I teach a course on historical atrocities, truth-seeking and reconciliation processes. Truth and Reconciliation after Atrocity examines truth and reconciliation commissions established globally to address historical atrocities and contemporary human rights abuses. In the course, we examine the mandates, processes, and outcomes of truth commissions as mechanism for addressing contemporary and historical abuses, bringing justice to victims and fostering national reconciliation.
Students in the course read a wide range of difficult and heart wrenching stories from victims of abuse. I insist that they read primary sources alongside the secondary sources to dispel the notion that these stories of abuse are shaped by contemporary sensibilities.
One of the topics we study in the course is the “Canadian Indian Residential School TRC” which we do from a global comparative perspective. We discuss it alongside other TRCs that have been established around the world, such as the South African TRC established to investigate Apartheid atrocities. We ask what was unique or common to these TRCs.
My students tell me that one of the most impactful primary sources they read in this section is the short memoir of Russell Moses, about his experience as an indigenous child in a residential school – the Mohawk Institute. Moses’ memoir is impactful for two reasons. First, the students can relate to this story of abuse.
This abuse did not happen in some distant country; it happed quite literality in our backyard, and not so long ago (1965). The Mohawk Institute, now a Cultural Centre, is located only a 30-minute drive away from the McMaster campus. The author, Russ Moses is the uncle of a colleague, a professor in our faculty.
The second reason why this memoir resonates is because it speaks to the commonality of dehumanization that underscores theses stories of atrocities. Whether in the context of Apartheid in South Africa or the Disappeared in Argentina, victims tell of the indignities and dehumanization they endured. In Russell Moses’s words: “We were not treated as human beings.”
It is reminder of the real impact of abuse on the lives of those who endured the atrocities that truth commissions seek to excavate.