Saturday, March 5, 2011

TRC forum
TRC launches forum on residential schools' National Research Centre
Thursday, 03 March 2011 09:07 Laureen McMahon Forum discusses ways to create a permanent archive of injustices suffered by First Nations
By Laureen McMahon
The B.C. Catholic

VANCOUVER--Canada would be "a very different place" if the stories of First Nations and aboriginal peoples were generally known and were part of the shared culture of this country, said Chief George Erasmus, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and current chairman of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

On March 2 the chief addressed 500 delegates to a three-day Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada forum in Vancouver. The purpose was to collect information to launch a National Research Centre for a national archives to provide education on the history of Indian residential schools and their negative impact on generations of aboriginal peoples.

International experts joined residential school students, government representatives, and aboriginal leaders to voice their perspectives on a wide range of issues connected to creating a permanent archival repository of injustices suffered by native peoples.

Representatives from African nations, New Zealand, Australia, the U.S., Germany, Serbia, Argentina, and Chile, told powerful stories of the struggle to retrieve documents from unwilling governments, efforts to correct the mishandling of historical records, and the fight for reparation for countrymen and women who endured often years of unlawful treatment and even genocide.

Many stressed that it is crucial to record the stories of all atrocities with the hope that such things will never occur again.

Said Chief Erasmus, "A story is a powerful thing, as everyone who has ever heard the survivors' stories will tell you. Societies can be transformed through sharing stories. We see this today in the story of a 26-year-old Tunisian man who led a popular and successful revolt against a 23-year-old government. That story is still unfolding."

Stories, he added, can bring about emotional, spiritual, and cultural transformation. They supply a context, meaning, and a vision of a nation's journey, and they belong to every citizen of that nation.

"In fact," the chief noted, "rarely is there transformation without narrative, whether it is religious, mythological, or the story of a nation's founding."

Relationships between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, Chief Erasmus said, "have been severed for some time.

"It is very difficult for non-aboriginals to comprehend the story of aboriginal peoples and First Nations of this country as a living, enduring story with a present and a future in which they can see themselves participating."

The lack of dialogue and lack of understanding, he observed, dates from the 1800s, when people spoke of "the Indian problem." After the beginning of the treaty-making process in the West, said the chief, came a triangular relationship among the aboriginal peoples, the churches, and the government.

"Each brought their own particular agenda. The government entered into the treaty negotiations as part of a larger strategy; the churches were looking for support for their missionary work. Lost in the church-government deals were the spirit and intent of the treaties and the interests of the First Nations and aboriginal peoples who, instead of receiving the skill-oriented education they had negotiated, they found themselves the objects of an aggressive Christian-based campaign of state-supported assimilation."

For the First Nations, the state-supported residential schools, added Chief Erasmus, "were a shocking, painful, and ultimately destructive violation of trust." That lack of mutual trust continues to exist between these two groups, he added.

He called efforts to found a National Research Centre on Residential Schools a first step towards correcting the problem through enlightening mainstream Canadians on aboriginal history which has for the most part been left out of the history books and out of the popular consciousness.

TRC Chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, one of three TRC commissioners, said the forum was an opportunity to accommodate and "meet the wishes and needs of (aboriginal) survivors." Both written and oral histories of survival are important, he noted.

The task won't be easy, warned several speakers whose countries have also struggled to create a history of their darkest hours.

Freddy Mutanguha from Rwanda, the site of one of the world's worst modern-day genocides, spoke about the Kigali Genocide Memorial which opened last December. Mutanguha, who lost both his parents and four sisters during the three months of fighting between Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen, said the importance of collecting and displaying archival materials cannot be measured "to help our children understand the past and for all to have a better future."

Catherine Kennedy, Director of the South African History Archive, a human rights archive based in Johannesburg that has attempted to trace and open up the archives of the South African Truth Commission, described being thwarted by apartheid-sympathetic governments. The work of SAHA, she said, is to navigate the barriers and get to the root of what really happened, to document events fairly and accurately, and to present findings to South Africans.

The TRC also heard from archive specialists from around the world who described modern technological approaches to creating archives. Ramon Albrech Fugueras, co-founder and former president of the NGO Archivists Without Borders, explained the work he has done to recover and archive documents from repressive political regimes in Latin America.

National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre president Robert Banno spoke about how Japanese Canadians lobbied the government and raised funds from private sources to create Nikkei Place, a Japanese Canadian community complex in Burnaby which is home to the Japanese Canadian Museum. The museum documents the internment of thousands of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. It also is the site of an assisted living facility and a seniors' residence.

Justice Sinclair told The B.C. Catholic halfway through the conference that he felt the process had been "tremendously enlightening and an opportunity for bridge-building. By connecting to so many other groups who have successfully negotiated this process, we are learning from them. In turn, I hope that bringing them here to be with us will strengthen the links between us so that this forum now and in the days ahead will prove mutually beneficial."

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