We Can’t Cherry-Pick Our History: An Interview wit...

We Can’t Cherry-Pick Our History: An Interview with T.R.C. Commissioner Marie Wilson

When you know how much Canada has terrorized the First Nations, you realize its reputation as a land of goofy, harmless hosers is a dangerous illusion. Canada starved Indigenous groups, like the Sharphead Stoney in what is now Alberta, until they vanished. This happened because Prime Minister John A. Macdonald cut food rations that he was treaty-bound to provide. He wanted to “prevent imposition on the treasury,” even though he acknowledged this would cause the Stoney “genuine suffering.”[1] For Macdonald, Indigenous life didn’t matter as much as money.

The residential school system began around the same time as the starvation of the Sharphead Stoney in the late 1800’s, but only ended in 1996. Under the system, Canada separated Indigenous children from their parents and sent them to church-run, federally funded boarding schools. Once there, children were punished for speaking Indigenous languages and practicing Indigenous cultures. They were taught that they were savages who needed to assimilate into Canadian “civilization” and embrace Christianity. The clergy therefore preached of Heaven, even as they made children’s lives Hell. When not neglecting kids, clergy often humiliated them. They beat some children to the point of crippling, deafening, and killing them. Electrocution was used as punishment. Rape was widespread.[2] Scientists starved kids to investigate links between malnutrition and tuberculosis.[3] So far, we know that 1 child in 25 died during the course of the residential school system.[4] When the schools were first set up, that number was as high as 1 in 2.[5] The actual death rate is likely far higher, since many people didn’t care enough to report a child’s death, let alone mark a burial site with a gravestone or inform parents.[6]

Nor did Duncan Scott, Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, care when Dr. Bryce urged that changes be made to residential schools. Dr. Bryce was the Chief Medical Officer for Indian Affairs. He had determined that tuberculosis was killing between 24 and 69 percent of children in certain residential schools.[7] This staggering rate of death was due to many easily fixable oversights. Children weren’t receiving enough exercise. Nurses weren’t well trained. The buildings had poor ventilation.[8] Instead of implementing necessary changes, Scott wrote: “Indian children . . . die at a much higher rate [in residential schools] than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem.”[9] For Canada, dead Indigenous children were only negligible consequences of the “civilizing” mission.

Despite the trauma it caused, the residential school system failed. It could never extinguish Indigenous culture, nor ever break resistance to colonialism. This can be seen in the recent publication of award-winning Indigenous literature, including Birdie, The Inconvenient Indian, and The Orenda. A Tribe Called Red has pioneered powwow-step, a genre mixing dub-step and traditional Indigenous music, to great acclaim. Indigenous protesters occupied Indigenous and Northern Affairs offices across Canada in April. It was in this same spirit of indomitable pride that residential school Survivors took Canada to court. With money from the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, they established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For six years the Commission travelled across Canada collecting Survivor statements, researching, and writing as they worked on The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. For this monumental task, there were only three Commissioners: Justice Murray Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild, and Marie Wilson.

Before serving on the Commission, Marie Wilson was a journalist and recipient of the CBC North Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Northerner of the Year Award, and other accolades. She served as an associate board member of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and trained the South African Broadcasting Corporation for covering its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is because of her, the other Commissioners, and the brave Survivors who testified that Canadians owe much of their knowledge about residential schools. Now it is up to Canadians to challenge a history of neglect, and contribute to reconciliation. Marie Wilson offers us advice about how we can do that in the interview below.

Commissioner Marie Wilson. (Photo Courtesy of

As a journalist, your career consisted of telling stories. Were there any periods in your career that prepared you for the stories you’d hear during the T.R.C.?

For sure. The bulk of my journalistic life was based either in Quebec City, where I had lots of access to Indigenous communities throughout Quebec, or out of Yellow Knife, but also in Nunavut and the Yukon. In a way, the farther away from the centre you are, the more prevalent are the signs of distress, poverty, lack of resources, and lack of facilities. These are consequences of residential schools, since in northern Canada participation in the residential school system was the highest per capita of anywhere in the country. So you have communities where almost the whole adult population went to residential schools. And there’s a trickle-down effect to that: drug and alcohol dependency; the violence that goes with that; the despair from there being a lack of jobs in the wage economy; the destruction of traditional economies by southern forces including the animal rights movement, which have wiped out the self-sustaining fur industry of northern communities.

The things that have left people destitute are things that we heard about in residential schools. People would say, “I didn’t get a good education there. I was raised in violence. The way we were treated was normalized. We repeated a lot of the same things with our own children that we experienced as children ourselves. And because I was trying to learn in an environment of trauma where I couldn’t concentrate, and in many cases I was trying to learn in a second language that I didn’t know or understand very well, I actually didn’t get a good education. Meanwhile, I was deprived of my traditional education on the land with my expert teachers, my parents and grandparents. So I didn’t fit into the traditional economy and I didn’t fit into the modern economy.” And so many people have a long experience with not being well employed. There’s a huge percentage of people whose response to all of this has been addictions. A huge percentage of those who spoke to the Commission were either still struggling, or had passed through periods of drug and alcohol addiction. So I saw that in my life as a journalist. I had to connect all the dots.

My husband is also a residential school Survivor. But in my home, as with so many homes across the country, I didn’t know what had happened to him because he didn’t talk about it. There was this cone of silence. So all that we’re learning now, I was learning in my own house as well. It wasn’t that I suddenly had new insight into how things are today. It was that I had new insight into why things are the way they are today.

The T.R.C. calls on Canada to redress social inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. How can a Nation-to-Nation relationship exist in a way that enables Canada to redress these social inequalities, while recognizing First Nations’ sovereign right to draft their own laws?

No government can function with just a bunch of laws. They also need the resources to enact them. It would be an abandonment of responsibility to say, “Well okay then, pass your own laws. Period.” Where are the resources for that? And when you have one government that controls all the resources under the feet of the Aboriginal peoples by the assumption of territory, and the displacement of Aboriginal people to far-flung and often very poor quality resourced areas, then you can’t imagine an Indigenous government to be able to function. So part of the Nation-to-Nation relationship has to also include an equitable sharing of resources and reciprocity in areas of legislation where there may be similarity or overlap. And we know how to do that between federal, provincial, and territorial powers. We do that in Quebec, where we accommodate common law and civil law traditions. So we need to look at some of the models that we can call upon and say, “How would we make this apply as well?”

Do you think that there’s a case to be made for reparations to the First Nations?

We have not made a call for further reparation to Survivors. However, our Calls to Action urge collective actions that need resources. And we listed ten principles of reconciliation, and some are that there’s a need for an adequate provision of resources. At the end of war in Europe, we had the Marshall Plan. After Germany had been completely devastated by the war, the so-called victor countries put money on the table to help rebuild that economy, and now it’s seen as the economic powerhouse of the world. I think there’s something to be argued from a legal and a societal ethics point-of-view that we have devastated Indigenous communities, and so we shouldn’t be talking about little piecemeal top-ups. We should be talking about something like a Marshall Plan where we acknowledge that we’ve razed entire communities and that we need to reconstruct and give these societies a chance at a new beginning, on their terms, that will let them be a competitive and accountable force.

If you look at the Calls to Action, a number of them require money. That’s why political will and societal understanding are so important. So that we don’t get into this grudge-match where people feel as if First Nations have already received enough money, and ask what more they want. Well, Indigenous people gave the people of Canada the entire landmass. There was no one battle or massacre that in a comprehensive way said, fine, take the country and save us a few scraps, yet that’s what they’re getting in so many examples. So I don’t think reparation in the individual, package sense is what anyone is thinking or asking about. I think it’s more a redress in terms of figuring out what needs to be invested so that people have a fair and equitable chance. When you create harm, you’re not restarting from a blank page, you’re starting from a deficit position.

Speaking of the need for Canadian societal understanding, what are your thoughts of the media coverage of the T.R.C. so far?

It has been excellent in some places and at some times. And it has been inconsistent and sporadic. It has tended to be reactive to when we hold a national event for the T.R.C., as opposed to being a sustained, ongoing and evolving story about the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. Having said that, we’ve seen some excellent reporting. We’ve also seen a few media outlets stuck in their view of things as they have been. We had some columns the day after the release of our report, before anyone would’ve had a chance to read the report, already naysaying everything. Being dismissive and scathing in a knee-jerk way is not the same thing as being incisive, analytical, and challenging, all of which are good. We need those things. None of the Commissioners would say that our report is perfect and that we’ve necessarily drawn the only possible conclusions in our ninety-four Calls to Action, but I think we’d all say that we’ve been true to what the seven thousand people who spoke to us have said, and the research that already existed and the additional research of the Commission. And the many things that we’ve learned from the records that exist in government and church archives. So if someone else has a more exhaustive take on all of that, then they should put their counterpoint on the table.

There have been times where I’ve felt that the government and journalists have been way behind the people of Canada. When you have a gathering and tens of thousands of people show up, and the coverage is in the local paper as opposed to a major national outlet, well where else would you have that many people gathered, and on the basis of potential security risks alone not have media all over it? Is that a miscalculation on the magnitude of it? Is it an assumption that it’s just a bunch of Native people and we’ve seen that before, so who cares? And I think that assumption of “Who cares?” is where the media do themselves a disservice, if they get into that—I’d call it trap—of thinking that they are working only for ratings and not for public service.

I say that without apology. I went into journalism thinking that I was making a public service contribution. I was conscious that I was working for the people, and that there were things that people don’t know. That doesn’t mean they’re not interested. And so there’s the journalist as teacher. Journalists need to remind themselves that they have privileged access to all these people who can tell them the most profound things about their lives and experiences, and how public policy plays out on individual lives. How then do you responsibly take that complicated stuff and make it simple and teach it to people so that they can start to reconsider their own attitudes about things? We need more of that.

The last thing I’ll say on an important question is, to make a comparison, Canadians share a common experience through our very vast media coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. We saw it on a daily basis in all of our media. We have never experienced that same degree of sustained coverage for our Commission. When you have a court settlement that is precedent-setting to Canada and the world, why is it that we still have journalists that refer to the Commission as a government Commission, not understanding where it came from? When you have the rest of the world paying attention to the Commission itself because it’s so unique and extraordinary, why then is it not a really important continuing story within the country?

The last thing that I want to say—and I know that I just said that—we have seen enormous progress and I would say that since our report in June, there has been a lot more continuing interest. We’ve seen it with the coverage of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. But I was just noting that we have a lot of coverage on that when a minister speaks, but when a Survivor speaks it doesn’t get that same degree of coverage. That’s where for us there was a big gap. And I can’t count the number of times that I was holding hearings in communities where the most extraordinary things were being shared and said, and I would be thinking, “I wish the Prime Minister of Canada were in this room right now, or any of his staff. I wish a journalist from any outlet was in this room right now.”

And there definitely are great journalists out there who care about this a lot and who are working out tensions with their own media enterprises. I think it is challenging. Journalists are working with so many platforms, relentless deadlines, having to furbish things for print and radio and TV and online. It’s hard to think when you’re constantly having to react in short form, within a certain number of characters. But people need to keep up the fight because it matters.

You mention how crucial it is for journalism to not just chase ratings, but to also benefit society with the stories it relates. So I’m wondering if you could give some concrete and practical examples to non-Indigenous people reading this interview on how to contribute towards reconciliation.

I completely understand ratings and I’m not saying that they don’t matter. I’m saying that if that is important, then how do you craft the story that is compelling to readers? And good journalists know how. Tell the human story. Tell the universal story. Translate it. Translate the experience of this to the experience of the readers who you know are there. When you’re talking about the removal of little children from their families, what would you do if that was your child? If your children were forced to go to a school and learn in a language you hadn’t taught them, and it wasn’t your choice to send them there, how would you react? If your children were kept in circumstances where you couldn’t protect them, and were indeed prey to abuse, how would you feel? These are universal questions. When you have an outpouring of chronic need, how do you react? We’ve just opened the doors to Syrian refugees in a welcoming way. We know how to respond to that. How do we start to see what we have allowed to be invisible in our own midst? How do we connect the dots between a hundred and fifty years of these dismissive and prejudiced laws, policies, and actions on the part of our society? How do we create a new norm?

So to answer the question of what do readers do: read our Calls to Action. People say, “Well, the T.R.C., that’s an Indigenous issue.” What we’ve said like a broken record is that this is not just Indigenous history, this is Canadian history. These were Canadian policies. If you want to talk about reparation, how do we repair the mess that we created as a society? That is why we cannot allow ourselves to say, “This is not about me,” or “I wasn’t a grown-up back then and I had nothing to do with those decisions,” because you know what, most of the people who benefit from Healthcare today weren’t around when that got set up either. Most of the people who benefit from public education today were not around when that got set up. And yet they benefit from that also. We can’t cherry-pick our history and say, “I’m only going to sign up for the stuff that I like, but I’m going to reject the stuff that I don’t like and say that it has nothing to do with me.” When there are things that you don’t like that need to be fixed, do your part in fixing them.

That’s why I say, read the Calls to Action, they’re not all addressed to government, and even the things that are addressed to government, don’t forget that the people are the government. We’re the ones who vote people in. We’re the ones who tell them what we want them to do. And we’re parents and grandparents. We sit with children and we tell them things about the world around them. We need to teach redeeming stories about the people who are our neighbours and who should be our friends, and we need to practice what we preach about the goodness, high values, and human rights record of Canadians. And we need to stop spewing ill-informed stereotypes. We need to become informed so that we’re not making blanket statements about things that we know very little about. There’s a teaching many of us grew up with: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Human rights start with human kindness. And we need to ask ourselves deeply if we’re being kind to each other within this country.

[1] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013), 164.
[2] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, The Survivors Speak: A Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, ix.
[8] Adam J. Green, “Telling 1922s Story of a National Crime: Canada’s First Chief Medical Officer and the Aborted Fight for Aboriginal Health Care,” 216.

The featured image shows the Bentwood Box, by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston. It is a tribute to Residential School Survivors, and accompanied the T.R.C. to all official events. Link

  • Sheila Baslaw

    Well done Max!
    Good research, loved the historic details.
    We tend to minimize or conveniently forget the strong beliefs and prejudices undermining the policies of the times.
    You use strong language to make a scathing indictment against those policies and the people in power.

    One suggestion for your comment is, because the article was about Marie Wilson I would have liked to hear about her right at the beginning of the essay and then followed by the historic information.
    Congrats, good piece of work!!!

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