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Another Canadian Truth Commission You - and Our Youth - Should Know About

Posted by Heather E. McGregor
12 May 2014 - 3:01pm

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is in the last phase of its mandate, and one of their accomplishments is surely that most Canadians now have at least some awareness about residential schools in our shared history.

Fewer Canadians are aware that a smaller, but related, truth and reconciliation commission was occurring in the Qikiqtani (formerly called Baffin) region of Nunavut before the TRC got underway.

The Qikiqtani Truth Commission, undertaken by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association was established in 2007 “to create three parallel sets of records: a collection of historic textual materials organized in a database; digitally preserved oral testimonies with summaries; and customized histories from oral and textual sources of evidence” (QTC, 2013, p. 3).

Between 1950 and 1975 drastic changes occurred in all areas of the lives of Inuit. Most of the QTC testimony and histories deal with difficult experiences that characterized relationships between Inuit and the federal government during that time. These included: game laws and dog slaughter, residential schools, medical evacuations, substantial population movements, and broken promises about housing and jobs.

The QTC published two important reports: Achieving Saimaqatigiingniq and the QTC Thematic Reports and Special Studies (2013), which tells us: 

[Inuit] felt deep cultural and personal losses resulting from severing family ties and ties to the land, and anger that a substantial amount of Inuit culture and land-based knowledge was lost in exchange for unfulfilled promises. The archival re- cord demonstrates that Inuit were not consulted, that they did not understand the full implications of the moves they were asked or compelled to make, and that very little was done to address the negative effects of moves, especially with respect to housing (QTC, 2013, p. 12).

Similar to the interim recommendations of the TRC, the QTC report recommends that Inuit students in Nunavut learn about these difficult stories from the past. I would argue this should extend to students outside of Nunavut as well, but for now consider the points made by the Commissioner:

I also recommend that historical material from the QTC be included in the new Nunavut curriculum. Many witnesses who appeared before the Commission told me how reluctant they had been to tell their children about the traumatic events of the past, or how their own parents had kept silent. The lack of knowledge among Inuit youth about the events described in this report was clearly demonstrated in the sessions we held with secondary school graduates participating in the Nunavut Sivinuksavut program in Ottawa. These sessions also showed how interested young Inuit are in learning more about the events that changed the lives of their parents and grandparents and created the communities in which they now live (QTC, 2013, p. 444).

To ensure that students learn about the significance of the QTC, and learn from the stories collected by it, a great deal of scaffolding is necessary. First, it is important to understand the terms and goals of the truth commission, and that each one is not run exactly the same way. Students should consider the following: Who is the sponsoring organization? Who are the commissioners? Who is invited to participate? What are the possible benefits or consequences of participating? What are the conditions under which people are speaking?

Students must also be supported to understand what oral testimony, individual memory and collective memory are, and how they are each used in a commission process in relation to other forms of evidence, such as official records.

Students must become familiar with the different ways people of different cultures make sense of the past. For some cultures it is important to arrive at one truth, sometimes based on consensus or in other cases whoever holds the strongest version that “wins” over the others. In other cultures each individual is supported to hold their own truth. How does this affect relationships between peoples when different truths are held? Sometimes claims about the past, or memories, clash because they are founded on different ways of defining what knowledge and evidence are. What counts as good evidence? How do we convince people to consider our evidence?

Students should be asked to engage in practicing listening skills - that is, listening openly and empathetically - and recognizing when they hear that are very hard, possibly impossible, to understand fully. They should also be given supports to use criteria and thinking strategies to make up their own minds about what and who is right - or at least the most right to them.

The QTC report remarks on the sensitivity of learning about the difficult stories of the past related to colonization, in which people were treated inequitably (to put it mildly). Uneven documentation of our shared histories can make it such that people continue to be treated inequitably. These are complex ideas and sometimes hard to face but they are the questions and issues that surround us as Canadians, especially in Indigenous contexts like Nunavut, whether we wish to face them or not. With the completion of truth and reconciliation commissions we have no excuse to ignore these legacies.

I will conclude with the comments of QTC report:

Roger Simon has warned that study of difficult questions should reopen the way individuals and groups acknowledge the past. When people in the majority culture hear traumatic narratives, they need to “incorporate them into an intelligible past, while recognizing that there is an insistence in their stories that calls for reopening the present to reconsideration.” He explains that a change is necessary in the ways in which non-Aboriginal people view their shared history with Aboriginal people. “For this change to happen, we will have to learn to listen differently, take the measure of our ignorance, and reassess the terms [in] which we are prepared to hear stories that might trouble the social arrangements on which we presume a collective future.” This kind of approach by all concerned, rather than a hardening of lines around legalistic interpretations of past behaviour, offers a better future for Nunavut (QTC, 2013, p. 51).

How are you teaching about truth and reconciliation commissions in your classrooms?

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