Day after day, victims of apartheid recounted their stories of unimaginable suffering. The sheer weight of horror drove Archbishop Desmond Tutu to break down and weep.
In the 1990s, we watched with admiration as Archbishop Desmond Tutu united his nation after apartheid through a truth and reconciliation process. It was a communal affair -- the hearings were televised near-daily, and millions tuned in. The hearings were discussed over at work, and during mealtime. When Tutu wept, blacks and whites across South Africa cried with him. It was a country-wide catharsis that helped South Africa transition more peacefully.
As Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) releases its final report about the residential school system for aboriginal children we wonder, where is Canada's catharsis? With little media coverage up until the release of the final report, and even less public engagement, Canada has had no such emotionally transformative moment.
Tutu taught us that, where there has been harm to a group of people within a nation, reconciliation comes from people, not acts of Parliament. And Canada needs reconciliation. The last residential school only closed in 1996. All aboriginal communities still suffer from their impact.
So what can Canadians do to foster reconciliation?
Struggling to answer this question, we turned to aboriginal leaders Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, and Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. And for a younger voice, Wab Kinew, First Nations musician, author and media personality.
Their response was unified: non-aboriginals need to educate ourselves and reach out.
Launched in 2008, the TRC laid bare the sordid 200-year history of Canada's residential schools for aboriginal children. According to a newly-revealed estimate by the TRC, 6,000 aboriginal died in residential school. The TRC recorded the stories of 6,750 survivors and their children and grandchildren.
It's a history that Sinclair says Canadians have been taught very little about. And much of what we did learn in school was misinformation based on stereotypes. When Craig defended Thomas King's Inconvenient Indianon the annual national book debate, Canada Reads, we were shocked to discover how little we really knew -- like the fact there were laws in place up to 1961 that required aboriginals to give up their status if they wanted to vote.
We're pleased to see change happening. Across Canada, youth are increasingly learning about these issues in school. But what about adults? "The challenge of education lies with the older generation," says Kinew.
It's not hard to be better informed, if you're willing to put in the time. You can watch the videos of survivor testimony on the Commission web site, and read The Inconvenient Indian or first-person accounts such as They called me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School (Talonbooks, 2012). And movies like Jeff Barnaby's 2013 filmRhymes for Young Ghoulscapture the aboriginal experience of residential schools.
Bellegarde suggests we all reach out to interact and learn about the aboriginal nations who shaped history in our communities. Even in big cities like Toronto or Montreal, there's a reserve within 100 kilometres of most neighbourhoods. Many reserves, he tells us, welcome requests to visit and learn about their community and culture.
There are 117 aboriginal friendship centres in Canada, from Victoria to St. John's, where you can learn about local aboriginal peoples, discover events you can participate in, and even volunteer opportunities where you can help out.
"How do you build a relationship? By participating," says Bellegarde.
Without mutual understanding we can never achieve reconciliation. In sharing their painful stories through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, aboriginal peoples aren't trying to make us feel guilty.
They are reaching out a hand to us.
If Canada truly wants reconciliation -- if the TRC process is to mean anything -- the responsibility lies now with all of us to take that hand. Let's make the effort to learn about and understand the people with whom we share this land.
Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.
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