Last month, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada published its final report. It focuses on the abuse of First Nations children in residential schools – which were operated by the churches in concert with the Government. I intend to study the TRC and its aftermath carefully, and reflect on what lessons might be learned for how the Irish churches ‘deal with the past’ and the abuse of children in their care.
As I read through the hundreds of pages of documentation, I will be sharing reflections and stray insights. It’s worth pointing out now that the TRC sees reconciliation as a noble goal – the clue is in the name: Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
But it can’t be taken for granted that reconciliation should be considered a goal, or even a worthy process, in the Irish context. (We know from debates about Troubles-related ‘reconciliation in Northern Ireland’ that not everyone considers reconciliation a helpful term for dealing with the past.)
Even the most famous TRC, that of South Africa, didn’t leave everyone convinced that reconciliation was a possible or an appropriate concept.
So it’s worth sharing how the Canadian TRC defines reconciliation. The TRC places relationships at the heart of reconciliation.
See page 6-7 of the Summary of the Final Report:
To some people, reconciliation is the re-establishment of a conciliatory state. However, this is a state that many Aboriginal people assert never has existed between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. To others, reconciliation, in the context of Indian residential schools, is similar to dealing with a situation of family violence. It’s about coming to terms with events of the past in a manner that overcomes conflict and establishes a respectful and healthy relationship among people, going forward. It is in the latter context that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has approached the question of reconciliation. To the Commission, reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour. We are not there yet. The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples is not a mutually respectful one. But, we believe we can get there, and we believe we can maintain it. Our ambition is to show how we can do that.
I am intrigued here by the religious language – ‘atonement for the causes’. It will be interesting to see if the Canadian churches can lead the way in rituals or processes of atonement.
There is a further definition on pages 16-17:
During the course of the Commission’s work, it has become clear that the concept of reconciliation means different things to different people, communities, institutions, and organizations. The TRC mandate describes reconciliation as “an ongoing individual and collective process, and will require commitment from all those affected including First Nations, Inuit and Métis former Indian Residential School (IRS) students, their families, communities, religious entities, former school employees, government and the people of Canada. Reconciliation may occur between any of the above groups.” The Commission defines reconciliation as an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships. A critical part of this process involves repairing damaged trust by making apologies, providing individual and collective reparations, and following through with concrete actions that demonstrate real societal change. Establishing respectful relationships also requires the revitalization of Indigenous law and legal traditions. It is important that all Canadians understand how traditional First Nations, Inuit, and Métis approaches to resolving conflict, repairing harm, and restoring relationships can inform the reconciliation process. Traditional Knowledge Keepers and Elders have long dealt with conflicts and harms using spiritual ceremonies and peacemaking practices, and by retelling oral history stories that reveal how their ancestors restored harmony to families and communities. These traditions and practices are the foundation of Indigenous law; they contain wisdom and practical guidance for moving towards reconciliation across this land.
Here, and in the previous excerpt, I have highlighted the Report’s emphasis on action. A TRC and a Report do not in themselves constitute the type of action that will change social (and religious?) structures – although in the recommendations about revitalizing Indigenous law and legal traditions some actions are recommended.
It’s also interesting that during the course of the TRC, Canadians were urged not to wait until its work was completed to get started on grassroots projects for reconciliation.
For those Irish Christians who think reconciliation is needed within the churches – especially within the Catholic Church where various government reports have detailed widespread abuse – how might people at the grassroots might begin a process of reconciliation?