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Education Universities must address residential school legacy, Justice Sinclair says

Universities need to capture multiple viewpoints of First Nations people, such as the Idle No More movement that was started in cities by women. First Nation members chant and hold a drum circle during an Idle No More demonstration at Waterfront Station in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday January 2, 2013. DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

There is no forgiveness without recognition. That's the message Justice Murray Sinclair brings to the country's universities Saturday in Ottawa, when he gives the opening lecture in this year's Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

As chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Justice Sinclair has listened to the testimony of more than 7,000 former residents of residential schools, as well as past teachers and staff. On Tuesday, the commission will reveal the recommendations of its six years of work, as well as its reading of federal archives to which it gained access through a court order.

Even as the commission has documented the cultural and human catastrophe of residential schools, its recommendations are expected to identify education as one of the central paths toward reconciliation.

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"Part of the misunderstanding that we see so prevalent in Canadian society is young adults, and adults in positions of leadership, constantly demonstrate a total lack of understanding and misunderstanding about who aboriginal people are … and what non-aboriginal society has contributed and done to aboriginal people that has caused the situation to be what it is in aboriginal Canada," Justice Sinclair said in an interview this week.

Approximately 150,000 children attended residential schools. They were taken from their families, forbidden to speak native languages and often endured physical and sexual abuse. Thousands died from untreated illnesses. That history of victimhood must be understood but it cannot dictate the future, Justice Sinclair said.

"Rather than presenting the picture of aboriginal people as victims of current social statistics and data, what I say is that [schools and universities] need to contribute to a more positive understanding of what the relationship would have looked like but for the way the way relationship evolved over the years."

The congress this year made a decision to focus many of its public events around those themes.

Universities "need a sense of urgency and an imperative to act," said Stephen Toope, president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which organizes the annual academic gathering.

Like Dr. Toope, Justice Sinclair said action is long overdue.

"The commission is greatly concerned over the fact that universities continue to graduate people into important professional positions – legal, medical, social work, even science, including engineering – who don't have an understanding, education and respect of who aboriginal people are and what they have to contribute in those areas," he said.

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Many educators say that postsecondary programs must do more than add aboriginal material to existing courses. In 2012, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) passed a resolution encouraging law schools to recognize indigenous legal traditions. Law programs are now in the midst of a conversation about how to incorporate aboriginal perspectives.

It won't be easy, said Aimée Craft, an indigenous lawyer in Anishinaabe law and the past chair of the aboriginal law section of the CBA.

"When you boil down Western legal concepts, they are rooted in concepts of property and individualism. When you do the same with indigenous legal traditions, you're boiling them down to relationships and mino bimaadiziwin – that ideal of living a good life and a collective life. So we have a huge contrast," Prof. Craft said.

But the reckoning is necessary.

"Everything about our relations as Canadians, our decisions about politics and land, they rest on the future of the only population that is growing in Canada," she said.

Still, in a space marked by what Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin this week called "cultural genocide," First Nations voices have continued to develop, said Jean Leclair, a law professor at the Université de Montréal.

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The trick for universities will be to capture those multiple viewpoints.

Idle No More, for example, was a movement begun and led not on First Nations territories by elders, but in cities by women.

"The difficulty is making space for differences without romanticizing aboriginal identity," said Dr. Leclair, who is an expert on the relationship between aboriginal people and Canadian federalism.

For Justice Sinclair, the hardest step toward reconcilation has already been taken, by the former students of residential schools.

"The one thing that many people forget is just how difficult this process was for the survivors to come forward and talk to us. They didn't have to; it was a strictly voluntary process. … Those who did come forward made a very significant contribution to this understanding and this relationship."

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