Will airing the truth heal old wounds or help create new ones?
TO FORGIVE OR FORGET
Will airing the truth heal old wounds or help create new ones?
Twenty-five years ago, as Latin America was ditching its dictators and coming to grips with a legacy of death squads and “disappearances,” Argentina tested a new way forward. It would let the guilty walk. Instead of mass prosecutions of crimes committed by the military junta, Argentina held hearings airing horrifying details of torture and the murder of as many as 30,000 leftist dissidents. Its final report, Nunca Más (Never Again), remains one of the country’s bestselling books. It was the first ever “truth commission,” and a hit well beyond Argentina’s borders. Chile and El Salvador soon initiated their own. By the late ’90s, truth commissions had almost become part of the cycle of war and peace, most famously in South Africa. Most often, they recommend reparation programs and legal reform. Today, four are under way, including one in TimorLeste, the world’s newest country. Now that the blood has dried, Kenya will get one too.
But Canada may beat Kenya to the gate: we’re soon getting a truth commission of our own. Headed by Ontario Court of Appeal Judge Harry LaForme, and slated to launch cross-country hearings this year, Canada’s truth and reconciliation committee will come on the heels of the PM’s official apology to
native Canadians, and examine the sad history of the country’s residential schools. It will be a world first—on several counts. No one has ever tried a truth commission in a fully democratic country. No one has ever tried one absent a war or political conflict. And no commission to date has attempted to revisit historical wrongs. Most begin shortly after the conflict’s end and limit the scope to the preceding five to 10 years. South Africa’s began 24 months after the country’s first democratic election. Canada’s has waited 40-odd years. Its mandate stretches almost a century and a half. That fact is drawing mixed reviews from some global experts, who fear our TRC may turn out to be a monumental waste of time. Truth commissions aren’t meant to heal wounds created a hundred years ago, they note. Will airing ugly truths so long after they’ve already been accepted as such accomplish anything? Will it create new issues?
The commission was the brainchild of Grand Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations and Calgary lawyer Kathleen Mahoney, chief negotiator for the AFN and Fontaine’s long-time companion. Its point is to write the “missing chapter” in Canada’s history, they say. That chapter might have stayed buried if not for Fontaine, who, in the fall of 1990, live from Winnipeg, blew the lid on the scandal on CBC Television’s The Journal. Already among the country’s most prominent native leaders, the elegant, 46-year-old head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
told the late Barbara Frum that he, like his Fort Alexander Residential School classmates, had been physically and sexually abused, hinting that, “as the cliché goes,” he himself had gone from abused to abuser. It was a chilling tale. At the time, no one inside or outside the Aboriginal community had any idea of the extent of abuse, says Fontaine, whose torment began at age eight, when his older brother was moved to an adjacent dormitory, leaving him without a protector.
Fontaine’s explosive confession opened the “floodgates,” says Saskatchewan historian J.R. Miller, author of Shingwauk’s Vision, the definitive text on Canada’s residential schools. “That someone as prominent as he was talking about some pretty painful experiences made it easier for victims to talk openly,” says Miller. “He made it okay.” For over a decade now, Fontaine and Canada’s Aboriginal community have demanded redress. Two years ago, Ottawa and the AFN agreed to a $1.9-billion settlement; reparations averaging $30,000 began flowing this fall. “But money alone doesn’t salve wounds,” says Mahoney. She hopes Canada’s unprecedented program in truth-telling and repentance just might.
“It’s not about making Canadians feel guilty,” says Toronto MP Michael Ignatieff, who headed Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights before entering politics, and, in 1996, spent six weeks in South Africa filming a
documentary on that country’s TRC. “It’s about making Canadians feel responsiblesaying ‘Yeah, this happened. And let’s unite as a country and make sure it doesn’t happen again.’ ” But that’s nonsense, says Harvard’s Robert I. Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at the Kennedy School of Government. “It cannot be repeated because the circumstances are so different; the preventive part of this simply doesn’t exist. What’s the point of going past reparations, to a review of all that happened? It’s very unusual, very narrow—and very much after the fact. I can’t imagine what its reconciliatory function is. What is the purpose of having a flagellation like this? Why is that good for Canada?”
It’s crucial to remember the cultural climate in which the schools existed, notes Clyde Ellis, a professor of Native American history at Elon University, highlighting the inherent challenge of pursuing historical justice. The schools are reprehensible by today’s standards, but in their heyday were not unique. “Their assimilationist intellectual and cultural agendas reflected the same goals public schools had when it came to the education of immigrant children,” he says.
Complicating the picture is the fact that many natives’ experience of residential school is oddly ambiguous, says Miller. There is a number for whom the experience was “totally, unrelievedly horrific.” But others will say, ‘There were a lot of problems; I was hit, or I was abused. But there were some good things about it. I learned skills. I made friends.’ ”
That’s true of writer Tomson Highway, whose play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing features a scene involving a rape by crucifix. His novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, has a six-year-old protagonist who speaks no English and meets violence couched as discipline by his residential school’s overzealous missionaries. Yet, for the horror recounted in the semi-autobiographical novel, including the repeated sexual assault of the Okimasis brothers, Highway doesn’t denounce the school system, which, he says, allowed him to become a concert pianist and his brother René—a company member of the Toronto Dance Theatre, who, at 36, died of AIDS—to become a dancer. “There were no grand pianos in northern Manitoba,” says Highway.
Yet advocates argue a TRC will give victims a place to tell their stories, which may be important as last fall’s payments have already dredged up bad memories. It may also help Canadians to better understand the devastating impact of past practices. “Look, the risk of people just getting angry all over again exists,” says Mahoney. “This is not fail-safe. But it’s okay to be angry. Anger does subside; it’s our hope that reconciliation will occur.”
For that to occur, experts agree the hearings need regular publicity. Generally, this requires hearing from perpetrators, a process that “completely shook” South Africa and Nigeria, where “virtually everyone was staying up till two in the morning watching reruns of the
testimony,” says Priscilla Hayner, the Geneva-based co-founder of the International Center for Transitional Justice and author of Unspeakable Truths, a guide to the world’s TRCs.
Lacking the power of subpoena, however, Canadian officials have no compelling reason beyond grace or goodwill to come forward. And then, most are dead, as Fontaine admits. The commission will surely grab headlines when ex-students allege criminal deaths and hasty burials took place on school grounds. But the Privacy Act applies; perpetrators can only be publicly named if they’ve been convicted of a crime. In any case, the idea isn’t to go up and start naming a bunch of names, says Mahoney. “This is supposed to be an exercise in reconciliation and forgiveness.”
Still, airing accounts of atrocities doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. A decade after South Africa’s TRC, the enormous gulf between black and white persists, its amnesty pact remains deeply controversial, and sev-
eral apartheid-victim groups are pushing for trials for murders committed under white rule. Five years ago, Argentina scrapped the amnesty laws that had spared commanders of its “dirty war” from prosecution; some victims now seek justice. Meanwhile, there are questions about the impact on survivors, who risk re-traumatization. And evidence contradicts the idea that addressing old wounds will erase divisions, says John Torpey, a New York-based expert on the politics of reparation. As a unique experience, suffering is more likely to differentiate or alienate victims, he explains.
But that’s not the point. A truth commission cannot overcome a society’s division, Ignatieff once wrote, “ft can only winnow out the solid core of facts upon which society’s arguments with itself should be conducted.” That Argentina’s military threw half-dead victims into the sea from helicopters is part of the public record—and of the country’s conception of its history. To allow hatred and resentment to continue to simmer unexamined would be far worse.
In Canada, some of the best-known Aboriginal leaders, including Fontaine and Elijah Harper, the Manitoba MLA who helped engineer the defeat of the Meech Lake accord, haven’t decided if they will testify. Highway, reached in Buenos Aires, where he and his partner are spending the winter, will not. “I can’t think of a more effective way to waste time than to gripe about the past; all I have time for are the present and the future, both of which look pretty damn good.” For others, the crimes of the past refuse to die. In 1959, Sylvester Green entered the Edmonton residential school where, over the next 10 years, he was repeatedly assaulted. His tormentor is dead. But Green, now in his 60s, lays waste to hollow clichés about turning the page and letting bygones be bygones. “I hope worms are crawling around in his ffickin’ head; I hope it’s painful. That’s where I’m at, now.” M
T CAN’T THINK OF A BETTER WAY TO WASTE TIME THAN TO GRIPE ABOUT THE PAST’
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