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  • The Commission, the Community, and the Cree Woman in the AtticGeorgina Lightning's Older Than America in Canada's Culture of Redress
  • K. L. Killebrew (bio)

Two years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) published its final report on the nation's Indian residential school system, 2017 saw a resurgence in political conflict over the legacy of residential schools in Canada. From the passing of the Indian Act in 1876 through the 1990s, thousands of Indigenous children across Canada were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in residential schools to receive federally mandated education.1 Underfunded, poorly staff ed, and built upon a foundation of Christian and European American ideologies that viewed Indigenous people and Indigenous culture as inferior to their European counterparts, residential schools have become an infamous part of Canadian history responsible for starvation, disease, humiliation, and physical and emotional abuse toward hundreds of thousands of Native children. In a January 31 meeting of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and again on March 7 while addressing overrepresentation of Indigenous women in Canadian prisons, Senator Lynn Beyak offered controversial remarks about the positive eff ects and good intentions of boarding schools. Her remarks stirred a national conflict between Indigenous communities and their progressive allies and what Beyak claims is a majority of Canadians who quietly share her sentiments, a conflict representative of a larger and increasingly heated culture war among progressive proponents of reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous peoples and Canadian nationalists.2 Not long afterward, noted reconciliation critic Frances Widdowson presented her paper "The Political Economy of 'Truth and Reconciliation': Neotribal Rentierism and the Creation of the Victim/Perpetrator Dichotomy" at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association. Continuing her previous work, Widdowson [End Page 136] essentially attempted to revive what Roland Chrisjohn, Sherri Young, and Michael Maraun refer to as the "standard account" of residential schools to characterize reconciliation as an extraction of resources from the Canadian government by Aboriginal lawyers, activists, and tribal leaders. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that survivor testimony collected by the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), a branch of the landmark 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), be destroyed after fifteen years. An ultimately unsurprising ruling reflecting the established privacy of IAP testimony, it has nonetheless spurred debate about the purpose and ownership of survivor statements.3 At the same time, emboldened by right-wing victories in the United States and Europe, nationalist-leaning organizations found renewed vigor for combating progress on Indigenous issues and for reinvesting in overtly racist and nationalistic colonial rhetoric. Since that time, another year of reconciliation has passed under the shadow of controversy and resistance.

In 2013 Ronald Niezen voiced his concern that "there is arguably more disputed, mutually contradictory meaning-making in the TRCC than in any truth commission elsewhere" (5), and his suggestion is worth remembering—that regardless of the monetary compensation provided by the IRSSA and federally mandated reforms, the TRC "will fail if too many remain un-persuaded of the reality of these harms and if few possess the will to bring the history of the school experience to life with their own tangible participation in its remembrance" (6). The body of testimony gathered by the TRC stands as more or less incontrovertible evidence that residential schools were problematic, but for the most part, right-wing resistance has avoided contesting the TRC's data by contesting instead the narrative through which testimony has been interpreted. Beyak and her supporters, for instance, seem to fault the TRC for its emphasis on the harm that the schools caused or insist upon the good intentions of colonial authorities running the schools. Other voices merely resurrect the colonial narratives of the unfitness of Indigenous peoples, which justified the residential schools in the first place. Implicit in these stances is, again, a model of residential school experience similar to the standard account long before the TRC came into being, a historical narrative of the school system that evades questions of systemic colonial oppression and psychologizes Indigenous survivors, to the extent that abuse is admitted, as victims in need of the [End Page 137] intervention of colonial social services...


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