Truth and Reconciliation, there’s hope but it’s a marathon

Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC commission chair
Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC chair, in June 2015

It has been 20 years since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) issued a lengthy report calling for changes in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, as well as governments across Canada. Not much happened as a result. But now, in the wake of a 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  (TRC) led by Justice Murray Sinclair, there is new hope for reconciliation, not to mention a renewed relationship altogether.

RCAP and residential schools

Back in 1991, RCAP was appointed by Brian Mulroney’s government after an armed standoff at Oka, Qué. There were many issues to consider, but an RCAP commissioner recalls that in almost every community they visited, the painful issue of residential schools was raised. Survivors eventually launched a class action law suit against the government and the churches that operated the schools, and they received compensation. Still, they also wanted to be heard, so the TRC was created, not as a government commission but rather one commanded by survivors and financed by the payments made to them.

TRC recommendations

When it reported in June 2015, the TRC made 94 recommendations. The Harper government, at the time, was mostly non-committal. But the Trudeau Liberals have promised to accept and act upon all of the recommendations. Politically, this is the most hopeful sign in decades. Trudeau has also appointed Justice Sinclair to the Senate, where presumably, he’ll continue to advocate on behalf of the recommendations he made.

One of those recommendations calls on Canadian governments and churches to adopt and comply with principles outlined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The TRC also wants governments and churches to publicly repudiate the doctrine of discovery, which granted sovereignty to European colonizers who were deemed to have “discovered” lands that were already populated by Indigenous peoples.

The TRC says that the discovery doctrine originated from 15th century papal bulls, which purported to give Portuguese and Spanish monarchs the right to any lands that they encountered because they were spreading Christianity to non-European peoples.

Church promises

In late March, leaders from seven churches and religious organizations met in Ottawa, committing to support these and other TRC recommendations. Catholics, who administered 60 percent of the residential schools, chose not to be involved.  Catholic leaders, however, issued their own statements. One supported the UN declaration while the other stopped just short of repudiating the discovery doctrine even while “rejecting those erroneous ideas that lie behind [it].” Perhaps the church felt that rejecting the doctrine would also mean rejecting the bulls published by medieval popes, and that would be one step too far.

Martahon of hope

At another Ottawa event involving Protestant church leaders, Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Susan Johnson used the metaphor of a marathon race to describe the journey toward reconciliation. Some people, she said, are already at the starting line while others are so far back in the crowd of runners that they haven’t even heard the starting gun. We’re all running the same race at different speeds, she added, but the ultimate goal is reconciliation.

This piece appeared in as a blog on the United Church Observer website on April 14, 2016.

5 thoughts on “Truth and Reconciliation, there’s hope but it’s a marathon

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  1. Dennis, I was hoping you would comment on this subject. Could I have clarification of what you mean by Catholics chose not to be involved in the March ecumenical group meeting in Ottawa?

    I received a report from the Provincial Superior from the relgious order I belong to as a lay person. He was there and sent us a full report of the results including the document signed by the CCCB, CRC and 2 other Catholic groups agreeing with the UN resolution and repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.




    1. Thanks for your comment Dave. The Provincial Superior you mention may have been present at the Ottawa events on March 30 but the Catholics did not sign on to the document along with the leaders of other faith groups. The Catholic groups released two statements on March 29, one day prior to that issued by the ecumenical group. One statement embraced the UN Declaration as you indicate. The other dealt with the Doctrine of Discovery. I thought the statement was quite good but it stopped a little bit short of repudiating the discovery doctrine. They said that their document: “considers and repudiates illegitimate concepts and principles used by Europeans to justify the seizure of land previously held by Indigenous Peoples and often identified by the terms ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and ‘terra nullius.'” So, were they repudiating “concepts and principles” or repudiating the actual Doctrine of Discovery? This statement, however, is really undercut by an appendix to the document and the appendix is also carried on the Catholic bishops’ website. The appendix is called The Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius” A Catholic Response, and it is quite defensive in its tone. I am left not quite knowing what the bishops intended. I should add, however, that comments made by Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon, who is on the CCCB Commission for Justice and Peace, were clearer in their enunciation than the documents provided. I will be most interested in anything further than you can find out. Thanks again.


      1. Part of the difficulty I am told is that there is no one who speaks for the Canadian Catholic Church. Even though there is the CCCB, it does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the Canadian Catholic Church. The CCCB, the Catholic Religious Conference, the Canadian Aboriginal Council and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace put out the statement of their commitment to the 94 Calls to Action. These groups are going to be actively involved in ensuring that the Catholic Church lives up to it commitment. It was felt that this was more important than having everyone sign.



  2. Well reported, Dennis, on these carefully-worded statements that can be, at times, masterly understatements.

    I hope the Catholic Church at the level of the bishops’ conference is challenged to answer why they did not join the leaders of every other major church in Canada in Ottawa at the several March 30th events. Catholic Aboriginal people especially deserve an answer.


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