In part III, the learnings from the spiritual/self-actualization element are turned into action. First, we look at another country’s response to address past wrongs to see what lessons Canada could learn in reconciling its harmful actions towards Indigenous Peoples. It then explores the concrete actions that each one of us can take on the road to reconciliation in Canada.
Lessons from History – Reparations after the Holocaust
How did we get to this place? There is still a struggle to address its historical and ongoing wrongs committed against Indigenous peoples in Canada. Some would argue that the current issues stem from Canada’s failure to confront its actions head on and the tendency to hide it. For many years, Canada was seen as the friendly country where everyone was welcome—racism did not exist here. While this message was broadcasted on the international stage, Canada committed atrocities against Indigenous peoples that met the UN definition of genocide.
Genocide is a word that is highly charged, both emotionally and politically. At the mere suggestion of the Canadian government committing genocide against Indigenous Peoples, non-Indigenous Canadians are quick to become defensive of deny the allegation. When the National Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls declared that the epidemic was part of an ongoing genocide, politicians were quick to reply, stating “I think the tragedy involved with missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is its own thing, its own tragedy, and doesn’t fall into that category of genocide” or, insisting that “cultural genocide” is a more apt term to describe the Indigenous experience. It is now known that Canada’s collective actions against Indigenous Peoples and their “Indian” policies amount to genocide. Uncomfortable feelings of disbelief, grief, and shame may surface when learning about this, but it is important to work though them. Canadians are not the only ones who have to address genocide, other peoples had to and are still doing the same. In the German language, there is the term “Holocaustaufarbeitung”. Broken into its parts, Holocaust and Aufarbeitung, it translates to working through or reprocessing the Holocaust. There is a further related term, Tauma-Aufarbeitung, working through the resulting trauma, which is of equal, if not greater importance. The same type of reprocessing is needed in Canada, to work through the heavy emotions that will arise when learning about the Canadian genocide.
To better understand how to begin this process, it can be helpful to look at the actions of other nations following genocide. Many examples of genocide were discussed in the case study, but the genocide that likely springs to mind to many people is the Holocaust and Germany’s actions following the Second World War provide a useful case study. The purpose of this discussion is not to compare residential schools to the holocaust, but rather the perpetrating countries’ responses to their own actions. Even so, in Tamara Starblanket’s legal analysis of genocide in Canada, she relied upon comparisons between the suffering the people experience both through concentration camps and residential schools, about which she had the following to say:
Certain criticisms are so predictable that I feel quite comfortable heading them off at the pass. First among these is that my comparing Canada’s “Indian policies” to certain of those implemented by the Nazis against those they viewed as racial/cultural inferiors “diminishes the memory” of the Nazis’ victims. In effect, this is to claim that the Nazis’ genocidal policies were in every respect “incomparable”, and thus the fate of those victimized is unique. Any suggestion to the contrary is case as “disrespect” to the victims. My response is that any such claim to uniqueness can be made only by denying that the suffering of all others, and that denial of others’ pain is a cardinal disrespect. Clearly, it’s not me who’s seeking to deny either the reality or the magnitude of someone else’s misery, least of all that of those victimized by the Nazis. That I acknowledge it is evident in the very fact of my making comparisons to Nazi policies.  While they are now known for confronting these issues head on, reconciliation with their wartime actions did not happen overnight or even in the years immediately following the war. In 1961, the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Nazis’ “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, in Israel garnered a worldwide audience. The trial weighed heavily on the consciences of children and grandchildren of Nazis. Student protests began to sweep Europe and young Germans demanded the honest account of past wrongs.
From 1963 to 1965, Germany conducted the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials where Nazis were tried for their war crimes. The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials were the first Nazi war crime cases that were tried by Germany and not the victorious allies as the Nuremberg Trials had been; they marked a turning point in Germany’s reconciliation journey. It is important to note that Germany has not completed its World War II reconciliation. To this day, new monuments are erected to honour fallen victims of Nazis and keeping these historical events in current memory is of utmost importance. The apology came on the heels of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and marked the beginning of a healing journey for many Indigenous peoples. However, it left a lot to be desired and excluded large groups of victims, including Innu, Inuit, and NunatuKavut children who attended provincially run residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, and even children who attended residential school during the day and went home at night (known as “day scholars”). Additionally, perpetrators of violence, abuse and neglect in residential schools were never brought to justice for their crimes. Even today, the historical wrongs against Indigenous peoples in Canada and their lasting effects are downplayed. To achieve true reconciliation, these issues need to be addressed head on, with honesty and humility. Canada may need to take a page from Germany’s book on reconciliation.
It would be a mistake to discuss the suffering and pain of Indigenous Peoples without also mentioning their resiliency. Despite the governments attempt to assimilate Indigenous Peoples in Canada and eradicate their cultures, they still survive and have begun their journey of healing. Despite the abuse the children faced for speaking their language in residential schools, there are elders who still speak the language and are passing their knowledge down to younger generations. Despite the historical banning of traditional ceremonies and dances, these ceremonies and dances are still being practiced, providing much needed healing. There are still First Nations who are fighting for the protection and conservancy of their traditional lands. People are speaking their truths, working through their traumas, and strengthening their communities. This does not mean that there is no reconciliation work to be done, but the resiliency of Indigenous Peoples provides hope that First Nation communities and cultures will once again thrive.
What can I do?
The goal of the spiritual/self-actualization element is to realize what your role is in addressing these gravest injustices and affect the necessary change in consciousness. It is important to note that not everyone will play the same role. You do not need to walk away from the experience committed to practicing Aboriginal or Indigenous-focused law. It is certainly one career path and one way that lawyers can contribute to change and while there are many others, a few are discussed below:
- These materials and TRC day experiences will bestow a privilege of knowledge. By the time you graduate from TRU, you will know more about the colonial history in Canada than many Canadians and about the importance of the land, since at least one of the Upper Year learning days will focus on land-based learning. The first and most simple action you can do is to share this information. Share it with friends, family, and colleagues. Do your best to speak up and confront anti-Indigenous comments, especially when they come from a place of ignorance, and do so with pure intentions.
- Commit to further learning. These materials are a good start, but there is only so much that can be discussed in a short time. Take time to do your own research and enroll in other courses with an Indigenous focus. Outside of TRU Law, you can also take Indigenous Canada through the University of Alberta. It is offered online for free, for certificate, or for credit. For further details, click here.
- Volunteer with Indigenous organizations. There are many amazing Indigenous organizations, including some that promote healing for all Indigenous peoples that have been negatively impact by past and present colonial harms. Look into the organizations in your community and learn about how you can get involved. If you are unsure where to start, visit your local Museum. There is usually an Indigenous History section and you can ask someone at the help desk who the local Indigenous stakeholders are.
- Learn about Indigenous teachings and cultures. The word “Indigenous” is used to refer broadly to status and non-status First Nations, Métis, Inuit peoples, and those that self-identify as Indigenous. These are the original inhabitants of the land that is now Canada. But each individual Nation has their own traditions and language. Take the time to learn about the particular Nation in whose territory you live.
- Decolonize the way you think. Consider Indigenous laws and teachings in all of your courses. Indigenous rights are a cross-cutting issue and the impacts of the dominant legal system on Indigenous Peoples should be taken into account in all courses. More importantly when talking about Indigenous laws, we are talking about the legal traditions of the respective Indigenous Peoples. This constitutes a core competence for the TRC related learning and the real experts here are the elder and knowledge holders in the respective nations.
The above are only a few suggestions of next steps that you can take on the long road to reconciliation. This is your opportunity to decide how you will fit in to the social fabric of Canada, the legal system, and your community. After reading these materials, take some time to reflect. Then continue to reflect on it and evaluate your contributions in the following years.
- Tamara Starblanket, “Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State” (2018) Clarity Press, Inc. [Starblanket]. ↵
- John Paul Tasker, "It is 'its own thing': Andrew Scheer disagrees with Indigenous inquiry's genocide finding" (10 June 2019), online: Canadian Broadcast Network <https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/scheer-mmiwg-genocide-1.5169000>. ↵
- "English translation of 'Aufarbeitung'", (accessed on 10 September 2021), online: Collins Dictionary <https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/german-english/aufarbeitung>. ↵
- Starblanket, supra note 1.[footnote] At the end of the Second World War, the country lay in physical and financial ruin. Germany’s reputation on the international stage was blighted as the crimes that the Nazis committed were exposed, including the “murder of 11 million Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma, homosexuals, and others."[footnote]Greg Rienzi, “Other Nations Could Learn from Germany's Efforts to Reconcile After WWII” (2015), online: John Hopkins University <hub.jhu.edu/magazine/2015/summer/germany-japan-reconciliation/> [perma.cc/V5CH-2QVZ] [Rienzi]. ↵
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, “Eichmann Trial” (28 February 2021 last visited), online: Holocaust Encyclopedia <encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/eichmann-trial> [perma.cc/BPH2-F3UG]. ↵
- Deborah E. Lipstadt, “Slavery and the Holocaust: How Americans and Germans Cope With Past Evils” (30 August 2019), online: The New York Times <www.nytimes.com/2019/08/27/books/review/learning-from-the-germans-susan-neiman.html> [perma.cc/YAE9-H4BM]. ↵
- Rienzi, supra note 2. ↵
- Jacob S. Eder, “Germany Is Often Praised for Facing Up to Its Nazi Past. But Even There, the Memory of the Holocaust Is Still Up for Debate” (27 January 2020), online: Time <time.com/5772360/german-holocaust-memory/> [perma.cc/U7EK-DVSX].[/footnote ] In Canada, there are some similarities and contrasts in the country’s response to residential schools. The purpose of this discussion is not to compare residential schools to the holocaust, but rather the perpetrating countries’ responses to their own actions. The last residential school closed its doors in 1996. Like Germany, there was a period of time where apathy towards its own barbaric actions, and perhaps a similar deep sense of guilt, resulted in inaction. It wasn’t until 2008 that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a formal apology to students of Indian residential schools.[footnote]Government of Canada, “Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools” (11 June 2008), online: Government of Canada <www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100015644/1571589171655> [perma.cc/G7VA-EZ23]. ↵
- Government of Canada, “Newfoundland and Labrador residential schools healing and commemoration” (15 February 2019), online: Government of Canada <www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1511531626107/1539962009489> [perma.cc/6RDT-TMU8]. ↵
- Zach Parrot, “Indigenous Peoples in Canada” (28 May 2020), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/aboriginal-people> [perma.cc/DP9C-FKXC]. ↵