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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Genesis and Design1

  • Rosemary Nagy

Abstract

How and why did Canada end up with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) rather than a judicially based public inquiry in response to Indian Residential Schools? Using a constructivist-interpretivist approach with interview research with twenty-three key actors, this article traces the path toward the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. It examines in particular the shift from calls for public inquiry to truth and reconciliation. In sourcing the idea of a TRC, it gauges the balance between transnational influences and home-grown elements and suggests that two different approaches to a truth commission were merged during the settlement negotiations. One approach, associated with the Assembly of First Nations, focuses on accountability and public record, and the other, associated with survivor and Protestant organizations, is more grassroots and community-focused. This article looks at hybridity and gaps in the TRC’s design, suggesting that the two visions of a truth commission continue to exist in tension.

Comment et pourquoi le Canada a-t-il abouti avec une Commission de vérité et réconciliation (CVR) plutôt que de mettre en place une enquête publique judiciaire sur le système de pensionnats indiens ? À l’aide d’une approche constructiviste-interprétative et de travaux de recherche effectués au moyen d’entrevues avec vingt-trois principaux acteurs, cet article trace le parcours vers la Convention de règlement relative aux pensionnats indiens. Il examine notamment le passage des demandes d’une enquête publique vers des demandes de vérité et réconciliation. Examinant le concept d’une CVR, ce texte mesure le juste équilibre entre les influences transnationales et les éléments canadiens et suggère que deux différentes approches d’une commission de vérité ont été combinées lors des négociations menées en vue du règlement. L’une des approches, associée à l’Assemblée des Premières Nations, est centrée sur la responsabilisation et le domaine public, tandis que l’autre, associée aux organisations protestantes et de survivants, est davantage centrée sur des idées populaires et communautaires. Cet article examine l’hybridité ainsi que les lacunes dans la conception de la CVR et suggère que les deux visions d’une commission de vérité continuent d’exister en tension.

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References

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2 Kim Stanton, “Reinventing the Public Inquiry: Truth Commissions in Established Democracies” (paper presented at International Studies Association, San Diego, CA, April 2, 2012).

3 Rev. James Scott, United Church General Council Officer for Residential Schools, personal interview, April 24, 2013, Montreal.

4 Subotić, Jelena, “The Transformation of International Transitional Justice Advocacy,” International Journal of Transitional Justice 6, no. 1 (2012): 106–25, 114.

5 Cavallaro, James L. and Albuja, Sebastián, “The Lost Agenda: Economic Crimes and Truth Commissions in Latin America and Beyond,” in Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change, ed. McEvoy, Kieran and McGregor, Lorna (Oxford and Portland: Hart, 2008), 124.

6 Hayner, Priscilla B., Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2011), 20.

7 Franklin Oduro, “Transitional Societies, Democratic Accountability and Policy Responses: The Formulation of the Truth Commission Approach to a Transitional Justice Policy (South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana)” (doctoral dissertation, Carleton University, 2012).

8 See MacKenzie, Megan and Sesay, Mohamed, “No Amnesty from/for the International: The Production and Promotion of TRCs as an International Norm in Sierra Leone,” International Studies Perspectives 13 (2012): 146–63.

9 Oduro, Franklin and Nagy, Rosemary, “What’s in an Idea?: Truth Commission Policy Transfer in Ghana and Canada,” Journal of Human Rights 13, no. 1 (2014): 85102.

10 Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn, “Taking Stock: The Constructivist Research Program in International Relations and Comparative Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science 4, no. 1 (2001): 391, 393.

11 Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Yanow, Dvora, Interpretive Research Design (New York: Routledge, 2012), 79.

12 See Castellano, Marlene Brant, “Ethics of Aboriginal Research,” Journal of Aboriginal Health 1, no. 1 (2004): 98114.The Nipissing University Research Ethics Board approves this research (file # 09-06-10RVR2).

13 These include Rev. James Scott, Sharon Thira, Jane Brewin Morley, Q.C., and Mike DeGagné. I would especially like to acknowledge Maggie Hodgson, an Indigenous leader in healing who has long been involved with IRS resolution, who spent over twenty hours with me. I am greatly indebted to her for teaching me to think about the spiritual/emotional impact of various processes along the way to settlement.

14 Devault, Marjorie L. and McCoy, Liza, “Institutional Ethnography: Using Interviews to Investigate Ruling Relations,” in Handbook of Interview Research: Context & Method, ed. Holstein, James A. and Gubrium, Jaber F., 751–76 (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002).

15 Schwartz-Shea and Yanow, Interpretive Research Design.

16 James, Matt, “A Carnival of Truth? Knowledge, Ignorance and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” International Journal of Transitional Justice (2012): 123, 18.

17 Schwartz-Shea and Yanow, Interpretive Research Design, 41.

18 Klotz, Audie and Lynch, Cecelia, Strategies for Research in Constructivist International Relations (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007), 107.

19 Phil Fontaine, interview by Michael Enright and Alan Maitland, As it Happens, CBC Radio, November 5, 1990, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/politics/parties-leaders/phil-fontaine-native-diplomat-and-dealmaker/abused-to-abuser.html (accessed August 15, 2012).

20 Then-Minister of Indian Affairs Tom Siddon quoted in Joan Bryden, “Siddon refuses ‘witch hunt’ into Indian schools,” The Windsor Star, November 1, 1990.

21 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Ottawa: Canada Communications Group, 1996), 601–2.

22 See Stanton, Kim, “Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Settling the Past?,” International Indigenous Policy Journal 2, no. 3 (2011).

23 Maggie Hodgson, telephone interview, May 24, 2012. Hodgson worked for the federal government on interchange from Native Counseling Services of Alberta at this time.

24 Leslie Thielen-Wilson, “White Terror, Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, and the Colonial Present: From Law Towards a Pedagogy of Recognition” (doctoral dissertation, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 2012), ch. 5.

25 Ibid.

26 Rev. James Scott, “The Residential Schools Litigation Process” (panel discussion at “Assessing Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Litigation and Settlement Process,” University of Toronto Faculty of Law, Toronto, January 18, 2013). On file with author.

27 Rev. Stephen Kendall, Principal Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, personal interview, April 26, 2013, Montreal.

28 Canada. Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND), Reconciliation and Healing: Alternative Resolution Strategies for Dealing with Residential Schools Claims (Ottawa: Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, 2000), http://www.glennsigurdson.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Reconciliation_healing.pdf (February 24, 2012).

29 Hodgson, telephone interview, June 21, 2011.

30 Personal interview, June 18, 2010.

31 DIAND, Healing and Reconciliation, 104–5.

32 Hodgson, telephone interview, June 21, 2011.

33 DIAND, Reconciliation and Healing, 110.

34 Kathleen Mahoney, telephone interview, September 20, 2011.

35 Ibid.

36 Mario Dion, personal interview, October 6, 2011.

37 Regan, Paulette, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 124–41.

38 Ibid., emphasis added.

39 Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, Study on the Effectiveness of the Government Alternative Dispute Resolution Process for the Resolution of Indian Residential School Claims, 38th Parliament, 1st Session, (House of Commons: Ottawa, 2005) (hereafter cited as AAND Standing Committee, Study on the Effectiveness of ADR).

40 AAND Standing Committee, Study on the Effectiveness of ADR.

41 Mahoney, telephone interview, September 20, 2011.

42 Phil Fontaine (presentation at “Assessing Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Litigation and Settlement Process,” University of Toronto Faculty of Law, Toronto, January 18, 2013), http://mediacast.ic.utoronto.ca/20130118-LAW-1/index.htm# (accessed July 2, 2013).

43 Mario Dion, personal interview, October 6, 2011, Ottawa.

44 Attendance of some groups, like the Catholic Church, government, and AFN, was more sporadic. Reverend Scott, United Church General Council Officer for Residential Schools, personal interview, August 12, 2010, Ottawa.

45 Chief Robert Joseph, personal interview, June 18, 2010, Winnipeg.

46 Reverend Scott, personal interview, August 12, 2010, Ottawa.

47 Chief Joseph, personal interview, June 18, 2010, Winnipeg. See also Roundtable draft discussion papers (January and February 2005). On file with author.

48 Reverend Scott, personal interview, April 24, 2013, Montreal.

49 Bob Watts, AFN negotiating team, TRC interim executive director, telephone interview, November 10, 2010.

50 Sharon Thira, former executive director of Indian Residential School Survivors Society, telephone interviews, October 13, 2010 and January 26, 2012.

51 Reverend Scott, personal interview, August 12, 2010, Ottawa.

52 Mike DeGagné, former executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, personal interview, July 2, 2013, North Bay.

53 Mahoney, telephone interview, September 20, 2011.

54 Ibid.

55 Minutes of the 6th Roundtable for Truth Sharing, Healing, and Reconciliation (THR) Process. October 4, 2005. On file with author.

56 Mahoney, telephone interview, September 20, 2011.

57 Ibid.

58 See “About Us” on ICTJ’s website, http://ictj.org/about (accessed January 25, 2014).

59 Subotić, “Transformation of International TJ Advocacy,” 120.

60 Eduardo González, personal interview, June 15, 2010, Winnipeg.

61 Mahoney, telephone interview, September 20, 2011.

62 Watts, telephone interview, November 10, 2010.

63 Unattributable interview, December 1, 2010.

64 Chief Joseph, personal interview, June 18, 2010, Winnipeg.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid.

67 Hodgson, telephone interview, June 21, 2011.

68 Charlene Belleau, remarks at the TRC’s National Research Centre Forum, March 1–3, 2011, Vancouver.

69 Roundtable minutes, April 14, 2004 and February 21, 2005. On file with author.

70 Minutes of the 6th Roundtable for Truth Sharing, Healing, and Reconciliation (THR) Process. October 4, 2005; United Church of Canada,,“Addressing the Legacy of Canada’s Residential School System: Truth-Sharing Circle” (discussion paper prepared for the Public Inquiry Roundtable, February 2005). On file with author.

71 Mario Dion, former deputy minister of the IRSRC, personal interview, October 6, 2011, Ottawa.

72 Thira, email communication, June 22, 2013.

73 Thira, telephone interview, October 13, 2010.

74 Unattributable, telephone interview, April 29, 2013.

75 Watts, telephone interview, November 10, 2010; Mahoney, telephone interview, September 20, 2011).

76 This figure included 500 community processes, at 3 days for each process with 300 in attendance at a cost of $52,500, and 200 events in urban areas with 10–100 people. Minutes of the 6th Roundtable for Truth Sharing, Healing, and Reconciliation (THR) Process. October 4, 2005. On file with author.

77 Unattributed interview.

78 TRC of Canada, “Report on Plans and Priorities, 2011–2012,” p. 3, http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/rpp/2011-2012/inst/irs/irs-eng.pdf (accessed May 8, 2013).

79 Roundtable minutes, January 22–23, 2008, Winnipeg; Summary Report, Roundtable meeting, April 20–21, 2011. On file with author.

80 Summary Report, Roundtable meeting, April 20–21, 2011. On file with author.

81 Ibid. and “Priorities as Agreed Upon by the IRS/TRC Roundtable Meeting,” April 20–21, 2011, Ottawa. On file with author.

82 Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC chair, personal interview, March 28, 2012, Ottawa.

83 DeGagné, personal interview, July 2, 2013, North Bay.

84 Hodgson, telephone interview, May 21, 2013.

1 This research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. I thank all interview respondents for their time and insights. I would also like to express my gratitude to Rev. James Scott, Maggie Hodgson, Chief Robert Joseph, Jane Brewin Morley, Q.C., Eduardo González, Archdeacon Jim Boyles, Seetal Sunga, The Honourable David MacDonald, and Mike DeGagné, as well as four anonymous reviewers and Mariana Valverde, for their comments on earlier drafts. My thanks also go to Emily Gillespie for her research assistance. All errors or omissions are mine.

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Canadian Journal of Law and Society / La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société
  • ISSN: 0829-3201
  • EISSN: 1911-0227
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