Acknowledging our past, accepting responsibility, and asking forgiveness
Speaking notes for
Acting Chief Commissioner
Canadian Human Rights Commission
Honourary Witness Statement
at the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s National Event
March 27-30, 2014
To the Commissioners, the survivors, Elders, Chiefs, fellow Honorary Witnesses, ladies and gentlemen, thank you. I am humbled and honoured to bear witness here on the traditional Treaty 6 Plains Cree territory.
I grew up in Winnipeg in the 1950s. I believe I had quite a different upbringing than many other white Winnipeggers.
Racist stereotypes had no place in my home.
My father saw everyone as equal and treated everyone as equal.
Growing up, for years we were always welcomed by the people of the Shoal Lake First Nation, where we stayed every weekend to fish. They taught us how to properly filet the pickerel we caught.
They treated us as equals.
As I grew older, I continued to spend time in First Nations communities â€” while attending University, I spent three summers working in First Nations communities throughout Manitoba. I learned much from the wisdom of Elders, and from Chiefs, councilors, band staff with whom I worked, and people within the community.
Yet in all those years, no one talked to me about residential schools.
It was only when I became Assistant Deputy Minister of Child and Family Services in Manitoba that I was shocked to learn something of the residential schools and their horrific legacy.
Here, over the past 4 days, I have learned much. I still have much more to learn.
I have heard tragic stories of childhoods lost and stolen; families torn apart; young children subjected to horrific physical, sexual, mental, emotional and spiritual abuse; intergenerational trauma; and the ongoing cycle of drug and alcohol use and dependency, of violence and abuse.
But I have also witnessed the bravery and courage, strength and incredible resiliency of survivors and their families.
They effect you - have endured unimaginable pain and sorrow as victims of racist policies of assimilation, removed from your homes, families and communities, denied the love you needed and deserved.
Yet you have persevered. You have persisted.
And you have prevailed.
Many who gave testimony spoke of forgiveness and hope for a future of true reconciliation.
Reconciliation with your families, your communities, and with all Canadians.
And, incredibly, despite everything, you maintain a great sense of humor and delight in good-natured teasing and banter.
The survivors should not have to carry the weight of these stories alone.
This history is all of Canada’s to carry. This, as has been said, is not an Aboriginal problem, it is a Canadian problem.
We all have to take ownership and assume responsibility.
This begins with awareness. We all have a responsibility to become aware of the truths about Indian Residential Schools and to ensure that all Canadians know the truth.
For, as often said, it is only through first knowing, accepting and understanding the truth, that we can truly embark together on our journey to reconciliation.
I personally commit to helping Canadians become aware of our shared past and its legacy of trauma, which continues to this day. I do this in three areas of influence I am fortunate to have.
But before noting those three areas, I want to recount an experience I had several years ago.
I was honored and privileged to have been invited to meet with Elders gathered at Turtle Lodge, on the Sagkeeng First Nation. As I approached the Lodge, the wise fire keeper tending the sacred fire asked me: â€œWho are you?â€ I replied: â€œI am David Langtry, the Acting Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.â€ He looked at me, smiled, and gently said: â€œNo, you are a human being.â€
That comment has stayed with me, and so I say that I describe the three areas of influence only to explain what I hope to do to pursue the goal of reconciliation and overcoming racism and discrimination against Aboriginal people.
First, as Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
The Commission has, only in the past 3 years, been fully able to accept complaints of discrimination for anything done under or pursuant to the Indian Act. First Nations peoples had been denied the same access to the Canadian Human Rights Commission that all other Canadians had enjoyed since 1977, when the Canadian Human Rights Act was passed.
We have therefore made our work with Aboriginal peoples the main priority of the Commission and we will continue to do so.
I have repeatedly said and will continue to say that the issues facing Aboriginal Peoples are among the most pressing human rights issues, if not the most pressing human rights issue in Canada today.
We recognize there are significant barriers to access to justice by Aboriginal peoples, especially Aboriginal women.
We have therefore held 5 Aboriginal Women’s Roundtables to date, in Winnipeg, Ottawa, Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal, and are planning one in the North in June. We are engaging Aboriginal women to hear their stories, their fears, their concerns, the barriers they face, and how those barriers might be overcome.
Our statutory role to represent the public interest has meant that we have stood and continue to stand with the Assembly of First Nations and Cindy Blackstock and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in the case known simply as â€˜the child welfare case’, alleging discrimination because funding for child welfare on reserves is significantly less than funding for non-Aboriginal children off reserve.
I will ensure we continue informing Canadians of the realities of marginalization, poverty, racism and exclusion that Indigenous people face on a daily basis, and the roots of that found in our history of colonization and Indian Residential Schools.
And I will also share the unwavering strength and enduring pride Aboriginal people have in their language, culture, rich history, customs, traditions and spirituality.
The second area is as President of the association to which all federal, provincial and territorial human rights commissions belong, known as CASHRA.
Through CASHRA, I will work with human rights institutions across Canada to lobby provincial and territorial governments to put your stories and our shared history into school classrooms.
As Chief Littlechild is fond of saying: â€œEducation got us into this mess; education will get us out of it.â€
All of us here were delighted to hear the commitment of the Alberta government to make residential school history and treaties part of the mandatory curriculum K through 12, and a similar commitment made by the Yukon government.
We at CASHRA will encourage and press all provinces and territories to follow suit.
Last year, CASHRA unanimously agreed to a resolution, sent to the Prime Minister, calling for the establishment of a national public inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls. We continue to stand by that resolution and call for action.
And I am pleased to co-Chair, with the Chief Commissioner of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, the CASHRA Working Group on the full implementation in all jurisdictions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
And the third and final area is as a husband, father, grandfather, and human being.
I pledge a lifelong commitment to tell this story â€“ your stories - and to encourage understanding wherever I can, so that we may move closer to reconciliation.
Reflecting that commitment, I offer this gift to the Bentwood Box.
I am the proud grandfather of twin 8 month olds.
A boy and a girl.
Bence and Halina.
They have been wrapped in these blankets and have laid on them many times.
A baby blanket symbolizes the warmth and comfort we give our children.
And it symbolizes our responsibility for protecting, keeping safe, and nurturing our children.
I want to give my grandchildren’s blankets to the Bentwood Box, firstly as an acknowledgement that non-Aboriginal Canadians failed in our collective responsibility to protect and nurture thousands of Aboriginal children from coast to coast to coast. Not only did we fail in our responsibility, we caused grave and sometimes irreparable harm.
We must acknowledge this past, accept responsibility, and ask your forgiveness.
Secondly, though, I give these blankets to reflect my hope that the generation of my grandchildren will be the generation that realizes true reconciliation and equality with Aboriginal peoples.
I know this will not be achieved in my generation, and may not be in my children’s generation.
I fervently hope, though, that progressive realization of that goal will be made throughout the remainder of my life, my children’s lives and ultimately achieved in my grandchildren’s lives.
I thank you again for your generosity of spirit and the honor you have bestowed upon me.
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