Australians study Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

INUVIK, N.W.T. – A group representing Australian Aborigines has come to Canada to study how this country has gone about trying to right the wrongs done to First Nations by residential schools.

"The Australian aboriginal sector really looks on Canada as being quite advanced," said John Dommett, one of two members of Connecting Home, the main Australian body that stands up for those who were taken from their parents during what is called "the time of the stolen generations."

Dommett is in Inuvik, N.W.T., at a national gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a federally funded body that is travelling across Canada to collect the experiences of First Nations people who were forced to attend residential schools.

Roughly 150,000 children attended the schools, which were often church-run and existed from the late 1800s throughout most of the 20th century. Although their ostensible goal was to prepare aboriginal youth for the modern world, their real purpose has come to be considered one of cultural extinction.

Sexual abuse of those children was also common.

Australia’s situation was similar, said Dommett, except children were placed in mental hospitals or other such institutions instead of schools. More than 100,000 Aborigine children are thought to have been directly affected in Victoria State alone.

The Australian government has apologized for those actions, but it has not offered compensation. Nor has it struck a commission to acknowledge and explore that history.

"I think it’s something we’d aspire to," said Dommett.

More than 1,000 people are expected to converge on Inuvik for the second national event the commission has held since starting up in 2009. That’s enough to fill every hotel in town, as well as campgrounds, nearby oil industry camps and a military facility that usually houses jet fighters.

About 150 people are travelling down the Mackenzie River by barge.

Commissioner Marie Wilson said the national gatherings – as distinct from the events for survivors to share their stories – are an important way to expand the commission’s work.

"Community hearings focus on those people who were at the schools," she said Monday.

"But the mandate talks about the importance of the work of reconciliation to go beyond those who went to the schools. It talks about the need to engage with all Canadians.

"These national events are intended to be one of the forums where that broader engagement has a forum to express itself."

A similar event was held last summer in Winnipeg.

This year’s four-day gathering will feature testimony from survivors, films, performances and art exhibits intended to bring people together and bear witness to their experiences, Wilson said.

Dommett said there’s lots he’s hoping to bring back from Inuvik.

Australia’s own healing foundation is "in its infancy," he said. Language preservation is a concern, as is how the stolen generations issue is dealt with in school curriculums. Australia is interested in how Canada accommodated the very different experiences of northerners such as the Inuit along with southern aboriginals.

"We’re interested in hearing stories. We’re interested in the journey of healing that the Canadian First Nations people have been on. We’re very interested in the truth and reconciliation processes.

"We’ve got an awful lot to learn."