Back to Programs

Aboriginal Truth and Reconciliation

“Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships.
There are no shortcuts.” -Justice Murray Sinclair

A truth and reconciliation commission is tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past. They are, under various names, occasionally set up by states emerging from periods of internal unrest. The Canadian Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a currently active (as of October 2013) as it investigates human rights abuses in the Canadian Indian residential school system from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. Read more



Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Interim Report (February 2012)

Suggested Books

(Students who are taking this course for credit are required to read and review one of these books.)

Jeremy Bergen, Ecclesial Repentance:  The Churches Confront Their Sinful Pasts (T & T Clark, 2011)

Roland Chrisjohn and Sherri Young, with Michael Maraun, The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada(Theytus Books, 1997)

Tomson Highway, Kiss of the Fur Queen (Doubleday Canada, 1998)

Steve Heinrichs, editor., Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry:  Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together (Herald Press, 2013)

Rita Joe, Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi’kmaq Poet (University of Nebraska Press, 1996)

Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Random House, 2012).

J. S. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (University of Toronto Press, 1996)

John Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986 (University of Manitoba Press, 1999)

Ronald Niezen, Truth & Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Residential Commission on Indian Residential Schools (University of Toronto Press, 2013)

Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada (University of British Columbia Press, 2010)

Shelagh Rogers, Mike DeGagne, Jonathan Dewar, Glen Lowry, eds., Speaking My Truth: Reflections on Reconciliation & Residential Schools (Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2012) [See for many more publications from the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.]

Rupert Ross, Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice (Penguin Canada, 2006 [1996])

Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse (Douglas & Mcintyre, 2012)

Additional Resources

Legacy of Hope Foundation
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Where are the Children?

Important Historical Documents

  1. Royal Proclamation of 1763
  2. An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes, 1857
  3. Indian Act, 1876
  4. Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, 1879
  5. Dr. P. H. Bryce, The Story of a National Crime, 1922
  6. White Paper, 1969
  7. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples [RCAP] Final Report, 1996
  8. Text of Prime Minister Harper’s Apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential School System, 11 June 2008
  9. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2008


Essays and Reflections

Gordon Burnstick “This is not the answer.”
How can I do this man justice? I can’t. And I don’t have to. Gordon is far more capable of representing himself than I will ever be. His life is a testament to the human spirit, overcoming all odds. Perhaps I live a sheltered life, but I have never been in the presence of someone who has been through so much and is still here in relatively good condition. His life brings to mind a report last week stating that researchers now believe aboriginals were stranded in the Bering Sea area (Beringia) for thousands of years because the front door to North America was ice-blocked. An entire and distinct race of people lived a hard-scrabble existence, stalled by ice, for thousands of years. It makes the Judeo-Christian lost-in-the-desert saga look like a cakewalk. Gordon must be descended from these incredible Beringian survivors. Despite parents who abused him physically, despite residential school staff who abused him sexually, despite being drafted into a fight club, he is still here. Despite his self-abuse, the shame, rage, isolation, endless cases of alcohol and a trail of bloody, beaten, and probably still racist white boys, he is still here.

After this life warrior’s stunning, riveting and humbling talk, my partner Rochelle and I tried to make sense of it. How do you identify with someone whose life experience is so far outside your own box? This man did not come from the wrong side of the tracks; he came from a totally off-limits neighborhood. Listeners beware! I felt like a voyeur listening to survivor porn. Porn, however, is not supposed to be real; it is not supposed to be a true representation of life, but this time it was in my face. I am extremely glad that I did not have to go through such an impressive hell as Gordon, but the man was living proof it could be done, if needed. His survivor story makes the ongoing TV series of the same name look like Cheerios. At the end of his talk, I realized I needn’t have worried about my ability to identify with him. I can still empathize. I do have a heart. His humanity is my own. We all come from the same place, the same Mother. And hearing his story and carrying it in my heart makes him my spirit brother. I accept the connection, reciprocity and responsibility that relationship entails.

What we failed to discuss in our pair group and should have was whether or not Sir John A would be happy with our speaker. Gordon was the end result of our first prime minister’s colonial experiment. What would our first PM think of his legacy and the “consequence” standing before us? Would he apologize and go back to making harps, BBQs, or whatever he doing now? Would he care, or be curious about the assimilation/colonization that still takes place in the schools, courts, child care systems, in all the systems of the occupier and the human, social and economic devastation that results? Would he see it as the necessary and proper cost of getting the Indian out of the individual? Does he stay awake at night eagerly anticipating the next bill that may bring about a final solution?

Perhaps we underestimate the man and he has a reflective heart. Does he ever ask if ethnicide is more cruel than genocide? At least with genocide, though the total number of dead may be enormous, each individual dies once, and fairly quickly, unless they are doing hard labour. In ethnicide, the bonds of family, society and culture are slowly, relentlessly, insidiously stretched beyond breaking until the individual is left to make his/her way in the world from a place of deep trauma and neon shame. How do you make a life for yourself when all you want to do is crawl into a hole and die? It is not possible. I remember that Gordon referred to himself at one point as a zombie. Gordon is not an ordinary man and could never be an ordinary zombie. This dead man walking comes armed and ready to explode. We have to ask ourselves how many zombies has this country created? Is still creating? The last I heard the walking dead are reproducing and at far greater rate than the predators. Revenge may come sooner than we think. It will not be sweet.

I need and would like to talk a little about the real reason Gordon is still here: divine intervention. Enter wonder and awe. Had it not been for the extremely bright light and voices he saw and heard at a time of certain death and saw and heard again at other points in his life, I believe he would not be among us. Both he and his son survived due to the miraculous healing of physical and psychological conditions that most others would not have survived. His resilience and faith are triumphs that shake off all bounds. It is interesting and curious that Gordon did not discriminate in the practices he used to call upon divine help, incorporating both aboriginal and colonizer rituals and beliefs. As my partner and I reflected on this topic, it brought up doubts in the other and she revealed that she was struggling with her faith. I expressed my sympathy for her conflict and revealed that I too had endured and overcome a faith struggle, a night that turned into a lifetime. I told her that I hoped her journey would not have to be as dark as mine, but we each have to go through what we must.

The last thing I would like to have asked Gordon is something I still struggle with: how do you forgive your father? Is it an act or a process? Is he still doing it? Has Gordon forgiven himself? And lastly I need to ask if Gordon has forgiven a government that is still on an assimilation/incarceration path albeit with some rare and wonderful detours.