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  • The Work that Remains:Continuing the Reconciliation Work of Legal Tribunals through Museums1
  • Jennifer Orange

Reflections from the Truth and Reconciliation Workshop at the Woodland Cultural Centre

There is no substitution for seeing something with your own eyes. Attending the Woodland Cultural Centre and touring the Mohawk Institute added an indelible texture to the TRC Workshop and to my thoughts about the long-term work of truth and reconciliation. Seeing the physical space where children were held, abused, and some killed, and meeting and listening to the experiences of survivors has brought an urgency to my work that no amount of reading these histories in books and journals could ever do. Even though I had attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada event in Montreal in 2013 and listened to dozens of people testify about their experiences in residential schools, there was something different about being in the very place where the children had lived. While I can empathize with the desire of some student-survivors to destroy the physical buildings where such widespread harm was inflicted, as an outsider I gained a new level of understanding from seeing the space, and I hope that these buildings will be preserved so that generations of people may also do so.

Stepping from the Mohawk Institute to the workshop with colleagues from Canada and South Africa at the Woodland Cultural Centre, I was struck over and over again by the amount of information that has not been available to Canadian researchers and legal professionals as we, as a nation, try to recover from a history of violence and discrimination in residential schools. What I heard from my colleagues was that the process of collecting information was too limited in time and scope, and that, as Maya Chacaby so eloquently described, some people are missing and not missed. As [End Page 597] we construct the parameters of legal tribunals and museums like the ones I describe below, we need to spend more time determining the scope of the information we are looking for. It became clear to me during the workshop that, due to a lack of trust, a lack of resources, a lack of will, and a lack of knowledge of how to reach the most marginalized groups, we are only scratching the surface of the information available about past harms. While I sympathize from personal experience with the amount of time and money it takes to collect information for legal proceedings, I am convinced that we can do a better job of reaching people with valuable information who have not yet been able to tell of their experiences. If the purpose of recovering historical memory is, as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated, to prevent grave human rights violations from being repeated, then we need to ensure that we recover as much of the historical memory as possible (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights). Speaking the whole truth in legal and cultural institutions is essential. But we cannot speak the whole truth if we do not know it. The buildings in which the residential schools were housed stand as an element of that truth that we can see and touch. Their preservation is part of the project of knowing our history and preventing the repetition of harm.


The experiences of victims and survivors of mass violations of human rights are told, examined, witnessed, and recorded through legal procedures. Like court and tribunal hearings, truth and reconciliation commission events elicit testimony and other types of evidence in an effort to discern the truth, assign blame, and help both individuals and societies heal. But the process of healing is not completed at the moment a court releases a judicial decision or a commission issues a report. Forgiveness and understanding are not automatic. Discriminatory attitudes and traumatic memories do not fade overnight. Legal proceedings do not meet their goals by the time their doors close, and that failure is anticipated by the order of recommendations and remedies. Tribunals order that the offending party pay monetary reparations, apologize, create memorials, and reform legal, political, social, and educational institutions. Tribunal members know...


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pp. 597-613
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