The Duck of Minerva

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission: an outlier in the international transitional justice industry

15 June 2011

Did you know Canada has a truth and reconciliation commission operating right now? It seems neither do most Canadians. The Canadian TRC was initiated to address the history and legacies of the former residential school system for Canada’s indigenous population, or First Nations. First Nations children were taken from their homes- siblings often separated- and placed into residential schools, which operated from 1870 until 1993. These children were forbidden from, and punished for, using their native languages or practicing customs or religious ceremonies. Within many of the schools children were sexually, verbally, and physically abused. Shame, silence, cultural degradation, separated families, and inter-student and intergenerational abuse include some of the many detrimental legacies of the residential schools.

The Canadian case, and its position as an outlier provokes provocative questions about so called international transitional justice mechanisms, tensions between local and international justice norms, and accountability for the legacies of colonization.

Determinants of Outlier Status
No “Complimentarity”
with other international justice mechanisms: After the South African TRC, most truth commissions were established to compliment punitive judicial institutions. Unlike other recent commissions such as the ones in Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, in which the TRC operated alongside an international court, the Canadian TRC was the result of a court order and “The purpose of the commission is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to create a historical account of the residential schools, help people to heal, and encourage reconciliation between aboriginals and non-aboriginal Canadians.”

Timing and Funding: The Canadian TRC has an initial operating budget of $60 million and a mandate to operate over the course of 5 years. In addition, the Canadians set aside almost 2 billion dollars for Common Experience Payments- restitution payments for survivors of residential schools. In contrast the Liberian TRC had a meager budget of only a couple of million dollars. After only 3 years of operation (from 2006-2009) the TRC in Liberia had its funding slashed, leaving thousands of testimonies were out of the archive and pages of the report unedited. Sierra Leone’s TRC only operated for two years from 2002-2004. Initially it had a paltry budget of $1 million but the final costs of the commission were closer to $9 million.

Local versus international: The truth is that most ‘international’ TRCs- including those in the former Yugoslavia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Uganda- are largely initiated and directed by western institutions. In particular, the United Nations and the International Center for Transitional Justice has been the driving force behind global TRCs. With funding coming from external donors (George Soros was a major funder of the Liberian TRC, for example) and international experts steering the process, questions remain as to the local relevance of truth commissions. In initial research done by myself and my co-authors- Mohamed Sesay and Michal Ben Joseph-Hirsh- we found that the majority of Sierra Leoneans did not understand the mandate of the TRC in their country. The majority never had access to the final report and few link the TRC to lasting peace in their country. Conversely, the Canadian TRC has been funded and guided by Canadians. National events, including an upcoming event in Northern Canada are being held across the country to allow different populations to participate and the commission mandate includes the establishment of healing practices relevant to Canadian First Nations populations, including healing circles.

While most Canadians would be hard pressed to tell you anything about the commission, the motivation behind the commission and the way in which its mandate is being implemented has important implications for those interested in international truth commissions and transitional justice. The Canadian TRC is one of dozens of truth commissions operating internationally today. After the South African TRC, truth commissions became normalized as a necessary element of recovery after atrocities or conflict. By 2006 over 40 truth commissions were operating globally, vigorously supported by both the United Nations and the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Certainly the Canadian TRC is not perfect and without its challenges- several of the commissioners resigned in the early stages and national events had to be delayed. However, the commitment and locally relevant approach to the commission should inspire the international transitional justice industry to rethink their own mandates. Perhaps more importantly, the commission will shed some light on race relations more broadly, the potential for colonizing governments and formerly colonized peoples to learn from their shared history, and the significance of colonizer governments acknowledging their role in past atrocities as well as the legacies of those actions. Canadians and the rest of the world should also be watching to see how former colonizing forces are able to acknowledge past atrocities and possibly repair a historically antagonistic relationship.