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Truth and Reconciliation commissioner recalls dilemma over cultural genocide finding

June 18, 2024

Marie Wilson mixes memoir and TRC history in new book

A woman places a pelt on on a folded scarlet banner on which names in white are visible.
Marie Wilson, former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, places a bundle of beaver skin on a ceremonial cloth with the names of 2,800 children who died in residential school, during the Honouring National Day for Truth and Reconciliation ceremony in Gatineau, Que. on Sept. 30, 2019. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

CBC Indigenous: The residential school survivor’s reference to genocide came on a cool October day in 2011, Marie Wilson recalls.

The phrase was short and direct but raised a dilemma for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

“This was cultural genocide against my people,” the Mi’kmaw residential school survivor said inside a downtown Halifax convention centre, Wilson recounts in a new book.

The remark appears about a third of the way through North of Nowhere: Song of a Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, a first-hand account from Wilson, the TRC’s lone non-Indigenous and only woman commissioner, published last week. 

This survivor’s story, shared at the commission’s Atlantic national event, is how Wilson raises the subject of the TRC’s central conclusion — that residential schools were an integral part of a conscious Canadian policy of cultural genocide.

“It was specifically not our authority” to say Canada had committed genocide,” she told CBC Indigenous while in Ottawa for her book launch.

“We were specifically not allowed to pass judgment, as it were, because it was post-judicial and the courts had already dealt with it.”

But Halifax was not the only place survivors called what happened to them genocide, creating what Wilson calls “a legally imposed dilemma.”

A “post-judicial process,” she explains in the book, meant that in the eyes of the law, the courts had already dealt with survivors’ claims.

Survivors had mounted what was then the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history, culminating in an out-of-court settlement in 2006.

Genocide is sometimes called the crime of crimes, but it wasn’t up to the commission, which was established by the settlement agreement, to draw any new conclusions about broken laws or name any new charges.

The three TRC commissioners are pictured seated closely to one another.
TRC commissioners Marie Wilson, Wilton Littlechild and Murray Sinclair listen to a speaker as the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is released, Dec. 15, 2015 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

On the other hand, Wilson, a journalist for more than 20 years before joining the commission — and currently a CBC board member — recounts how for the sake of the TRC’s credibility to survivors the commission couldn’t ignore what so many of them called out as a crime.

“We chose our words really, really carefully, but it was out of respect for the survivors and how they themselves told us what had happened to them,” Wilson told CBC Indigenous.

“And it was in that context that we used the term cultural genocide.”

In the end, Wilson describes how “the room erupted” when TRC chair Murray Sinclair offered “that first controversial mouthful” in 2015.

Since then, debate about genocide in Canada has remained controversial.

In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada accepts the findings from a different commission, the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, “including that what happened amounts to genocide.”

In 2022, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion urging the government to recognize what happened in Canada’s residential schools as genocide, as acknowledged by Pope Francis in 2022 and in accordance with the United Nations’ definition of genocide.

‘The sheer enormity of it all’

Wilson’s account is part history and part memoir, weaving her own experience through the commission’s unfolding, and doesn’t go into further detail concerning the commission’s internal deliberations on this.

She does offer an insider’s view of other key moments, including not just its key conclusion but its very first acts.

Wilson, Sinclair and fellow commissioner Wilton Littlechild represented the federal government’s second attempt to launch the TRC.

The first commission collapsed amid reports of an internal power struggle and concerns about political interference.

In creating the first commission, the government set up an Ottawa-based secretariat that included a federally hired executive director who reported to the deputy minister of the Aboriginal Affairs department, now Crown-Indigenous Relations, Wilson writes.

“That was the thing we had to change,” she said. 

“You can’t be reporting through the deputy minister of the biggest single defendant in the court case, which was the federal government.”

Over a series of meetings in 2009, the commission was restructured to reinforce its independence. Its headquarters moved to Winnipeg to get “out from under the shadow of Ottawa,” Wilson writes.

Asked if she would change anything if given the chance to re-do the TRC, Wilson said she would be better prepared for “the sheer enormity of it all.” In the book, she calls the work “emotionally and spiritually exhausting, at times soul-crushing.”

The health supports needed to be better all around, she said, while she wishes the mandate included more provisions for intergenerational survivors, through whom the legacy of residential schools continues to reverberate.

She wanted to ensure there are as many accounts of the TRC as possible and “to make plain that this can never be denied in Canada.”

“We cannot say that this did not happen, even though some people try to do that. And we mustn’t forget, because we need to continue to learn from that history,” she said. 


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.