Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Universal Dehumanization

By Jeanne Sarson | Oct 31, 2011


Linda and I attended the Atlantic National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, (TRC) with a friend, on the 29th of October. The TRC is part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement,[1] a class action lawsuit concerning the Canadian history of the Indian Residential School system that dates back to the 1870s with over 130 schools built housing more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children; the last school closed in 1996.[2]

The National Event Linda and I attended was held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, October the 26-29. The TRC is responsible for:

  1. “Telling Canadians what happened in the Indian Residential Schools (IRS)”
  2. “Honouring the lives of former students and their families; and”
  3. “Creating a permanent record of the Indian Residential School legacy” by establishing a National Research Centre (NRC) and writing a report.[3]

To achieve its responsibilities the TRC is holding hearings and collecting statements from across Canada of the ordeals and experiences of former IRS students, their families, employees and anyone else who has experiences to share. Statements can be voice recordings or a video, sharing can include photos, other documents, written statements, works of art, poetry, music, or anything else that would be helpful. Later, if a person wanted to make corrections to their statements or withdraw their statements they will be free to do so. If the TRC becomes aware that a child was being neglected, or physically, sexually or emotionally harmed there was an obligation to report this information to the appropriate authorities. A similar obligation exists to report identified risks for Self-harming or a potential for harms to others.[4]

People who decided to tell in a public forum knew their recounts were not confidential because audiences who were witnessing their recounts may share what they heard, the photos or videos they took with others,[5] such as I am doing in this Blog. The reason for sharing Linda and my witnessing is because of the universality of the acts of dehumanization we listened to. Many mirrored that of the persons we have supported since 1993, who as children were victimized by perpetrators of torture—by non-state actors who were their caregivers, such as parents, grandparents, other family members, guardians or babysitters. Within the IRS system various religious and governmental systems became caregivers.

Bearing witness meant hearing Innu from Newfoundland-Labrador speak of their distress that the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the Canadian government’s apology to the First Nations, Métis and Inuit did not include them. They spoke of enduring acts of similar violent victimization; the official rationale for their exclusion being that the “boarding schools” they were ‘housed’ in were run by different organizational systems than those of the Indian Residential Schools. A Newfoundland-Labrador Innu woman’s video recorded her saying the harms suffered was “torture.” Torture means acts that are different than abuse or assault. International human rights instruments define torture as a distinct criminal violation. Because Canada has ratified human rights instrument during some of the years in which the IRS system was in operation it is impermissible for Canada to minimize and trivialize acts that amount to torture as an assault or abuse.[6],[7] However, because Canada has acted with indifference to its due diligence responsibilities inherent to ratification, torture victimization remains criminally unidentified and invisibilized except when individuals voice that their victimization amounted to torture.

The universality of acts of dehumanization. In these brief paragraphs I will share how the disclosures of some individuals’ accounts of victimization within the IRS system are the same as those individuals who have suffered many forms of non-state torture (NST). For example, we heard:

  1. A story of how a young boy was forced to pee on an electric fence as a means of delivering an electric shock—electric shocking tactics were a predominate ordeal of individuals reporting NST;
  2. That food was withheld—nutritional deprivations are common to NST reports;
  3. That soap was put in the child’s mouth for speaking his native language—forcing various caustics into the mouths of those reporting NST was frequent;
  4. One man reported how his tongue was pierced with needles—piercing body parts with needles was reported to occur by some who endured NST;
  5. That beatings with straps on the hands and knuckles or over a child’s naked body occurred—in NST victimization severe physical beatings with various tools was a given ordeal;
  6. Individuals share that sometimes hospitalizations for physical “injuries” occurred if these could not be fixed by ‘caregivers’ in the IRS system—likewise, intentional physical NST harms were sometimes dealt with by outsider health services when non-state torturers did not have the means to ‘fit’ the damages they had inflicted, but they ensured that the child so harmed was forced to memorize a lie that would provide a cover-up for the torturers; it needs noting that intentionally inflicted harms are considered non-accidental injuries which differentiates these from non-intentional injuries that occur by mishap or by accident which are frequently preventable;
  7. A man spoke of how he was thrown into a pond by a priest even though he could not swim; he went into a survival swimming response; when he asked about two missing boys other children told him that these two boys had been drowned—many who report NST ordeals say they have witnessed killings, some of which were disguised as “accidental”, such as by drowning, by a child being intentionally pushed off a cliff or thrown down a flight of stairs;
  8. Being confined into limited spaces was another form of victimization reported by a IRS survivor—as well as by many who suffered NST;
  9. Humiliation and sexualized rapes including a ritualized process was reported by one man when he saved his friend by breaking into the office of a priest who had a child taped naked to a chair with his mouth taped, this man said the same thing had happened to him; he had been “penetrated”—immobilization and sexualized tortures were a constant aim of non-state torturers who also used ritualized patterns to maximize their pleasures.

What does the word punishment mean? Another similarity is in the words used by both groups—the individuals from the IRS and individuals who report NST. Acts of victimization were referred to as “punishments”. For example, one man spoke of how as a child he was locked in a dark room because he cried at night. Fifty years later he cannot sleep in a dark room. Using the word punishment to describe an action taken in response to a fault or crime committed does not apply. There was no fault or crime committed by this man who as a terrified and hurt boy cried at night. Persons who survived NST were told that they were being punished—in reality tortured—for crying, for having emotions, for caring, or for example, because they “deserved it.” When a child is forced to believe the distortion that the cruelty being inflicted against them is punishment this psychologically transfers and reinforces within a child that they were/are guilty of wrong-doing when they were/are not. It is never a child’s fault when caregivers inflict acts that dehumanize.

Run-aways. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police presented their research report explaining that historically officers sometimes searched for and brought run-away children back to the IRSs.[8] The police report stated that fear, feelings of guilt and shame, lack of trust in authority, the IRS children’s perceptions that they would not be believed played a strong part in the run-away children not revealing the harms being perpetrated against them. These two sentences echo the words as well as the experiences of those who survived NST. We have also been told by some individuals who suffered NST in childhood that they too tried to run-away only to be returned to the homes where they were being tortured. Some did try to tell and were told they were lying, or generally considered crazy or mentally ill, or not believed.


Because the TRC permitted other people to submit information Linda and I both wrote out brief statements which we gave to the TRC. These statements required us to fill out consent forms which we did. Tears flowed and 'Bags for Tears' and Kleenex were respectfully spread around the room.

In closing, I can only restate the reality that was exposed to Linda and me on the 29th. This was that children within the IRS system severely suffered acts of violence that were dehumanizing and as one woman said for her it was “torture”. In all their sharing, unbeknown to them, they also gift-wrapped reality for those who have been revealing forms of NST victimization. Exposing the reality of life in the IRSs shows that adults on whom children must be most dependent are very capable of inflicting life-threatening and dehumanizing atrocities. When children are not believed this means that there is a socio-cultural perception that adults who are caregivers are incapable of such atrocities. This bias must stop if children are to be sheltered from acts that dehumanize and acts that constitute torture. To do this Canada must recognize and criminalize torture by non-state actors otherwise the destructiveness becomes an intergenerational pattern which was the evidence voiced by many of the children and grandchildren of the survivors of the Indian Residential School system. 


[1] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). (n.d.). Residential Schools Settlement. Available

[2] TRC. (n. d.). Statement gathering Frequently asked questions [Brochure]. Available

[3] Ibid.   

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Nowak, M. (2008, January 15). Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (A/HRC/7/3).

[7] Nowak, M. (2010, February 5). Study on the phenomena of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the world, including as assessment of conditions of detention. (A/HRC/13/39/Add.5). Retrieved May 10, 2011,

[8] RCMP. (2011). The Role of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police During the Indian Residential School System Executive summary. Available


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