Douglas Roche


June 15, 2015

The recent photo of Britain's Prince Charles shaking hands with Gerry Adams, the leader of the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army that killed Charles' uncle, Earl Louis Mountbatten, 36 years ago, stirred me deeply. It is flashing through my mind now as I watch the reports of the devastating findings of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Prince Charles and Adams appear to be reconciled, well, somewhat. The treatment of thousands of aboriginal people in residential schools across Canada is now labeled "cultural genocide." What a powerful term!

Can the students who had their identity stolen from them and, even worse, were sexually abused, ever be reconciled with the institutions that ran the schools and the people who operated them?

Apologies and hand-shaking are certainly necessary to start reconciliation, but they are by no means enough. Healing is a journey, not a destination, and the very essence of reconciliation – the returning to harmony after conflict – involves a long process.

Residential schools imposed an alien culture. At this school, students learned to play cricket.


Residential schools imposed an alien culture. At this school, students learned to play cricket.

Or, to put it in the words of the AFN Grand Chief Perry Bellgarde, "Apology is meaningless without action."

I learned first-hand the depth needed for lasting reconciliation a few months ago when I went to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and participated in a meeting between Catholics and Protestants, who for years had been working to calm the waters between the warring factions of each group.

In Northern Ireland, "the Troubles," in which 3,500 people were slain, had been seen as one of the world's intractable conflicts. Gradually, interfaith work led to ceasefires and then to a reasonable amount of safety on the streets.

A power-sharing peace deal between the two sides followed. Queen Elizabeth shook the hand of an IRA commander. Prince Charles, personally affected by the murder of his uncle, followed through.

My friends in Belfast told me that improving community relations requires ongoing work. The peace in Northern Ireland may not be perfect harmony, but it is a lot better than bullets whizzing through the air. Changing attitudes of people toward one another may take generations.

There are other examples of the process of reconciliation taking hold. In the small East African nation of Rwanda, where about 800,000 people were killed over the span of a hundred days in 1994, commerce is beginning to thrive in a stable atmosphere.

In Bosnia, thousands of Muslims were massacred in the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War, and now the Muslims and Serbs live in a fragile peace.

The list of war-torn places that have given way to processes of peace and reconciliation is long: Angola, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Guatemala, El Salvador, Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone. New mechanisms to improve peacekeeping, peacebuilding and international justice, many under United Nations auspices, are laboriously being built.

The UN has opened the Prevention of Genocide office dedicated to averting future atrocities in such places as the Central African Republic, Congo, Myanmar, Guinea and Nigeria.


I interviewed the director, Adama Dieng, an international law expert from Senegal, who told me that averting future genocides is a shared responsibility requiring a range of tools – commissions of inquiry, sanctions, special envoys, judicial settlement of disputes, referrals to the International Criminal Court.

Reconciliation is not one-stop shopping. The Canadian government, the churches, the educational institutions must all become involved in repairing the immense damage caused by the residential schools. We cannot just say, now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reported its findings and press conferences have been held, that the injured people, and their children, can "get back to normal."

The churches must lead in driving a spiritual transformation for both the injured and society as a whole. Reconciliation – the love we must have for one another – is at the heart of our faith. The moment we are passing through – an awakening to "cultural genocide" – must evoke in our hearts a true desire for atonement.


As for the Canadian government, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report steps up the pressure for Canada to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This is a strongly-worded document, the thrust of which is contained in Article 5: "Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state."

Reconciliation with First Nations is a responsibility for all Canadians.