Students dance at the opening of the new residential school in Hobbema in 1957.


Students dance at the opening of the new residential school in Hobbema in 1957.

March 3, 2014

Residential school survivors and the Oblate priests and brothers who ran those schools "tend to express radically different views of the place of Indian residential schools in Canadian history," says the author of a recent book on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

"The distance between these interpretations of history could not be greater," writes Ronald Niezen in his book, Truth and Indignation, published in October 2013.

Niezen, the Katharine A. Pearson chair in civil society and public policy at McGill University, attended several TRC "events" across Canada as well as interviewing Oblates at four Canadian centres, including St. Albert, to research his book.

Niezen said the Oblates he interviewed "privately expressed deep resentment toward what they saw as the commission's emerging history of their schools."

They see that "emerging history" as in conflict with "their order's historical contributions to the survival and prosperity of native peoples in Canada," he said. It also conflicts with their positive memories of the schools and the personal sacrifices they made.

The final "national event" of the TRC will be held at Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre, March 27-30. The event is open to the public.

The TRC actively cultivates testimonies from witnesses and tends to give greater display to those which provoke strong emotions, Niezen says. National TRC events include sessions on "How to Share Your Truth" to prepare survivors who want to present their story. Facial tissues are liberally provided in the audience area for people who listen to the testimonies.

The emphasis on emotional testimony tends to exclude survivors' stories which do not stir emotional responses as well as the testimonies of priests, brothers and sisters who worked in the schools.

By focusing on emotional trauma, the TRC also tends to draw attention away from the federal government whose policies underlay the schools, he said.

The government, he noted, also has had sparse attendance at the TRC hearings, does not testify at them and has denied the TRC access to its massive archives on residential schools.

"Evidence of the ultimate source of residential school experience – the federal government's misguided policies and broken regimes of implementation – are filed away in archives, beyond the public's attentions and imaginations."

Bishop Reynald Rouleau

Bishop Reynald Rouleau

Also excluded from the TRC's own publicity films are stories of "intergenerational harm." Testimonies, such as those of residential school students who abused family members, did not make the commission's "highlight reels," he said. "The secondary harms committed by school survivors blur the boundary between victim and perpetrator."

Niezen described the process by which the stories of residential school survivors moved from being "unsayable" to being the focus of the TRC hearings.

The silence was broken by the 1990 disclosure by Phil Fontaine, then grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, that he had been physically and sexually abused while attending a residential school.

That was followed by a 1996 open letter from Bishop Reynald Rouleau of Churchill-Hudson Bay expressing shame and outrage at the physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse in the schools and the role that members of the Church played in that abuse.

"Apologies of the kind delivered by Bishop Rouleau . . . had the effect of encouraging others, particularly former students, to talk about their experiences," Niezen wrote.

Through the TRC itself, he said, "an accumulating, self-reinforcing mass of testimonies, confessions and apologies is becoming accepted as part of public discourse."


The commission has sponsored online forums where those affected by the schools develop "communities of affirmation" to discuss their experiences.

"The Internet has become a vehicle for those who see themselves as survivors and intergenerational survivors to express ideas about the traumatic sources of their suffering, and possibly (we can at this point only speculate) to recover from the worst effects of that trauma through relationships formed online."

Phil Fontaine

Phil Fontaine

The commission, he said, has been oriented from its beginnings to increase public exposure, especially by focusing on the stories of victims. It seeks to forge "a new history of the nation" out of the testimonies given by residential school survivors.

Niezen sees as problematic a history based on the testimonies of survivors gathered decades after traumatic events they suffered as children.

Citing a study on Holocaust survivors by Primo Levi, he said, as time passed, the survivors increasingly tended to have blurred and stylized recollections influenced by information they read or by the stories of others.

Niezen quotes another study which concluded, "Remembering appears to be far more decisively an affair of construction rather than one of mere reproduction."

At the TRC, he said, the narratives told by witnesses are "commonly understood to be unadulterated, veridical reports of lived experience rather than instrumentally limited reports that are subject to selectivity and omissions of memory."

When it is the emotion-provoking testimonies of abuse that draw the most attention at the TRC hearings, the focus is taken away from other issues of concern to many survivors – such as the imposing size of the buildings, the strict order, discipline and surveillance, the prohibition of aboriginal languages, the nature of the religious instruction, the exclusion of family, and other concerns.


The focus on trauma also tends to stereotype those who worked at the schools.

Niezen quotes a Father L'Heureux who said, once the issue of sexual abuse at the residential schools became the focus, the schools "were presented to the general public and to the world as brothels and torture camps created for the benefit of maniac and sadistic Church people."

L'Heureux expressed bitterness regarding false accusations of sexual abuse against priests and brothers during the Independent Assessment Process at which survivors who claim to have been abused are eligible for cash payments dependent on the number and severity of instances of abuse to which they were subjected.

He described the case of one Oblate who went through "15 horrendous months" after being accused of sodomy by a former student before the allegation was withdrawn.


Niezen told of another Oblate, a Brother Cavanaugh, who spoke at the national event in Victoria in an effort to tell "my truth regarding my experience" at residential schools. When Cavanaugh spoke of parents willingly sending their children to the schools and visiting the schools overnight, he was shouted down and one person began loudly weeping and wailing.

Oblates, Niezen said, have generally steered away from attending TRC events and have been unwilling to testify before the commission. One priest told him that he would not attend because he feared there were those who were just waiting to find out if he was still alive and to discover where he lived.