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TRC to Gather International Expertise for Research Center

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Germany. South Africa. Guatemala. Argentina. Serbia/Croatia. Each of these countries has been through its share of painful history, repression and attempts at redemption.

Now it is Canada’s turn.

On the face of it, histories that evoke thoughts of the Holocaust, apartheid, civil wars, disappeared citizens and disintegrating nations would not appear to have much in common with Canada’s past. But now, a little more than a decade after closing down the last of its residential schools, Canada is beginning to acknowledge the damage that was caused during 150 years of trying to “educate” the indigenousness out of its aboriginal population.

In early March international experts in reconciliation, information-gathering and archiving will meet in Vancouver at a forum to help the TRC create a research center that will house documentation of what went on in the schools. From places as far-flung as Senegal, Chile and Australia will come academics, students, aboriginals, archivists and researchers to share their ways of collecting and handling such information.

The TRC says the forum will focus on institutions and records that are related to indigenous peoples and to truth and reconciliation commissions; on the records and statements they collect, and on the best ways to make such records accessible.

“The outcomes of the forum will significantly contribute to fulfilling the creation of an institution that is broadly accessible to all, committed to meeting survivor needs and actively promotes education and learning of the residential school experience and legacy,” the TRC says on its website.

The forum is geared toward those who may want to be involved in establishing and running such a center, says commission chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, as well as researchers, including students, who would be interested in doing research projects about the schools. Leaders of aboriginal organizations are also welcome, as are, of course, survivors themselves, Sinclair says on a video at the site.

“Our ambition is to invite survivors to listen along with us as commissioners, to listen to what these experts are going to tell us, and then at the end of the day for them to respond to us in their own words as to what they heard and what they think we as commissioners should take from what we’ve been told by the experts,” he says in a video explaining the scope of the forum. “The idea is that the national research center should meet the wishes and needs of survivors.”

What the 80,000 former students survived was a school system that lasted more than a century.

From the 1870s through 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their parents and placed in at least 130 schools scattered across the country; the students were cut off from their families, their language and their culture.

“These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children,” the TRC admits now.

To this day former students and their families are still suffering from the fallout of that emotional and developmental damage. It took a lawsuit on their behalf to convince the Canadian government that what happened at the schools was egregious, if not criminal, and to expose the level of abuse and the truth at what went on in the institutions.

As part of the lawsuit settlement Canada agreed to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring out more stories and to bear witness to the era’s continuing effects. The TRC has held hearings to collect stories and will make a tour of the north to collect more testimony this spring.

In 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology that some called historic and others called lip service.

Now the TRC is starting up another phase, that of creating a resource center to collect all this knowledge. It will hold a forum in early March to bring together experts from around the world versed in helping populations move past such trauma. They will meet over three days to garner ideas for helping Canada through this process.

“The vision that emerges from this forum will be the basis on which the National Research Centre will be established,” the TRC’s website says. “The expertise being shared will be specific to the creation and organizational structure of research or archival centres, databases or projects for statement gathering, research, public access and privacy management, capacity-building, public education or memorialisation.”

The goal is to "significantly contribute to fulfilling the creation of an institution that is broadly accessible to all, committed to meeting survivor needs and actively promotes education and learning of the residential school experience and legacy,” the forum’s website says.

The forum will be followed by a TRC search “for suitable candidates and proposals to undertake the establishment of the National Research Centre.”

Several universities are already expected to vie for hosting the center, the Winnipeg Free Press reported in January.