Bob Watts Interim Executive Director, Truth And Reconciliation Commission
SPEECH BY RAPPORTEUR
UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY CONFERENCE ON TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
June 17 2007
First of all I want to thank the survivors, organizers, the Elders, the Speakers and the guests who have participated in this event.
This gathering has been an important opportunity to hear and be guided by all of you as teachers, guides, and fellow-travelers on the path of reconciliation.I remember reading of the situation of the Japanese after the war had devastated their society and infrastructure. They sought out the best from each country – the expertise, the lessons-learned. They sent people all over the world to study different systems. They sent people to England to study the postal system, they sent people to Germany to study the rail system and so forth all over the world. Then they sought to take those systems and make them theirs. We are lucky in this country that people who have gone through Truth and Reconciliation processes have come here to offer us their support and knowledge. I thank them for their goodwill and knowledge.
I must acknowledge the important knowledge and experience that our people in Canada are offering. We are in consultation with the National Residential Schools Survivor Society and other organizations that have expressed an interest in providing input to the development process. I am very open to having people offer me their suggestions.
We must all keep in mind that this is a court-ordered Commission. This means that the mandate provides some clear instructions on particular features of the Commission. For example, some people have asked if we could have 10 Commissioners instead of 3. Well, that’s not possible because it was negotiated that there be 3 Commissioners. Certain things cannot be changed. However there is also lots of room for input and creativity and development. It is in those places where we need to consult with you and build a process that is meaningful to you.
My role is to lay the groundwork for the commission; to establish a strong foundation so that it can withstand pressures; so that the Commissioners can develop their vision based on real possibilities; and so that it can create space for survivors to tell their stories. We want to make sure that there is room for the Commissioners to close the gap between the myths that exist about residential schools, and the reality of residential schools.
This conference is a great gift. It has helped to point out some of the key concepts and challenges that we need to keep in mind as the groundwork and foundation is being laid.
This conference was in the works when I was named Interim Executive Director. I am fortunate that the organizers had the foresight to recognize the need for a gathering like this, as it is of great assistance to my team and myself. In fact when I phoned Kathleen shortly after my appointment she asked, how can this Conference help the work I was tasked to do.
Over the past couple of days we have heard the vision of our statesmen. They gave us important messages about deconstructing myths about our collective history.
They have told us:
– We need to know our past in order to create an environment
where reconciliation is possible.
– We need to bring our highest selves forward.
– We need people to bring forth their humanity in understanding that all children deserve the best. Aboriginal children deserve the best.
– We must understand what it would feel like if our children were taken away – the loss, the pain, and the hurt. Canadians must come to understand the universality of the pain of separation from family love, from community and from love itself.
We heard the same message from our Elders. We need to engage families, community and civil society. There is good will out there, but we need to bring it forward. We need media
engagement, and we need to ensure that the media interpretation is based on real knowledge and not a superficial understanding.
How do we educate and engage all Canadians? How do we all work together to make the residential school experience real for everyone? How can supporters be mobilized to come together and support our efforts?
One question that this raised for me is: How do we ensure that as we work toward reconciliation, how do we model reconciliation? We need to contribute our efforts in a cooperative way, and not try to own the Commission. Different visions must be reconciled – consultations must happen. We must support each other in the huge task of nation building.
We have had the benefit of hearing from those who were the negotiators of the Settlement Agreement. They have provided history and context to this particular Commission. This is an important piece of knowledge for us to understand the uniqueness of this Commission.
Survivors and speakers have confirmed that this process must belong to the people. It must grow from our own specific needs and circumstances.
Our international colleagues have helped us understand the challenges of reconciliation. They pointed out that it is not always easy to make the work of the TRC accessible. We must ask ourselves, how do we make the Canadian Commission accessible?
We learned that the TRC is only the beginning of a reconciliation process. We must ensure that the spark lit by the TRC does not die once its mandate is complete.
Many speakers spoke of the need for everyone to shoulder the responsibility to reconcile. It is our responsibility to eradicate those myths, those permissible lies that exist in our collective consciousness. We heard this message which was beautifully illustrated by the popular “Sorry Day” movement where citizens took moral responsibility for starting a grassroots apology movement when politicians didn’t act.
Our Elders spoke about the need for the Commission to be based
on our people’s traditional knowledge of reconciliation. We, as
Aboriginal people, know what reconciliation is. Further, strong
cultural practices and ceremonies will put the care of survivors
front and centre.
A key message that we heard was that the TRC must empower and it must not harm survivors. There is much room in the TRC mandate for communities to take action and define how the Commission works. This is not usual for commissions in Canada. The challenge for all communities is to grab this opportunity – to start thinking and mobilizing so that you are ready to be involved where you can. What does reconciliation mean to you? How can communities make this process their own? On its part, the TRC will have the challenge of figuring out how to support communities and individuals in their efforts to be involved.
It has been made clear that this is a national opportunity to recover our moral compass. As we heard from one speaker: “No nation can lie and live forever”.
Reconciliation is not an academic activity and it isn’t cheap. Before the truth can heal, it may hurt. Sometimes it may be a messy task, and it may bring out uncomfortable truths. We must have the fortitude to acknowledge and work through these truths.
Reconciliation is not magic either. It is a journey that we will all take together.
One speaker emphasized that as Aboriginal people we are relational people, and that all of us exist together as interdependent beings. We need to recognize that there are downstream impacts of what we do. We need each other and need to reconcile our differences.
We cannot forget women – our water carriers. We cannot forget those who are still in institutions – correctional institutions, people who are on the street. These are often the ones most harmed by residential schools.
So the task before us is to create a process that is ours, that is meaningful, that is focused and that allows the Commissioners to achieve key objectives so that the flame of peace and reconciliation does not go out when the money runs out.
Our task is to create a process that will open hearts – even the hearts of “hard-boiled lawyers like Ron Wilson from Australia”. Communities like Alkali Lake have already started this journey of opening hearts between family members, and this work is the core of reconciliation for many people.
The commission must be modest, it must drive out lies. The Commission will have to build the truth, build it, brick by brick, stone by stone, until is beyond dispute.
We will have to build a Commission that can accomplish all of this.
All of your messages highlight the challenges of the tasks that will be before the Commissioners. Commissioners will be trying to change the culture and understanding of Canadian society. This is no small task. As we have heard, there will be resistance. There will be attempts to undermine the work of the Commission. There will be shortages of money. Together we need to make the commission strong and we all must participate in the reconciliation efforts. The Commissioners cannot face their work with divided supporters. We don’t need our supporters to be undermining the broader reconciliation agenda. Those in opposition to reconciliation and those who deny the residential school experiences will be doing this already, and may even try to dividecrumble at our feet. We need to bring as many hands forward to support the truth of survivors.
I want to thank Kathleen Mahoney and the National Chief for holding this conference.
I also want to recognize the National Chief for his tireless efforts to achieve justice for residential school survivors. I had the honor of working very closely with the National Chief so when I say tireless, I have witnessed it.
I will bring this information to the Commissioners as part of their briefing materials. All of your contributions will be put forward as research and options for their consideration as they develop their vision.
There’s a lot of work ahead for all of us – together we can do it.