The Truth That Failed

The TRC Interim Report: a reprise

Things have been busy in Florida, what with hurricane season, Rick Scott’s campaign to deny food stamps to druggies, and BP’s ad campaign extolling the vacation paradise they’ve wrought in the Gulf. So I’ve been slow to read what was actually issued months ago – a weighty 115-page tome, neither scholarly nor journalistic mais tous les deux, entitled “They Came For The Children.”

It’s the interim report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that icon and crowning triumph of Stephen Harper’s Canadian majority government. It’s the factual vindication of Harper’s infamous utterance at a G-20 cocktail party: “Canada doesn’t have a colonial history.” The kicker is the fact that the “They” in the TRC’s title is of course that very same uncolonial government. (Poor staff work in the PMO, where they proof-read the manuscript.)

But it’s a great read. It is indeed, a jaw-dropper for sleeping Canadians. And it’s great material for the likes of Fats Milloy, the Trent University scholar (who doubles as special consultant to the TRC) in the field of indigenous atrocity, and Flyin’ Phil Fontaine, the erstwhile government poster boy and former chief pooh-bah of the Assembly of First Nations, not to mention legions of Canadian journalists wondering where their next byline is coming from. All three groups, ever since the Report’s release months ago have been enthusing about Justice Murray Sinclair’s tour de farce.

And in fact, Sinclair (together with Commissioners Littlechild and Wilson) does tell the truth about the sickening Canadian history of the Indian residential schools. The problem is, they just don’t tell ENOUGH truth. When they get close to the mark, a Oz-like curtain seems to drop. Censorship seems to sink in, and we all know why. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) told them to do it that way. It was in their mandate, their rule book.

If we were visiting aliens from Mars or Tahiti, or perhaps Courtenay, B.C., unfamiliar with or perhaps uncaring about the reality of life in the true North, strong and free (as long as you’re white), we would be impressed – and profoundly sickened – with this story – although indeed there is nothing new here that most of us had not known about before, however obliquely.

It’s all here and lavishly presented. The stark photos of rows and rows of native kids posing glumly with nuns, priests and functionaries in front of institutional-looking buildings reminiscent of churches – in Sandy Bay, or Qualicum, or Brantford. It’s well-written, not of course by the Milloys or the Fontaines but by some flack in the PMO, and signed off by those three I have difficulty not calling the Three Stooges of Canadian historical re-engineering: Sinclair, Littlechild, and Wilson. The Truth and Reconciliation truth-seekers who aren’t about to set us free.

They talk endlessly about the atrocities in the rez schools, but always with studied restraint. Let us say it again: what they say is bad enough, by any normal prison standard, this stuff is enough to make you sick at the whole human race, never mind lovely Canada. The starvation, the beating, the deprivation of family, culture, even language.

They, the Commission, refer obliquely to Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1907 account of 50% mortality, but it’s sluffed over, barely mentioning how Bryce’s idiot boss, Duncan Campbell Scott, celebrated poet and darling of North Toronto society, was intent on wiping out all vestiges of the noble culture his generation sought to extinguish. But the Stooges know their politics, their limitations, their mandate. There is not a single mention in 115 pages of the words “rape,’ “sodomy,” “medical experimentation,” “sterilization,” or God help us, the G-word, even in the sanitized academic fashion with which Fats Milloy hints at it.

How could it have been otherwise, according to the reports we’ve received from those hootenanny sessions they held in Winnipeg and Inuvik and Halifax, or indeed Prince Albert, former home of John Diefenbaker, the Ronald Reagan of Canadian politics. Peter Yellow Quill is an Anishinabe elder from western Manitoba who, strangely, hasn’t been heard from ever since he spoke out on the subject. Peter told us in great detail how prospective witnesses — victims and survivors — were coached as to what and how they were to testify, the whole stage-managed, scripted method to ensure that the testimony wouldn’t get out of hand. No need to embarrass the good old churches and, least of all, Harper and his distinguished predecessors dating all the way back to John A. MacDonald, the alcohol-challenged father of our country.

There’s even a straight-faced report of the famous RCMP “investigation” into all this irregularity back in 1995 We know all about that one first hand, because a Mountie Sergeant in Vancouver confided to Reverend Kevin Annett behind his hand “if we investigated every case of this kind of sex abuse or atrocity, it would take us forever.”

And a funny thing happened on their way to cutting-edge scholarship and historical investigative journalism. In the hundreds of footnotes, in which reference is constantly made to learned papers going back to a colonial creep called Davin in the 19th Century, discussing their theories of cultural erasure, and all sorts of contemporary experts on indigenous people, not a single mention is made of Kevin Annett, or the 20 years of research he has devoted to the subject, or the internationally award-winning feature film he and Louis Lawless created, or the attention he has gained throughout the academic world in Innsbruck, Slovenia, Norwich, Dublin, Boston, Syracuse, Chicago and Berkeley. And how he’s never been able to buy a headline in his own country. [FYI: writer is father of Kevin Annett — DV Ed]

Indeed, his exhaustive research that has resulted in three books, unlike this skimpy 115 pages of watered-down drivel, didn’t cost the Canadian taxpayers a cent, compared with the $68 million tab for this slim volume. And we thought Canadians were thrifty.

A host of people – Canadian politicians and newsmakers, university professors, working stiffs and yes, native people, even beyond the cloistered space of the federally payroll-challenged chiefs and tribal councils, and especially the nouveau politicians in the AFN – believe and have already said so – that Sinclair and Co. have done a valuable job here. They are unanimous in believing that there will be a new awakening in national consciousness, that education, public awareness and all sorts of goodies (like compensation) will follow. And most importantly, in a generation or three, healing will take place as we all, arm in arm, march bright-eyed and alert into the radiant tomorrow.

It’s a great script, but we believe otherwise. We believe this grandstanding minimalization of what one honest scholar, Professor Anthony Hall, in the University of Lethbridge has called “the most re-engineered civilization in history,” can have a result that is far worse than having done nothing at all. Because we’re all led to believe that some great epiphany has happened, and in fact not a damned thing of consequence will take place.

The Indian Act will remain in force (because Harper has recently so decreed) with all it’s medieval cruelty and control. The Oz-like Crown will still dictate land use, and parliamentary procedure, and Canada’s archaic legal system, and something called Westminster will continue as Canada’s de facto head of state. And long live the Doctrine of Discovery, the Papal bulls and the bull droppings of religious outreach.

And that’s exactly what would have happened anyway, had Kevin Annett not blown the whistle on church and government — and their minions the RCMP — 20 years ago, he who has paid the piper for his insubordination ever since. He has the scars — emotional, financial and yes, physical — to prove it.

No wonder they don’t mention him, even following his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. “Kevin Annett and the Canadian Genocide,” the theme of his books, film and international lectures, would shake up this format too much. He talks straight medicine. This is a placebo.

And it’s swallowed, hook, line and sinker, by earnest seekers after truth like Rodney Clifton, who works for the Frontier Center for Public Policy in Winnipeg, and among other things believes that ol’ Murray is being too tough on the government when he uses the G-word, even in a nice sanitized way, like talking about obliterating a culture.

T’aint so, says Rodney, and he knows because he was there. Of course, he was there at a rez school, he says, in a supervisory capacity, which was sort of Murray Sinclair’s schtick as well. (That says a lot about his perspective.) And he says, shucks, a lot of those nuns and other people were pretty kind; he recalls one occasion when a kid was sick and they made him feel better. And apparently, Rodney didn’t see any murders or anybody getting raped or zapped with a cattle prod for wetting the bed or speaking in their own language. So it must be exaggeration. And Murray shouldn’t have used the G-word.

“I know things in the rez schools were harsh,” says Rodney. “But I have never seen good evidence of one child dying a preventable death.”

Harsh. Isn’t that like castor oil? How about the 75,000 unpreventable deaths, Rod? Do the math. If 150,000 kids were rounded up by the Musical Ride Boys, and 75,000 never went home – which everybody seems to admit, even Harper and the Stooges – what happened to them? Did they all become nuns or priests or Mounties? Or perhaps politicians and journalists?

Nobody so far has touched that one – even Fats Milloy or Flyin’ Phil Fontaine. The dozing Canadian taxpayers have spent $68 million trying to find out. Don’t expect the TRC to come up with an answer.

Bill Annett writes four newsletters: The Canadian Shield, American Logo, Beating the Street, and The Oyster World. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Bill.