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Remembering the Past and Mending the Present: The Value of Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

50,000 people gathered at the 2017 Vancouver Walk for Reconciliation in the spirit of “We are all one.”

50,000 people gathered at the 2017 Vancouver Walk for Reconciliation in the spirit of “We are all one."

By Lindsey Mayer

The United States has made little effort to improve their relationship with Native Americans compared to what other countries have done with indigenous populations. Starting in the 1600s Native American history has been riddled with mass genocide, residential schools, and discriminatory laws. The United States has made a formal apology for these atrocities committed; it was oddly placed in the 2010 Defense Appropriation Act. However, as noted in an article from The Conversation, that “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States has never been read aloud by any elected official.” The United States must have a truth and reconciliation process. It is the next step to improve the relationship between the government and Native Americans, and it can be a source of healing for Native American communities and for the country as a whole.

What Is A Truth and Reconciliation Process?

Reconciliation is the establishment and maintenance of a mutually respectful relationship (PDF) between those who were victims and those who were the perpetrators of a crime. In order for reconciliation to occur, “there has to be an awareness of the past, acknowledgment of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behavior” (Commission of Canada 2015 (PDF)). Reconciliation is essential to sustaining peace. Strong institutions are key to the success of the process. Currently, indigenous groups represent their concerns and goals at the United Nations via the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Under the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, there is an informal working group at the United Nations on indigenous reconciliation. The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples prepared a report on reconciliation efforts made by states. Each state’s progress on reconciliation efforts and on following the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can be found on the OHCR website.

In May 2002, the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held its first official meeting in New York.

In May 2002, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held its first official meeting in New York.

Truth commissions are essential for the process of reconciliation. A truth commission is an established body that investigates serious issues that have happened in history. Truth commissions aim to identify the root causes of abuse and they usually conclude with a final report. According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, “a truth commission that incorporates indigenous languages and acknowledges cultural practices—such as oral history—into its proceedings will afford a richer and more complete reconstruction of the past.” Truth commissions create a pathway for peace and healing.

Truth and Reconciliation in Canada

In Canada, Truth and Reconciliation has been a relatively successful initiative made possible by the Canadian government, higher education institutions, and the indigenous population. In 2008, the government in Canada set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which would document the experience of residential school survivors. This documentation was part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The Agreement was made to compensate survivors for their experience in residential schools. It set the goal of working towards a more even-handed future for indigenous people. Hearings were held throughout the country between 2009 and 2015 and resulted in a report (PDF), including the history of residential schools and how they still affect those in the community.

A map of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions from 2009 to 2011. This map illustrates the communities that were visited during that period.

A map of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions from 2009 to 2011. This map illustrates the communities that were visited during that period.

In the final report of the TRC, it documents the experiences of 15,000 Canadian residential school students. At these schools, students were sexually and physically abused. Also, due to poor conditions, students died of diseases and malnourishment. The schools were open from 1870 with the last school closing in 1996.

A response to the truth and reconciliation hearings, Orange Shirt Day is an effort to remember children who died at Indian Residential Schools and to honor survivors of the schools. It is estimated that 4,200 died in Indian Residential Schools. Orange Shirt Day is a way to memorialize those who were affected and also gives survivors the opportunity to heal. Communities may honor the holiday by participating in walks, watching films, or engaging in conversation about the history of indigenous residential schools.

Truth and Reconciliation also created the opportunity for indigenous people’s mental well-being to be addressed by the Canadian government. In response to the TRC’s findings, the Canadian Psychological Association formed an indigenous task force to develop recommendations to improve services (PDF) to the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit populations in Canada. This one example shows how the TRC gave an opportunity for the government to address their disparities in services. Overall, Truth and Reconciliation led to positive change in Canada, created conversations in schools about the history of Indian Residential Schools, and provided resources for indigenous people to heal.

International and Local Government

Truth and reconciliation are key to sustaining peace and maintaining strong institutions. Following the reports of the TRC, the next step was to renew the relationships between the Canadian government and indigenous communities. The Canadian government announced its new program working with First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people to develop a Recognition and Implementation of Rights Framework. The government is talking with indigenous groups about reforming different policies to make sure that the government recognizes the right of indigenous groups. The engagement reforms will focus on self-determination and government recognition, and government will implement new policies based on the needs of aboriginal groups and will create two departments to serve the Inuit and Metis group.

Still, more work needs to be done. Over the past decade, over a thousand indigenous women and girls have been killed or vanished. The National Inquiry of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls submitted a report that focused on survivors and family members of survivors. The report provides recommendations on what should be done and delivers 231 calls for justice. It also highlights the multigenerational trauma marked by poverty, insecure housing, or homelessness. In June, Justin Trudeau held a press conference and promised to conduct a thorough review of the report. Although the Canadian government has publicly committed to investigating the epidemic of missing girls, urgent community-wide action must be made.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

On December 13, 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PDF) was adopted by the General Assembly. It had a majority of 144 states vote in favor and 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States). The Declaration emphasizes the rights of Indigenous peoples (PDF) to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures, and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own aspirations. It also highlights the importance of self-determination to pursue their own economic and social goals. Since 2007, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia have expressed support to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was a great step forward for indigenous people, but little action has resulted from the Declaration. In violation of UNDRIP, indigenous land and lives are in danger because of industry projects like drilling or mining. In 2019, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline. The pipeline has faced a backlash from indigenous communities on the coast of the Salish Sea. The pipeline would increase oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea, threatening the sea’s wildlife and the community’s food source. This is just one example of how much progress must still be made on the relationship between the government and indigenous people.

Guided by the principle that “no one is left behind,” the United Nations made indigenous peoples a focal point under its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Going forward, all Member States of the United Nations must make indigenous rights a priority because lives are at risk. Currently, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) has resources available to engage with the work of truth and healing. The CUC's Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation Guide recounts the true history of Canada: the colonization of Indigenous peoples and, in particular, the history of the Indian residential schools.

There is a movement within the United States to establish a TRC driven by grassroots organizations. Initially, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was the first to sign a resolution letter for a TRC. Afterward, the Lakota People’s Law Project, an organization that works on the reclamation of Lakota land and works to end all threats to Lakota culture, began a nation-wide campaign to gain support from tribes for a TRC. Since then, individuals have been calling on the United States to have a national TRC. Learning from the experience of our northern neighbors, the United States must consider a national TRC. More locally, states should actively pursue establishing their own truth and reconciliation commissions. California has made a small step towards truth and reconciliation. In 2019, Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, issued an apology for the “systemic slaughter of California Indians” and called the slaughter of Native Americans a genocide. One proposed next step would be to set up town halls in California to educate the public on the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. Although a national TRC may not be possible under the current presidential administration, it is up to civil society to push local politicians for reconciliation commissions within states and towns. It is a necessary step towards healing.

About the Author

Lindsey Mayer

Lindsey Mayer is an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz majoring in International Relations with a minor in Art Studio. She is the Climate Justice Intern at the Unitarian Universalist Association United Nations Office. She is interested in public policy, disarmament, social justice, and city planning.


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