Thousands of aboriginal people are giving their testimony to Canada’s truth and reconciliation commission this week, recounting their experiences of a residential school system designed to force assimilation into white society. I’ve been following the sessions online, watching the live-stream and recordings. It’s harrowing viewing, awful to watch. And yet for some reason I do keep watching.
It is always difficult to listen to the testimony of somebody who has suffered greatly. It should be. That’s the offering of the listener, to stand steadfast with the speaker when they journey into a past marked by pain, thereby perhaps offering some comfort. But it is the pettiness of the cruelties that the survivors describe, and the detail with which they are able to remember them, that affected me so deeply.
Funded by the government and run by the church, the residential schools have marked the lives of generations of Aboriginal people. For more than a century children have been forcibly removed from their families, deprived of their ancestral languages, beaten, abused and killed. About 150,000 children passed through the system. 4,000 of them died, but in some schools the mortality rate was well over 50%. The last school closed in 1996.
Canada has been reckoning with the legacy of these schools for decades now. The government has apologised and provided compensation. The churches have apologised too. The truth and reconciliation commission is another aspect to this reckoning, allowing survivors to tell their stories and providing perpetrators with a chance to acknowledge responsibility and apologise.
Watching the hearings it’s possible to see the power of this approach. Hearing the stories of the survivors allows us to grasp the horror of the piece, at least in so far as we are able. We can imagine what it might be like to arrive at a school, age seven, not knowing a word of English. To be excluded from conversation. To have to adapt to strange food. We can imagine the disorientation. The blind fear in the face of systemic physical, sexual, mental and spiritual abuse. We can imagine the rage and the grief of Ethel Lamothe, whose brother was beaten to death by a nun. A nun who then, guilt-ridden, cooked her a special meal. Who has never come to justice.
And we can know. Finally we can know, and we can acknowledge that we know. Not just Canadians but everyone. And in doing so we can make it that little bit harder for people to abuse children in their care in the future, or to deny the abuse the survivors have suffered.
That, I think, is why the sessions are such compelling viewing.