The Limits of the TRC

Indispensably valuable for the tellers, but largely isolated from broader Canadian society

A boy is taken from the trap line that he lives on, to a far-away school where he knows no one. He is given unfamiliar food for dinner and helplessly vomits onto the floor. An adult, a worker at the school, arrives to harass him in a language he does not know. He is hit until his nose bleeds, and he is told to crawl on the floor and eat what he has brought up. He is six, and it is his first day at school.

The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission has heard hundreds of these stories from coast to coast to coast. It is already a half-decade old, and winding toward its conclusion. What is not clear is what is supposed to happen next.

Truth and reconciliation are distinctly not the same thing, but we presume they are related. It is an appealing notion, which resonates with our enlightenment liberalism. It says: to solve a conflict, just tell the truth. In an open, permissive and participatory marketplace of stories, the real past will reveal itself, and publics will naturally fall in line. Armed with truth, there is no historical fight to fight, and we can again begin to imagine our future together. It easy to understand why truth commissions have sprouted up so thickly around regime change and the ends of conflicts, in the last 20 or so years.

But how will our new truths yield reconciliation? It still feels a bit like early days, but the time for stock taking has come. Did the TRC work? What did it do? What was it supposed to do?

With Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools, Ronald Niezen takes a first crack at this. Niezen, an anthropologist at McGill University, defends his decision to publish an evaluation of the TRC before it has even finished by describing “an unusual exercise in scholarly accountability.” He invites readers to hold his conclusions up against the remaining TRC activities, and evaluate the work in real time. I found the timing to be amply justified, especially in light of Niezen’s approach. The book consists primarily of “event ethnography”—the author and his research assistants attend public events of the TRC, and describe how they sound, look and feel. This material is augmented by interviews with a range of commission organizers and participants, but with a strong emphasis on the religious professionals who had staffed the residential schools. I was surprised to find those particular voices featured so prominently, but they contribute fresh and unusual texture to the story, and help Niezen illustrate the narrative conflict at the centre of his argument. This is a sensitive, sometimes abstract, exploration of the moral and practical terrain of this truth commission, and all truth commissions.

There is serious, almost abrasive intellectual honesty in the text. The author avoids the temptation just to reproduce the indignation evoked from testimonies like the one above, and to give simple expression to what he describes as “a kind of persistent, nagging, sympathetic sense of wrong” that accompanies any thinking on residential schools. Certainly responding to that sense of wrong is one’s first instinct. After all, as Niezen neatly summarizes, the schools represent “quite possibly the worst crime in private life, the sexual abuse of children, applied in the context of one of the worst wrongs in public life, the purposeful, policy-driven elimination of a people.” But Niezen opts for a clinical remove from the moral content of the story, in order to observe the TRC more critically. There was an easier book to write, but Truth and Indignation is more nuanced, more challenging and as a result more stimulating.

We still get fragments of awful, stomach–churning testimony—the stuff that, if the commission does its job, will make up the new public history of residential schools. We are also presented with vivid images of survivors today, including some broken people who, as adults, just cannot make sense of what was done by adults to their child selves. Some just weep at the microphone, and this, of course, is testimony.

But Niezen’s focus is on process over substance. He wants to explore how the commission knits testimony together into a preferred narrative, which then feeds back on future testimony, ever decreasing the range of acceptable stories that will be heard. Michael Ignatieff once wrote, thinking of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that,“the past is an argument, and the function of truth commissions, like the function of honest historians, is simply to purify the argument, to narrow the range of permissible lies.” Niezen puts a rather sharper point on it. The commission, in his view, does not just eliminate the most egregious historical untruths. Actually, it elevates and sacralizes a single narrative, so much so that it produces “a kind of protected and protective orthodoxy.” The template, roughly speaking, is the story of a helpless child abused by unnamed, faceless individuals, in an institutional setting that exists in relative isolation from the wider world. That which contradicts or even just falls harmlessly outside the new orthodoxy is rendered “unsayable.” While sympathetic to what he sees as a victim-centred narrative produced from the TRC, Niezen challenges us to stay critical, and alive to the unsaid.

There is an important distinction, he argues, between historical truth—truth with a capital T—and narrative truth. In narrative truth, the author speaks to an innate human tendency to line up our memories for coherence, so that they fit neatly along a story arc, rather than just to remember them straight on. Sometimes collective truth telling can overwhelm individual stories, as we try to make sense of our own lives inside the narrative structures imposed by convention, tradition or (in this case) commission.

Every truth commission must also determine how to dispense with individual perpetrators of the historical crimes under discussion. This question hinges on the balance that is struck between justice, truth and reconciliation. In South Africa, for example, perpetrators were invited to testify to their crimes, and in doing so became immune from criminal prosecution. Other commissions have adopted marginally more prosecutorial mandates, seeking out individual perpetrators with the intent to deliver direct, personal justice.

In Canada, no deal has been extended to perpetrators, thus guaranteeing an abundance of victims but a unique absence of perpetrators at the hearings. Many church officials did voluntarily attend the public meetings, which were open to all. And the church organizations themselves had some requirements to participate—for example, in providing relevant archival documents to the commission. But individual roles in the TRC are, to a large extent, self-directed.

Nor will the commission seek to pass direct judgement on individuals. It is expressly prohibited from naming names in its proceedings. It lacks subpoena power to compel testimony or attendance, and cannot suggest criminal or civil liability. If a survivor wishes to identify individuals, their statement is delivered in camera rather than publicly. If all truth commissions are arrayed on a spectrum between the poles of judicial prosecution on one end and pure information gathering on the other, Canada’s sits radically in the latter direction.

But through testimony, a picture emerges that places the lion’s share of responsibility on the shoulders of the priests, nuns and brothers who staffed the schools, as a general class. The book sets aside considerable space for these official villains. And Niezen finds, after scratching under public veneers, that these people are far from ready to embrace the new narrative of the residential schools. He relates a particularly explosive testimony, from one Brother Cavanaugh of the Oblate order, who argued that while the residential schools were not perfect, “there didn’t seem to be any other viable alternative in providing a good education for so many children who lived in relatively small, isolated communities.” From the audience, he was shouted at: “Truth! Tell the truth,” “Shame on you!”

This disruption was unusual, however. Mostly the religious orders stuck to script in public. But in the course of individual interviews, they reveal to Niezen deep resentment about their presentation. They remember things differently. They complain about a lack of funding to the schools, suggesting that they had to make do with what they had under difficult circumstances. Some flatly deny the common allegation that they punished children for speaking indigenous languages. And they remember to him the good times: “We had a lot of fun too, going swimming. The lake was right there”; “I remember playing curling with [the students] with jam cans”; “I was always involved in hockey with them.” These are the new history’s discontents. The commission can pass judgement in a general sort of way, but the judged are largely left alone to embrace or reject the mantle of responsibility prescribed for them.

Niezen also worries about what he feels is an important absence in the room: the federal government itself, which appears at the commission as only an “abstraction, a source of policy, funding, and administration putting forth nothing that attracts censure or gains traction with audiences.” And where does the Canadian public factor into the moral accounting? The author describes a process that feels detached and autonomous that neither compels nor requests deep participation from Canada at elite or mass levels.

This is, perhaps, a byproduct of victim-centrism. Individual childhood narratives fix attention on the “crime in private life”—child abuse—considerably more than the “wrong in public life”—legislated assimilation. It is easy for us, the public, to accept a narrative of abuse at the hands of religious officials, which is many steps away from our own agency. It is not even a new story; priestly exploitation is deeply familiar to us, to the point of cliché. We have not been asked to sacrifice any of our heroes—it has been almost too easy for non-Natives. For Niezen, rigid attention to life histories, and the relationship of individual perpetrators and victims can actually “distract public attention from ongoing forms of neglect and active sources of indignation.”

Has the commission even found a broader audience? Niezen is himself deeply embedded in the institution, and inward gazing. This prevents him from examining the public response to the TRC in any great detail. He describes the in-house audience, those actually present at events, as consisting largely of survivors themselves along with an assortment of initiated others—researchers, care workers, religious professionals and so on. People, in other words, who knew what residential schools were long before anyone stepped up to the microphone.

But is the TRC’s work reaching past that captive audience and communicating with the uninformed masses? We cannot answer the question yet with anything other than anecdote and instinct. Niezen cites online comment threads that show non-Native skepticism and hostility toward the TRC (granted, comment threads are always horror shows, and I do not think we have figured out exactly what they mean yet). But the commission that Niezen describes sounds like a deep, resonant, but ultimately somewhat isolated echo chamber. Participants already know the general outline of the story before it is told by each new testifier, but there are limited means of transmission from the world inside the commission to the world without. Media coverage has been spotty, and with the exception of some local outlets, it has rarely focused on the content of testimony itself. There is no discernible backlash against the commission, but nor is there a strong sense of momentum in favour of the proceedings. It feels self-contained.

It feels not just isolated from a larger public, but also from the real world of indigenous/non-indigenous relations today. The commission, by definition, brackets residential schools out from a broader suite of policies committed to similar ends, that is, the federal government’s “handling” of Native issues. This creates a tension apparent even in its own proceedings. In an important passage, the author describes a phenomenon he calls “while I have the microphone”—where witnesses depart from their childhood recollections to invoke other grievances, especially contemporary grievances—directed at band councils and other community members, media, governments, racist employers. In this way, participants subvert the carefully drawn parameters of the TRC, and transform it into a vehicle for some broader truth telling.

But these are just passing digressions, reluctantly tolerated by the commissioners. The lens remains tightly focused on the schools. This is, I think, justifiable. It allows survivors the opportunity to contend in depth with that great, terrible and central trauma in their lives, which is, after all, the point.

But it is difficult to see how this particular exercise in reconciliation will bear on the real source of conflict between indigenous and non-indigenous people—namely, competing, asymmetrical claims to land and resources. That is where our historical remembrances, and our expectations of each other today, diverge so fatally. The TRC will likely settle our collective understanding of the residential schools, and build one small bridge across the canyon of indigenous-settler difference. It just will not be where the canyon is widest.

And that, maybe, is the central counsel in Niezen’s wise text: to embrace modesty of ambition, and a measure of skepticism, in the face of symbolic high politics. If the TRC has allowed survivors to tell their stories and relinquish in some small way that burden that they have had to carry with them since childhood, its existence is amply validated. But the higher hopes that were inevitably attached to it—that it would prove a watershed, that it would allow us to turn the page on the past and so on—will likely be frustrated. We have more stories to share now, and that is good. There remains considerably more storytelling to do.