As the head of the commission probing past physical and sexual abuse at Indian residential schools prepares to release a long-awaited report this week, he acknowledges that national reconciliation will not be easily achieved.
Murray Sinclair, the chair of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who will make public on Tuesday a summary into what occurred behind the schools' walls, says there was never any hope of achieving reconciliation within the five-year lifetime of his commission. But he will make recommendations, he says, about what the government and aboriginal people need to do to move in that direction.
"If you look at the conversations we have had with various individuals, they all talk about reconciliation being important and they all want it to happen and they say they want to be contributors to it," he said. "But we say it takes more than words. In addition to the apology, there has to be atonement and there has to be action."
Indigenous leaders take a much harsher view of the reconciliation process seven years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his historic apology for the harms done to aboriginal children and the native community.
They accuse Ottawa and Department of Justice lawyers of putting the victims on trial, of withholding documents that could prove former students' tales of hardship as they apply for compensation, and of creating an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility, calling into question the sincerity of the Prime Minister's statement of regret.
Aboriginal leaders say little has changed since the fanfare of June 11, 2008.
"We can point to a relationship with this government that is unnecessarily adversarial. They spent $106-million last year in legal fees fighting aboriginal rights and treaty rights," said Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. "The relationship has not improved to the point where we can say reconciliation has started."
The agreement between the government, the survivors of the schools, and the churches that ran them, is the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. It has resulted in billions of dollars in compensation for those who were deprived of their families and their culture, and in many cases subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
For its part, the government says it is living up to the responsibilities to residential-school survivors.
"As Prime Minister Harper said in his historic apology on behalf of all Canadians in 2008, there is no place in Canada for the attitudes that inspired the Indian residential schools system to ever prevail again," Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said in an e-mail. "That's why our government is committed to fulfill its obligations as set out in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement as well as continue to bring forward concrete measures that will help improve the well-being of aboriginal Canadians."
The settlement agreement requires Ottawa to search for any information it has about wrongdoing at the institutions to bolster the claims of those seeking financial redress, something many observers say is an obligation the government has been reluctant to address.
Justice Sinclair himself ended up successfully taking the government to court in 2013 to force it to scour its archives for millions of documents related to the schools that operated in Canada for more than a century. The result, he said, was a "fire hose" of unsorted data and documents aimed at the TRC that is now being organized for inclusion in the new National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
And there have been other legal actions with similar objectives.
Last year, after telling compensation adjudicators since 2007 there was no record of sexual abuse at St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. – where such activity was rampant and children as young as six were shocked in an electric chair and made to eat their own vomit – the government was forced to admit to Justice Paul Perell of the Ontario Superior Court that it was withholding thousands of OPP and other documents about abuse at the school. Justice Perrell ordered them to be released.
Now, in another cases from another school – Bishop Horden in Moose Factory, Ont. – many students allege there was abuse in the 1960s that resulted in criminal charges against supervisors.
No documents were produced by the government to that effect. And, in the past few months, government officials were forced to admit under oath that no effort has actually been made to search for the records of residential-school abuse that exist within most federal departments including the RCMP, Justice and Health Canada. Justice Perrell has yet to make a ruling in that case.
Fay Brunning, the lawyer for the Bishop Horden survivors, says the result of non-compliance may mean that many victims of the residential-school system were unfairly denied compensation or were under-compensated and that their cases may have to be thrown out and reheard.
As a former residential school student making a claim for having been abused, "if you are sitting in your hearing and the RCMP have a report that supports you, you are going to be believed," said Ms. Brunning. "But the flip side is also true. If you say in your application that the police were involved and the federal government says it has no documents, it looks like you are either mistaken or lying."
Kathleen Mahoney, a Calgary-based lawyer who helped negotiate the settlement agreement, says there has been a discernible shift "for the worse" over the past three years in terms of the way in which the files of claimants are treated by the government.
The claims assessment process was intended to be non-adversarial. Instead, said Ms. Mahoney, Justice department lawyers "take certain positions that are really, really difficult for people" by demanding that the adjudicators ask many questions that could poke holes in the stories of abuse.
"The promise was that when [the school survivors] went though this adjudicative process they would be believed, unless there was some reason not to believe them that was obvious," she said. "It's not meant to be a criminal trial or a very difficult process for elderly people who are trying to remember something that happened to them 65 years ago when they were a child."
As for the Prime Minister's apology, said Ms. Mahoney, Mr. Harper said the government was genuinely sorry and wanted to make amends. "Well that's really hard when you become hyper-aggressive and adversarial in a process that was not designed to be that."
The government has also spent years defending a case before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that was brought by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society which says the money provided by Ottawa for aboriginal child and family services is significantly less than the amounts the provinces provide to help non-aboriginal families in need.
"We want them to provide equitable funding for child welfare so that kids can grow up safely in their families, so that First Nations families have the same chance to raise their kids safely at home as other families do in Canada," said Cindy Blackstock, the Caring Society's executive director.
Ms. Blackstock said she is simply looking for "equity." Instead, she said, the government has fought "tooth and nail using millions of dollars. So far we know that they have spent at least $5-million on legal fees alone."
Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who was the prime mover behind the settlement agreement, says there is still much work to do. He points out there are now three times as many aboriginal children in state care as there were at the height of the residential-school experience. There is also rampant poverty on reserves, high suicide and incarceration rates, inadequate housing and long-standing boil-water advisories.
There will never be reconciliation between Canada and its aboriginal peoples, Mr. Fontaine says, as long as those types of socioeconomic imbalances remain.
The words of the apology that were spoken by the Prime Minister were "powerful," he said. "And the people were willing to accept that as a sincere apology. But they also expected that actions would follow those words."
Canada is, instead, a long way from reconciliation with its indigenous peoples, said Mr. Fontaine. "There are promises to keep. And we will never bring about reconciliation until those promises have been kept."