Last week I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Atlantic National Event in Halifax. Survivors of the Canadian government’s residential school program, which ran roughly from the 1870’s to the 1990’s, came forward to give their accounts.
To give you a bit of a background, the Residential School program was created with the intention of assimilating First Nations people into European-Canadian society. The residential school system separated children from their parents, taking them away to boarding schools in an effort to distance them from their cultures. The children were forced to speak only English and were beaten (or worse) if they did not comply or made attempts to escape. This effort to force assimilation has been described as “cultural genocide”. The stated goals of the residential schools were to “civilize” the Aboriginal people.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was entrusted with the mandate of bringing the truth about what happened in these schools to light, as well as passing on these truths to all Canadians. According to the TRC’s website, there are an estimated 80,000 former residential school students living today. In addition to this, the TRC notes that the impact of these schools is ongoing and has been a contributing factor with regards to many of the current social issues experienced by First Nations in Canada.
In my experience, Canadian media seems to focus much more on the social problems in First Nations communities than on the historical factors that have either caused or contributed to these problems. Now that I have learned a bit more of the story, I feel as though the narrative I’ve been fed about these communities is incomplete and entirely one-sided.
Last week I was able to experience the inter-generational impact of the residential school program. I sat down and listened to survivors and their children talk about how they have been affected. I heard stories about people who were beaten and molested merely for daring to speak their own language. I also heard accounts from the children of survivors who are unable to speak the language of their community and who have also been affected by the psychological impact that this type of treatment had on their parents. Not surprisingly, these effects are being passed on even to the third generation.
While it brings me hope that Canada is doing what it can to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and attempting to bring about reconciliation, what strikes me most deeply is how long, arduous, and painful this process will be. At best, it may take another three generations before the effects subside. Also, as the TRC has acknowledged, we will have to find a place to fit Justice in between Truth and Reconciliation, perhaps even as a bridge between the two.
A while back, I wrote about about becoming a contributor to society and about inheriting the mistakes of previous generations. Coming to terms with and addressing the effects of the residential school program is a classic example. As a new generation of Canadians, we must do our best to guard against the reoccurence of such tragedies. You can go here to read more about the residential school program and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
So I don’t do a ton of movie reviews on this blog, but once in a while I feel compelled to share a movie with you. I recently saw “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” at the Atlantic Film Fest and I have to admit that it was the best documentaries that I have seen in a long time. It was also one of those movies that you really want to sit down and talk about after you walk out.
The film takes place during and after the Liberian civil war and tells the story of a brutal warlord (General Butt Naked) also named Joshua Milton Blahyi. At the beginning of the movie we get to know General Butt Naked as he then was: a mass murderer. However, the bulk of the film focuses on his subsequent conversion to Christianity. In fact, not only does he become a Christian but he actually becomes a Pastor. He feels redeemed by his newfound faith and decides to face his past by confronting his victims and asking for their forgiveness. He also sets up a sort of rehabilitation camp for the child soldiers who worked under him and killed people during the war under his command.
As a lawyer and an international affairs junkie the movie appealed to me on so many levels: so many issues of faith, justice, forgiveness and post-conflict national reconciliation were brought out. At one very powerful point in the movie, we see Blahyi on the stand in front of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. When asked how many deaths he is responsible for, Blahyi bows his head in shame and says “20,000”. The Christian part of me was amazed and inspired by how this man could do a total 180 and have the courage to seek forgiveness from his victims. The lawyer in me who craves for justice found it so upsetting for him to have ruined so many lives and expect to receive forgiveness. Finally, the international affairs junkie in me was watching the the process of truth and reconciliation unfolding and was fascinated by what I saw. Choosing reconciliation after such a terrible tragedy is often the only choice that these people have if they do not want to spiral into deeper conflict – but it doesn’t make the choice any easier.
I encourage you to see the movie. You may find it uncomfortable and unsettling at times, but I really think that these issues are worth thinking about. If you’ve seen the movie and have any thoughts, please do share – I’d love to engage!