Government Commitments

Government Commitments to Truth and Reconciliation

A judge, a jock and a journalist walk into a hotel

June 8, 2024


Commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, centre, with fellow commissioner Marie Wilson, right.

Toronto Star: In “North of Nowhere: Song of a Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner,” one of the three TRC commissioners recounts the experience of investigating the history of residential schools and hearing survivors’ stories.

Picture a mid-star hotel in the cluster across the highway from the Edmonton airport, Indigenousowned and with a reputation for great food. On June 18, 2009, we met there, two weeks before we were officially on the job. Willie drove north from his home in Maskwacis. Murray flew west from Winnipeg. I flew south from Yellowknife.

I felt new excitement on that old flight I had done hundreds of times before. I was heading toward my first real encounter with two men I had admired from afar for years — my new colleagues. The Willie I’m talking about is Chief Wilton Littlechild, Cree lawyer from Alberta. The Murray is Murray Sinclair, Anishinaabe judge from Manitoba. And me? Marie Wilson, journalist, TV host, teacher and executive manager from the Northwest Territories. Marie Wilson, southern Canadian turned northerner. Marie Wilson, world traveller, Canadian-born but one-time resident of France and Burkina Faso. I am perhaps that most undefinable thing of all — a non-Indigenous Canadian. At least not indigenous to this place. I was raised to be proud of being Scottish-Canadian. And I am a woman. I am a daughter, sister, wife and mother. I am a grandmother.

The three of us were interviewed individually, then tied together by a large committee representing Survivors of “Indian residential schools” (a government-imposed term), their lawyers, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, around 50 Catholic Church orders, four Protestant church denominations, and the Government of Canada. It was the largest, most diverse selection committee I had ever experienced, a two-day process overseen by a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Our first encounter as three Commissioners of the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had all the nervousness, energy, anticipation and excitement of an arranged marriage. Our arrivals were staggered, so Murray, as Commission Chair, had told us to meet at his hotel room when we got there. When I arrived, he filled the door frame with his warm smile and commanding presence. I remembered that rich baritone voice from many years before, when he was speaking to a crowd at the Yellowknife Inn about his work leading the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. I remembered his impact and inspiration as the first Indigenous judge in Manitoba, the second in all of Canada. The room was in awe.

Willie arrived soon after, in what I came to recognize as one of his signature summer golf shirts. I had also met him decades before, in a chance encounter on the other side of the ocean, when a mutual friend from Alaska introduced us on a Geneva sidewalk. It was outside the building where an international group was having diplomatic arguments about what would eventually grow into the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples They were taking a break after a day of fighting over the importance of including the letter ‘s’ in “Peoples.” Willie was wearing a golf shirt that day, too — always the lawyer but also always the athlete. Professional sports had been his first career. His induction into multiple athletic halls of fame and his founding role in the North American Indigenous Games would later mean as much to him as being an architect of that UN Declaration.

It turns out, Willie was also a virgin. Who knew? Certainly not Murray, nor me. We had sent Willie on a coffee run to Tim Hortons, that Canadian icon, when he confessed: he’d never had a cup of coffee in his life! Within seconds we dubbed him the “Tim Hortons virgin.” And so our time together began. That gift of easy laughter would prove to be invaluable medicine over the years ahead.

Unlike my fellow Commissioners, I was not a lawyer. But as a teacherturned-journalist, I had spent a lot of my professional life reporting from rooms defined by laws and observing political decision-making, strategizing and occasional grandstanding at all levels of public and Indigenous governments.

I was in Ottawa in the 1980s during multi-year negotiations to get section 35 Aboriginal Rights entrenched into the highest law in the land. I was part of the national broadcast team for those constitutional talks, listening and reporting to Canadians.

I was a featured reporter when Pope John Paul II came north to Fort Simpson in 1987. He apologized to the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada for the Catholic Church’s part in displacing them from their homelands, and I remember the impact of his words: to “affirm the right to a just and equitable measure of self-government, along with a land base and adequate resources necessary for developing a viable economy for present and future generations … so that Canada may be a model for the world in upholding the dignity of the Aboriginal Peoples.”

In the 1990s, I travelled back and forth to South Africa, training print and radio reporters in television skills to cover their first democratic election after the end of the racial segregationist policy of apartheid. As the authoritarian state broadcaster transformed itself into a public broadcaster, it was a time of journalistic reckoning: a recommitment to seek and tell the public the truth, no matter what.

And now here we were — the judge, the jock and the journalist — each devoted to justice and the law, human rights, fair play, fact-finding, truth-telling and accountability. A new common purpose would bind us together. For the next several years we would be researching, recording and documenting more than a century of forced residential schooling for Indigenous children, educating an ignorant Canada about the history and ongoing legacy of those schools, and inspiring nationwide efforts toward lasting reconciliation. The background, perspective and expertise that each of us brought to such a huge, wideranging job turned out to be an essential, near-perfect mix. But on that day in Edmonton in June 2009, we were still just getting to know each other.

As we settled into that first Commissioners’ circle and started to build a shared understanding of the work ahead, each of us offered our personal connections to the residential school story. Willie had first-hand experience — he is a Survivor. He was the Elder in our Commissioner trio, a fluent Cree speaker raised by grandparents, steeped from birth in cultural knowledge and traditions, and also a practising Catholic. From that first meeting, we turned to Willie to lead us in prayers and guide us in protocols. Murray was the child of residential school Survivors. He was the youngest of our team, also raised by grandparents. He told us about his decision not to enter the priesthood as his devoutly Catholic grandmother had wished. Instead, he decided as a new young father to reclaim his Anishinaabe culture and practices, staying committed to that effort ever since.

And me? I’d been living with a residential school Survivor for more than 40 years. I had lived in his remote hometown and learned the basics of Dene language, culture and spiritual practices, including ancient drum prayers sometimes overlaid with Catholic rituals. My mother-in-law, several brothersand sisters-in-law, and many neighbours, friends and co-workers were also Survivors. The majority of the population in the North is Indigenous, with more Survivors per capita than anywhere else in Canada. For half my adult life, I had been living with the still recent, raw and inescapable impacts of the schools in my own home, facing them on the streets and confronting them in my workplaces.

But I didn’t grow up knowing these things. And I didn’t grow up in the North or in an Indigenous family. Far from it. I grew up in one of the most southerly parts of Canada: small-town southwestern Ontario. Unlike my TRC Commissioner brothers, I was raised Protestant. Glaringly, I was also the only one among us raised by my own parents.

We immediately agreed to keep Survivors as the focus of everything we were about to do. They were at the heart of this story. Some had been fighting for their voices to be heard since the 1980s and ’90s, some for entire lifetimes before that, well before the start of our TRC.

They brought legal actions against the churches and the federal government to seek redress for the abuses of residential schools. Some went as far as the Supreme Court of Canada. Eventually, individual and regional cases grew into one national class action lawsuit. Survivors agreed to settle out of court to save precious time, as former students were rapidly aging and passing. In 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was approved. The agreement is a long document with many parts, but a key obligation was to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The first paragraph of the TRC Mandate reads more like poetry than a legal obligation, written in italics to stand out:

“There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work toward a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgment of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. 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.”

The entire Mandate is 12 pages long. The rest describes our Commission structure, lengthy to-do list for a five-year term, and guiding principles, including Do No Harm.

The central obligation of the TRC was documenting residential school history, realities and consequences. We would collect and archive millions of documents from hundreds of government and church archives spread all over Canada. We would commission and oversee fresh research to help fill in the gaps in written records. Most compellingly, we would gather Survivor statements. The core of our work was recording and documenting the lived experiences of as many residential school Survivors as possible.

Our mandate’s long list of what to do didn’t say anything about how to do it. That was up to us. That was where our own vision, skills and creativity would kick in, playing to each of our strengths and experiences. We needed to know each other better, to develop trust among ourselves and with Survivors. So, we decided that for the first six months we would stick together, do everything and go everywhere as a single unit of three. We would observe and learn from each other while giving residential school Survivors the reassuring signal of our solidarity and commitment.