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Interview with Marie Wilson

Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson reflects on her experience and the ongoing work of healing the wounds of the residential school system

By David Wilson

Q You’ve had a distinguished career as a journalist, broadcaster, teacher, civil servant. How does your work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stand in relation to the other things you’ve done?

A The things I do [with the TRC] call on many of the skills I’ve learned through my other various jobs: careful listening, trying to hear the essence of a story, communicating. Certainly teaching is also a huge part — helping people to understand what’s gone on. We can’t assume, even at this five-and-a-half-year mark, that everybody in Canada does.

There was an old rule I learned in journalism: you can’t overestimate people’s knowledge, but you also can’t underestimate their intelligence. You need to be patient, constantly setting the context, constantly revisiting it, knowing that many people have no idea, first of all, that there is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or if they do, that it came to be because residential school survivors took bold action.

Q In a 2010 interview with this magazine, you said that you expected to be both “hardened” and “softened” by your experience with the TRC. Has this turned out to be the case?

A I would qualify the word “hardened” by saying “toughened.” I hope I have not been hardened, become glib, about any of this. If anything, I think I’ve become softer. I have certainly not become detached or immune. But I’ve become toughened in my ability to bear it.

I’ve heard, by my own tabulation, about 1,500 statements personally. That’s a lot of voices telling you about terrible things. I realized that if I started to lose it emotionally, the survivors giving statements — many for the first time — might shut down in order to protect me. So I really made it my responsibility to find ways to get through it.

I’ve never just gone away into a corner and had a little sob; I’ve always had supports from the health support team to hold me in the moment and to let me recompose myself. And I had strong support from spiritual advisers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Q Even so, I’m sure it must have been heartbreaking at times.

A I found myself vulnerable if I allowed the stories to take on the names of my own children and grandchildren. And that was a really important lesson for me; it’s the way into the story for many people. If we can invite people to imagine, “What if that was you? What if those were your children? What if those were your grandchildren?” it takes us to a place of universal values and principles.

Q Has anything about the experience surprised you or your fellow commissioners?

A I don’t know if I would say I was surprised by anything, but I was definitely disappointed by some things. A perfect example was the issue of documents. The churches and the government had an obligation to provide all relevant documents to the commission. But we ended up back in court seeking clarification on what is meant by “all relevant documents.” The government and some of the churches tried to argue that it could mean just those from certain departments. That surprised and disappointed me. But I’m the non-lawyer on the commission, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by anything that has to do with the law and the courts.

Q After seven national events, 300 community events, 7,000 statements, five-and-a-half years, there’s been a lot of truth-telling. How much reconciliation?

A Some significant reconciliation has occurred at the level of individuals. One person described it to me like this: reconciliation is forgiving myself for believing all those awful things about me that I was told as a child. The adult has to try to reconcile with the child, to realize that the things they took literally weren’t true then and certainly aren’t true now.

We heard many people offer public apologies to their families for things they did or things they were unable to do. But we’ve also heard many heartbreaking stories about families that have completely disintegrated.

We’ve had many institutions and corporations offer extraordinary expressions of reconciliation, whether it’s the establishment of scholarships, declarations of reconciliation, or creating annual events where Indigenous and non-Indigenous neighbours come together. And there’s also some important reconciliation between churches, many of whom, by their own admission, created religious divides that played out in the residential schools. The Protestant denominations and their congregations and parishes have led the way. The Catholic response has been more inconsistent. It has been overwhelmingly strong and powerful in some areas and seemingly absent in others. So there’s still work to be done there.

Q How about the federal government’s actions?

A If there’s a perception that reconciliation still has such a long way to go, it really comes down to how relations with the federal government are perceived. There’s still room for improvement, especially with nation-to-nation dealings — recognizing Indigenous peoples as being among the founding peoples of Canada, and Indigenous peoples feeling that they are meaningfully involved in decisions that affect them. Right now there is a strong and growing resentment over cuts being made to federal community and healing programs at the very time reconciliation is in a sort of honeymoon period.

Q Is there a danger, once the formal truth and reconciliation process is finished, that the ongoing healing you’re talking about will fade from the radar of the non-Indigenous population?

A I think there’s a risk that the parties to the settlement agreement will breathe a big sigh of relief after our closing ceremony — “The last box in our mandate has been checked off.” But it’s not the last checkbox: we all have an ongoing obligation toward reconciliation. I don’t think the government has done much to inform the people of Canada of its own ongoing commitment and the ongoing commitment of Canadian citizens generally.

Q How important is education?

A It’s pivotal. Our public education system can inform our children so that the next generation does not grow up with the massive ignorance our generation grew up with. Children need to know that something wrong happened and that we in the present are the ones who will be charged with doing something about it.

Q You’re part of a United Church congregation in Yellowknife. Has what you’ve seen and heard about the church’s role in the residential school system changed how you view the church?

A It has tested my faith many times. But I have never felt the need to be an apologist for the United Church or any other church, nor have I ever been made to feel that way by anyone else, which was a bit of a surprise, actually. It’s hard to say, “I’m part of the gang that did all this damage.” But you know, as with so many elements of this story, it’s the truth and the courage and the wisdom of those resilient survivors that has offered a light in the darkness.

I’ll never forget this beautiful woman who said the church did not do these things to her. Individuals who hid behind the church did these things to her. And then she went on to say that the terrible things that happened even turned God into a victim. It was such a generous illumination. We do ourselves a terrible disservice to throw out the goodness of Christ’s teachings because of the actions of [individuals in] the institution.

Q How has this experience affected you personally?

A From the very beginning, I assumed I was entering into something that was fundamentally sacred work. And it has been. The experience has been deeply enriching.  

This interview has been condensed and edited.



Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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