New exhibit explores reconciliation in Canada

Monday, August 17, 2015

Reconciliation is a complex concept. It has many meanings. It can take various forms.  It involves many different aspects, like truth, justice, healing, and forgiveness. But none of these alone will necessarily lead to reconciliation.  An important first step for reconciliation is to develop a shared understanding of past events.

A new exhibit on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) just opened in the Museum. The exhibit, located in the Inspiring Change gallery on Level 7, is one way the Museum is working to encourage that shared understanding. The purpose of the exhibit is to interest visitors in learning more, and to provoke thought and discussion about the legacy of Indian Residential Schools, which is one of Canada’s most pressing human rights concerns.

The exhibit explores the work of the TRC, and how concepts of both “truth” and “reconciliation” are experienced after mass human rights violations. It also houses the Bentwood Box, created by Coast Salish Carver Luke Marston. The box travelled with the TRC to many events, receiving offerings related to residential school experiences and reconciliation.

Reconciliation involves rebuilding relationships and finding ways to live together that will build a better future.[1] It is not something that happens at once, but a long-term process that must involve changing attitudes and beliefs. Reconciliation can occur at the national or political level, but also in personal relationships or within communities.

Thousands of residential school survivors have worked tirelessly to have their experiences recognized and acknowledged through public disclosures, class-action lawsuits, reparations, and through the TRC. Acknowledgement of past harms and reparations are important steps, as are committing to address economic and structural inequalities.[2] A formal way to begin a process of reconciliation is through a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

The Canadian TRC was officially established in 2008 as one of the terms of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). The IRSSA arose out of multiple individual claims and class actions lawsuits on behalf of residential school survivors. It was negotiated between survivors, the federal government, the Churches, and Inuit and First Nations organizations.

The IRSSA came into effect in 2007 and is the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history.  One of the terms of the IRSSA included compensation for former students of the school system and additional compensation for students who were abused while they were at the schools. Following the Settlement Agreement, on June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canadians for the Indian residential school system.

The TRC travelled across the country, gathering testimonies of thousands of residential school survivors and others affected by the legacy of residential schools. It also consulted with experts and completed archival research into the history of policies and operations of the residential school system. The TRC also held events, supported commemoration projects, and established a National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba. This centre will house the collection of documents and statements gathered through the TRC and will be a place of continued research and information on residential schools.

In June, the TRC completed its mandate and released a Summary Report of its findings. It described reconciliation as “an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships”.[3]  Ninety-four recommendations were made to redress the legacy of residential schools in Canada. The report also concluded that residential schools amounted to cultural genocide. The Museum invites visitors into a conversation about genocide in relation to residential schools and colonization. Many advocates are encouraging every Canadian to read this report and think about their role in the reconciliation process. People across Canada have even created videos of themselves reading portions of the Summary Report.

In the report, the TRC also encouraged the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to be actively involved in promoting an understanding of reconciliation in Canada. We take this call to action very seriously. The history and legacy of Residential Schools is a theme woven throughout several different exhibits in the Museum. We hope our exhibits can help grow the current dialogue about reconciliation in Canada.




[1] David Bloomfield, Teresa Barnes and Luc Huyse, Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook (Stockholm:  International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2003). 

[2] Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[3] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015: 16.