has been on your shoulders for far too long,” Harper said. “The burden is properly ours as a government, and as a country. There is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential-schools system to ever again prevail. You have been working on recovering from this experience for a long time and in a very real sense, we are now joining you on this journey.”

His was followed by similar speeches from members of the opposition and responses by Aboriginal leaders. It was the latest in a string of attempted atonements. In 1998, Liberal Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart delivered a “statement of reconciliation,” which was criticized as incomplete. The Anglican, United, Presbyterian and some Catholic churches have offered apologies or “confessions” for their roles in residential schools.

On June 11, Patrick took the day off work. She sat at home alone and watched TV and cried. Across the country, so did countless survivors and children of survivors. But once her tears dried, Patrick’s final verdict echoes the sentiments of native leaders, who responded to Harper’s conciliatory rhetoric with demands for action.

“They say all these good words and there’s this big apology and a public show and everything. But the proof is in the sincerity of the relationship,” Patrick says.

“I wonder how much things are actually going to change for native people.”

That is, of course, the question. Not just for the apology but for the TRC. Aboriginal people have heard a lot of kind words, received a lot of promises and read a lot of groundbreaking reports. Even in the most optimistic of moments, cynicism is sanity.

“I’m skeptical because I haven’t seen proof in the pudding from other commissions,” Oleman says of the TRC. He’s not the only one who points to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples as a cautionary tale. Its 1996 report painted a dismal portrait of the federal government’s treatment of Aboriginal people and laid far-reaching recommendations for forging a “new relationship” between Aboriginals and Canada, from fulfilling treaties to creating a framework for Aboriginal governments to deliver health care. But on the tome’s 10-year anniversary in 2006, the Assembly of First Nations issued Ottawa a failing report card, finding that few recommendations had been acted upon, and the problems it chronicled persist.

Dumont-Smith says her biggest worry is that the TRC will be the same story: “That we will do all this work and then that will be just a report, that no actions will ensue. That’s always the fear that you have. I mean, report after report have been produced and there’s no action.”

She’s not shy about laying out her demands for action. “Our health status has to be on par with other Canadians, our living standards have to be brought up to that as well. We have to [have] equal partnerships in the economic development of the whole country,” she tells me. “So that’s my personal goal in all of this— that we reach that level of equality with the rest of Canadians.”

Everything in me wants to cheer her on. So far, though, I’m not convinced the TRC will create such a transformation rather than gather dust on a shelf. Llewellyn says it’s still early to tell whether the commission will be “a turning point in our relationship with Aboriginal peoples or whether it’s another squandered opportunity.”

Oleman’s not holding his breath. He’s grown wary of grand political plans. He hasn’t voted in provincial, federal or band elections in years, choosing instead to stick to projects where he sees results. On a cold winter morning, he invites me to a residential-schools healing circle he leads in Vancouver’s beleaguered Downtown Eastside. About 20 men and women of all ages gather in a round of red stackable chairs, sipping coffee from plastic cups. Some twitch with drug abuse or mental illness or both. I am the odd one out, smiling awkwardly and waiting for things to begin.

After carefully arranging his things on the floor, Oleman picks up a shell. He stuffs it with sage and sweetgrass, lights it and fans the smouldering pile with a feather. Cupping his hands around the plume of smoke, he brings it to his face like water. Then he hands the shell to me. Nervously, and probably too quickly, I mimic his movements and pass it on. Everyone has a chance to cleanse, some passing the shell on quickly, some taking handful after handful of smoke, running it through their hair and up and down their arms, then removing jewellery to pass it through the plume.

Oleman sets down the still-smoldering shell and reaches for his talking stick. He tells the circle he’s glad to see them, glad to be among so many people interested in healing. “I’ve brought a friend with me today,” he continues. I’m hardly breathing, anxious to hear how he explains my presence in his circle.

“When our enemies start to heal,” he says, “we start to heal.”

I can’t say I’ve figured out what reconciliation is. But from people like Oleman and Patrick, I have learned something: If there’s ever to be a new relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals in Canada, we’re all going to have to hear some things that make us uncomfortable. Things that challenge who we think we are and where we’ve come from. And we might just have to trust that it will be good for us.

“Acknowledgement is better than ignoring history,” Patrick assures me. Yes, that’s what they say. Acknowledgment. Reconciliation. Truth. Healing. All noble goals, but my inner journalist calls out for the concrete. I decide to ask Patrick the question that’s been bothering me: nice words aside, what can white Canadians actually do to repair what’s been broken? “I don’t know,” she replies, pausing. Then, with a wry laugh, it comes to her: “Listening would be great,” she says. “Listening would be great.”


Catherine Rolfsen is a graduate of UBC’s school of journalism and works as a reporter at the Vancouver Sun. Before journalism, she flirted with academia, getting a master’s degree in religion and modernity from Queen’s University. In this article, she tackles the subject of residential schools, and thanks the survivors who had the patience to explain things to her.

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