The spotlight shone brightly on Canada’s dark and ugly past at Red Deer College this week.
It was a fitting location as Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said it was education that got the country into this ugly mess, and it will be education that will lead the way out.
“The real question we need to ask ourselves is knowing what we now know about the past, what are we going to do about the future?” said Sinclair. “That’s the key because we are more aware than we have ever been about what Canadian society has done in the past intentionally and otherwise. Now we are left with this legacy that we have inherited as a society and we need to fix this society somehow. Building on the experiences of the past will require us to understand what we have done wrong and not to do it again.”
Sinclair addressed students on Thursday after sharing a message of hope and reconciliation at RDC’s lecture series Perspectives: Canada in the World on Wednesday evening at the college.
Nearly a year ago, the TRC commission tabled its report with 94 calls of action to redress the cultural genocide and forced assimilation of Indigenous children for 131 years in mandatory government-funded and church-run residential schools.
For 131 years, Indigenous children were removed from their communities and forced to attend church-run schools where they suffered unimaginable physical, emotional and sexual abuse while living in substandard conditions. The last residential school was closed in 1996.
At least 6,000 aboriginal children died in residential schools and an estimated 150,000 children went through the residential school system in Canada, of which there are some 80,000 survivors.
About 350 children attended the Red Deer Industrial School across the river from Fort Normandeau between 1893 and 1919. It was one of 130 schools operated over the years.
Today the far-reaching impacts of language, culture and identity loss, anger, resentment, mistrust, poverty and unemployment only scratch the surface.
The broad calls to actions address everything from the child welfare system, education to the missing and murdered indigenous women.
Sinclair said he has no question in his mind change will happen as a result of the six years of public hearings from residential school survivors and inter-generational survivors that informed the report.
“Since the calls of action were issued in June 2015, even without governmental action, what I saw and what most people saw was institutions of society are beginning to do things differently,” he said. “Post-secondary institutions, education generally and churches have begun to change the way they do business. That’s the beginning of change. Change is going to come about because of the awareness that people have that they no longer say they no longer have.”
Young people in large numbers are recognizing there needs to be change and they need to be part of that change, said Sinclair.
“There is certainly a population of young people who are very angry and who are lashing out and acting out,” said Sinclair. “We see that in the suicide rates and the drop out rates and criminal involvement rates. Those problems need to be addressed and solutions need to be found for those caught in that spiral.”
But at the same time, Sinclair said, there are more young Indigenous people attending post-secondary education institutions now than at any time in Canada’s history.
“That tells me there is a population of young people out there who believe in the future and all they need is an opportunity to take advantage of that need and to fill it.” he said.
Sinclair was recently given the nod to the Canadian senate. He will continue to foster the reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigneous people. At first he was a little sad to head back to the bench because his ability to contribute publicly to the reconciliation movement would be hampered by the requirement of judicial silence.
“I think this country needs people to become advocates for reconciliation in the future,” he said. “That isn’t my role to be the only one but I think I can encourage others to pick up that work as well. Moving into the senate allows me to continue to do that work and do it from a different platform while still maintaining my respect for the judiciary (system).”