Submission of the Bahá’í Community of Canada to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2013

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September 20, 2013

We join countless other Canadians in commending the honourable work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring to light the personal experiences and untold stories of lives affected by the residential schools. In making this submission, the Bahá’í Community of Canada wishes to express its gratitude to the Commission for inviting our reflections. These arise from a sincere desire to participate in the promotion of justice, reconciliation and healing that will emerge from efforts made by the Commission, those survivors who testify before it, and all who participate in its work.

The establishment of the Commission represents another important step in the process of cultural reconciliation in Canada. Its work builds on the important report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. A submission made by the Bahá’í community acknowledged that the suffering of human beings during the twentieth century has been acutely felt in the lives, families, and communities of the world's Aboriginal or Indigenous Peoples. To right the wrongs experienced by Aboriginal peoples is a daunting challenge.

By bringing to light the suffering and injustice inflicted by the Residential School system, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will help to right those wrongs experienced by Aboriginal Peoples in Canada. It is essential for us to understand the history and legacy of the Residential School system so that we can heal its deep wounds on our country and its peoples, and build new relationships based on justice and the fundamental oneness of humanity.

Truth, justice, and reconciliation

The grievous, ongoing consequences of the residential schools established within Canada deserve the attention of all Canadians. We are grateful for the testimony of survivors who have shared their experience so that we may know more of the truth about these systematic efforts to dismantle Aboriginal cultures, families and relationships.

The abuses of the Residential School system stand as an affront to its victims’ human dignity and inherent nobility. Recent revelations about nutritional experiments conducted on young children reflect the inhumane attitudes that enabled these abuses. The Residential School system was informed by racial ideas that denied the full humanity of Aboriginal people, and it damaged relationships between individuals, families and communities. It remains a painful irony that while this system claimed to be “civilizing” Aboriginal children, often in the name of religion, it promoted ignorance of their culture and spirituality. The purpose of religion, the Bahá’í teachings explain, “is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship.” The abuses perpetrated by the Residential School system violated the very nature and purpose of religion.

We believe that the pursuit of truth and reconciliation is intimately connected with the principle of justice. Justice is essential to truth and reconciliation alike. Justice is, first, made possible by developing the capacity to seek truth through our own eyes – and not through mere opinion, conventional wisdom, or one-sided views of others. Second, justice is made evident to the degree that unity and reconciliation is reflected in our relationships and social structures. In other words, we must seek to recognize injustice and then see that justice is restored within our society and institutions. Justice also requires that capabilities be developed for universal participation in the process of building a better world.

As the survivors who testify before the Commission help us to understand the truth of what happened within the Residential Schools, we also need to consider how to come to terms with this history. Among other essential elements, the process of reconciliation should involve a clear acknowledgement of responsibility for past crimes. The Residential Schools were also a form of political injustice, and while it is not possible to hold personally accountable those who took decisions that led to violence and trauma, the institutions they represented must bear a degree of historical responsibility.

Justice also involves the provision of reparations or awards to those who have suffered unjustly. While this is difficult in practice because of the passage of time, this element of reconciliation is being addressed to some degree through material means that symbolize what society owes to those who have been dealt with in cruel and devastating ways. Such reparations have included, for example, support for education that respects Aboriginal language and culture and allows Aboriginal people to participate fully in the economy and life of society.

Acknowledging past wounds and offering apologies are essential to reconciliation. The responsibility lies with the perpetrators of injustice; however, where those directly accountable have passed on, the Canadian government and its representatives have spoken on behalf of those who carried out past harmful actions, by which racism, hatred and immorality were either promoted, or duties to protect people were neglected and ignored. Of course, apologies are most effective when followed by actions intended to bring about the restoration of justice within communities and institutions.

The process of reconciliation is aided by magnanimity on the part of all concerned: perpetrators, victims, and even newcomers — all in Canada who have to learn to live together. Without forgetting the injustices of the past, we need a sense of solidarity and resolve as we face the present and the future together. This may be helped by expressions of forgiveness on the part of victims, although no one has the right to require this. Without erasing the memories of past injustice and pain, forgiveness can be a gesture of magnanimity and resilience that reinforces the nobility and courage of those who have suffered.

The spiritual process of reconciliation

When we speak of reconciliation we are referring to the movement towards peace and unity, and the individual and collective transformation that is required in order to achieve that goal. Reconciliation involves a process that contributes to the achievement of progressively greater degrees of unity and trust. Fundamentally, reconciliation is a spiritual process. It is the process of realizing the essential oneness of humanity in all dimensions of human life.

The pursuit of reconciliation cannot be based upon prejudiced attitudes, achieved through legislation, or undertaken out of fear. It requires engaging with one another in a spirit of selfless love, where misunderstandings are overcome through patient and respectful dialogue, and cultural differences provide an occasion to learn from one another. The Bahá’í teachings call on us to “shut your eyes to estrangement, then fix your gaze upon unity.” We should “not be content with showing friendship in words alone,” rather, our hearts should “burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path.”

To achieve this goal of unity and reconciliation, we recognize that social divisions need to be healed. We are all part of the same human family. This vision of oneness, and an appreciation of the beauty of our diversity, can guide a process of healing. A passage from the Bahá’í writings illustrates this idea of oneness and harmony:

…let us strive like flowers of the same divine garden to live together in harmony. Even though each soul has its own individual perfume and colour, all are reflecting the same light, all contributing fragrance to the same breeze which blows through the garden, all continuing to grow in complete harmony and accord.

Aboriginal peoples across this continent have long recognized that the natural world is a reflection of attributes of the Creator. We might look to the organic processes of nature for inspiration about the promise of renewal. The winter months are a period of hardship, when a once-vibrant landscape lies dormant and apparently lifeless. However, this period is necessary for the appearance of springtime, when the sweet smells of the earth are regenerated and renewed. The purpose of winter is made clear by the beauty of the spring. Now in this spiritual springtime, when humanity aspires to new standards that reflect the oneness of the human family, our eyes remain focused on the potential of children and youth. Young people have the capacity to bring about constructive change during this bright period of one’s life — a time of abundant energy and a desire to contribute to society. Despite the many social forces that would hold them back from pursuing their ideals, they are the fresh and verdant shoots that will flourish and propagate, bringing to life the earnest hopes of their ancestors who endured the winter season.

Rebuilding social relationships

We understand the current, troubled period in human life on this planet, during which Aboriginal peoples have been disproportionally harmed by the destructive forces of history, to be one in which there are also growing constructive forces. These forces are bringing long-separated peoples together into new relationships, where dynamics of prejudice and domination are replaced by the powers of cooperation, reciprocity and genuine love and harmony among diverse peoples. We must do our part to promote those constructive forces while never being so naïve as to ignore the destructive forces that have brought such sorrow and pain to so many.

The process of reconciliation will help us to re-conceptualize and transform the basic relationships that sustain society, to create an environment that promotes individual and collective well-being. Our present relationship with the natural world, based on an unlimited appetite for resources, has produced a deepening environmental crisis. We must recover a balanced and sustainable relationship with the environment, based on moderation and respect for the Earth. The deterioration of the family and home environment has been accompanied by the rise in exploitation of women and children, calling for the need to rethink proper relations within the family unit. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few, while others suffer in conditions of poverty and neglect, reflects ill-conceived relationships that persist within our own country. To truly apply the principle of the oneness of humanity to our common life, then, we need an organic change in the structure of our society.

To talk about rebuilding society, we must also consider the issue of power. Power is often described as a means of domination, or a way of seizing control from someone else. When politics is described as a game, contest or competition, it is often with the goal of seeking power. This model of politics has often proved divisive and destructive. We need to consider a broader view of power that includes the power of unity, of love, of humble service, of pure deeds. These powers of the human spirit can be released and guided to build social relationships based on cooperation and reciprocity, rather than an endless struggle between competing interests. Such a view of power can also inform our approach to politics. Noble goals cannot be achieved by unworthy means. If we seek to build a society based on mutual respect, justice and unity, the means by which social and political change is pursued should reflect these high ideals.

Canada shares the challenge of reconciliation with the rest of the human family. In our international relations, just as in our domestic ones, we need to recognize that we are all parts of an organic whole. How do we forge bonds of unity that respect and draw strength from our diversity? How can we overcome the forces of paternalism and prejudice with the powers of love and justice? What changes do we need to make to the structures of governance and the use of material resources in order to redress past injustices and social inequalities? These are questions that we ask ourselves as citizens of a country that seeks reconciliation. And as we walk this path together in Canada, we will learn lessons and practical measures that will help to guide the healing of other divisions between the world’s peoples.

Respectfully submitted by the Bahá’í Community of Canada on September 20, 2013

Central to the Bahá’í teachings is the principle of the fundamental oneness of humankind, which affirms the inherent nobility of every person and calls for the removal of all social divisions and prejudices. In Canada, our challenge is the achievement of unity and reconciliation between the diverse peoples and cultures of this country. Around the world, the Bahá’í community counts members of some 2,100 Indigenous groups, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis, among its adherents. We believe that the creation of a materially and spiritually prosperous global society requires the participation and empowerment of all of humanity.