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The Power of Truth

by Dr. Rosemary Nagy on 2013-01-31

The idea that there can be no reconciliation without truth is a powerful one, yet how this actually works is far more complex than may first appear. What kinds of truths emerge from a truth commission process, and who is listening? Why assume truth leads to reconciliation rather than denial? What conditions and supports are necessary to ensure that truth-telling is healing? Will truth ring empty when there is no reparation or social transformation? What does reconciliation mean?  Does it involve remorse and forgiveness? What is the relationship between individual acts of reconciliation and collective reconciliation between nations, societal groups or within communities?

These sorts of questions are the topic of much debate regarding the roughly 40 truth commissions that have existed world-wide, and they cannot be fully addressed here.  Instead, let me offer a few reflections on the power of truth in the Canadian context of Indian Residential Schools. 

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established because of a conviction that Canadians need to learn and acknowledge this “missing chapter” in our history.   The TRC’s mandate refers to providing a holistic, culturally appropriate and safe setting for survivors to share their truths; promoting the public education of all Canadians; and creating “as complete an historical record as possible.”  The preamble to the Mandate, penned by Chief Robert Joseph of the Indian Residential Schools Survivor Society, states:

This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.

In the two decades leading up to the settlement agreement, IRS survivors struggled to be heard, to be believed, and for Indian Residential Schools to be properly acknowledged as a systemic injustice that struck at the heart of identity and culture.  As University of Victoria professor Matt James (2012) notes, this battle seems to have shaped subsequent perceptions that truth ought to center on survivors’ voices and survivors’ experiences.  This victim-centered approach provides a powerful antidote to historic silence and denial.  Speaking about one’s residential school experiences – and being acknowledged -- can be a profoundly affirming experience.  Moreover, the TRC’s emphasis on victims’ voices has the potential to transgress and transform entrenched settler attitudes and beliefs (James, 2012).   

The issue that perplexes me, however, is how might this happen?  What occurs in the process of speaking and witnessing that might lead to settler acknowledgement and the transformation of attitudes, beliefs and institutions?  These questions perplex me because the international research on truth commissions shows that the victim-centered approach also has inherent risks.

Distortions of Truth

When I teach about truth commissions I like to point my students to the story of Yazir Henry (2000).  Henry, an anti-apartheid activist, broke down completely in front of the South African TRC as he gave his testimony about being forced to betray a comrade-in-arms.  Henry afterwards complained about the “lack of sensitivity” in how his story was sensationalized in the media “once it left the confines of [the TRC] space.”  This was done without his explicit permission, out of his control, and also out of the control of the TRC.  As a consequence of this coverage, Henry was accosted in public and humiliated several times; he also survived an attempt on his life.  Despite this, he received overwhelmingly positive responses from people, and he ended up acknowledging the important role of the TRC in at least providing a starting place for the collective process of facing the painful past.

Anyone who has taken the time to read through the “comments” section of an online mainstream media article covering Indian Residential Schools (or Idle No More, etc.) is familiar with the kinds of ignorant and hurtful things people write.   “Get over it” or “What does this have to do with me?”  The core task of the TRC is to educate against such ignorance, to teach about the ongoing, intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools, to point to the continued presence of colonial attitudes and structures that animated the IRS policy, and to showcase the resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples over seven generations of genocide (see Nagy, 2012). But what people do with this information is out of a truth commission’s control, as Yazir Henry’s story demonstrates. 

Individualizing Violence and Healing

 That being said, truth commissions can influence the overarching shape of truth.  Internationally, truth commissions tend to focus on gross violations of human rights (torture, killings, assault, rape), and this affects the production of truth.   As Indigenous scholar Jeff Corntassel and philosopher Cindy Holder have argued in the context of previous truth commissions involving Indigenous peoples (Guatemala, Peru, Australia):

 "Modern truth commission strategies tend to be premised on the colonial narrative and engage in a ‘politics of distraction’ – they shift the discourse away from restitution of indigenous homelands and resources and ground it instead in a political/legal rights-based process" (Corntassel and Holder, 2008: p. 472)

 Insofar as the Canadian TRC chooses to focus on survivors’ voices – and it does so for good, important reasons as outlined above – the “truth” that emerges may, indeed, fall into a settler politics of distraction.  To be sure, many survivors to whom I have listened locate their individual IRS experiences quite squarely in the context of racism, land dispossession, quality of life gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations, the continued under-funding of First Nations child welfare and education, over 600 missing and disappeared Aboriginal women, or replacing the Indian Act

 But are these broadly connected issues being picked up by the media?  I worry that the mainstream media is focusing on stories of physical and sexual abuse in ways that isolate the IRS experience from colonialism as a whole.  For example, the Globe and Mail published a feature-length article about the TRC’s Victoria hearings, held in April 2012.  The article focuses on a prominent leader, Chief Edward John, who “wept uncontrollably” as he talked about his IRS experience; it largely characterizes the schools as “a form of institutionalized pedophilia;” and it summarizes the TRC’s interim report as recommending that public schools “teach about the physical and sexual abuse and neglect” in the IRS system (Meissner 2012).  In contrast, the TRC’s interim report does not use such narrow language.  It explicitly characterizes Indian Residential Schools as an “assault” on Aboriginal children, families, and culture and an assault on self-governing and self-sustaining Aboriginal nations.

 While I am not sure I would characterize the Globe and Mail article as sensationalist, it certainly veers toward the kind of pathologizing of former students that Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Young exposed in their 1996 book, Circle Game.  By this, I mean that the healing of the Indian Residential Schools legacy is depicted as an internal, Indigenous thing: survivors can “fix” themselves through therapy and reconnecting with tradition.  I should be clear that these approaches to healing are indeed important and beneficial for many survivors.   But, from the perspective of wanting to shake up settler complacency, the kinds of violence and healing to which the media draws attention obscures the fact that “colonialism is sick” and “requires a cure,” as Métis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew (2009) argues.  Or, as TRC Director of Research, Paulette Regan, puts it, this approach is based on an assumption that Indian Residential Schools are “an Indian problem,” and not a “settler problem” (Regan, 2010).  


The Role of Empathy

 It is only natural, I believe, to react emotionally when listening to somebody share his or her experience of childhood trauma and abuse, of losing touch with her language and culture, or of not knowing how to parent his own children.  We feel empathy as human beings; indeed, I imagine that such empathy can be an important step in humanizing the other.  But relying on empathy alone carries risks (Ahmed 2005; Czyzewski 2011).  These risks include appropriating survivors’ pain in voyeuristic and colonizing ways while ignoring settlers’ “responsibility to address the inequities and injustices from which they have profited” (Regan 2010, p.47).  In other words, listening to survivor stories may result in “feeling good about feeling bad” and very little else (Regan 2010).

 Yet, what other starting points have we got?  If we cannot connect as humans, how do we begin to ask one another, “who are we?” (see Chief Robert Joseph’s comments in Nagy 2012, p. 18). The task is to turn this question inward, to deconstruct Canadian settler identities as peacemakers, as “less violent” colonizers than Americans, and to challenge how such assumptions and myths underpin our political and social institutions today (Regan, 2010).  This task of unsettling, as Regan characterizes it, is furthermore deeply connected to the imperative that settlers listen very carefully.

 Earlier this year, I showed my students the online testimony of husband and wife, Fredda Paul and Leslie Wood (starting at the 3:47 mark), who spoke before the TRC in Halifax in October 2011.  In it, Leslie Wood, a non-Indigenous woman, reads from her husband’s collection of stories.  Fredda Paul also speaks briefly at the end to add to what he had written. Fredda’s stories are an incredible testament to the resilience and agency of children; they also illustrate the spectrum of violence and cruelty that comprised Indian Residential Schools.   Many of us in class that day cried watching it.  But, importantly, his truth also provided a powerful opening within the classroom to discuss the complexities of violence and reconciliation.


The TRC’s national event in Winnipeg in June of 2010 included an academic conference on Indian Residential Schools.  Part of the conference was housed outdoors and thus it got a lot of exposure.  I remember very clearly the profound disconnect between the academic presentations and the people, notably survivors, who stopped to listen.  I remember in particular how one man spoke in response to a presentation on environmental justice.  “I don’t care about environmental justice,” he shouted, or so I recall: “I want to know what you’re going to do about what happened to me.” For me, as an academic, it was a deeply unsettling and uncomfortable experience—as it needed to be.  I reflect upon that man’s rightful anger as I write this.  Can settlers reach a place where we attend both to what happened to him and to the larger systemic reasons as to why it happened?



 Ahmed, S. (2005) 'The Politics of Bad Feeling', Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association Journal, 1, 72-85.

Chrisjohn, R. D. and Young, S. L. (2006) Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential Schools Experience in Canada, Penticton, B.C., Theytus Books.

Corntassel, J. and Holder, C. (2008) 'Who’s Sorry Now? Government Apologies, Truth Commissions, and Indigenous Self-Determination in Australia, Canada, Guatemala, and Peru', Human Rights Review, 9(4), 465-89.

Czyzewski, K. (2011) 'The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Insights into the Goal of Transformative Education', International Indigenous Policy Journal, 2(3), 1-12.

Henry, Y. (2000) Where Healing Begins. in C. Villa-Vicencio and W. Verwoerd (eds) Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commision of South Africa. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.

Nagy, R. (2012) “The Scope and Bounds of Transitional Justice and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” International Journal of Transitional Justice, doi: 10.1093/ijtj/ijs034 (posted online 18 December 2012).

Regan, P. (2010) Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada, Vancouver, UBC Press.


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