Reflections on the Struggle for Justice: Virginie Ladisch and Clara Ramirez-Barat


As we look back on 15 years of ICTJ's work, we recognize that our greatest asset is the people whose knowledge, experience, and dedication made our contribution possible. To celebrate all who have been part of ICTJ’s story over the years, we asked current and former colleagues to share their reflections and memories of moments that stand out: moments that throw the stakes of our work into sharp relief. In the weeks and months to come we will bring you their stories in Reflections on the Struggle for Justice.

In Canada, young people have little knowledge of the abuse that their elders suffered as part of the country’s Indian Residential School system. Virginie Ladisch, head of ICTJ’s Children and Youth Program, and Clara Ramirez-Barat, ICTJ’s former senior research associate, recall how one Canadian student, in asking questions about this past, arrived at the concept of “never again.”

It is 2010, and we are in Vancouver for a youth retreat about the work of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission is collecting stories from Indigenous peoples who were taken as children from their families and sent to residential schools as part of a state-led policy of assimilation. While there, many were abused, some died, and all were subjected to deculturation—they were not allowed to speak their own languages or practice their traditions. Our retreat is a small-scale effort to start bringing teenagers into the larger national conversation.     Image removed.Clara Ramirez-Barat

We looked at this group of 15 teenagers—10 aboriginal and 5 non-aboriginal—and wondered if we were getting through to them. It was the first day of the retreat, and we were trying to explain in terms they could understand and had a meaning to them what a truth commission does. “It’s like what happens at your school,” we said, “when the principal tries to find out exactly who started a fight. What do you think motivates the principal to do that?”     Image removed.Virginie Ladisch

The students had a variety of responses, but they all agreed that the principal would be acting out of good intentions to resolve the dispute. One of the elders raised his hand. He was a survivor of the residential schools, about seventy years old, and his grey hair was styled in a buzz cut. We had invited him to the retreat, along with some members of the TRC, to be a resource for the teenagers.

“I am really struck by what you are saying about your principal,” he said thoughtfully. “I never had the experience of a school where the principal was looking out for my best interests.” We saw the participants looking at him expectantly. They wanted him to go on.

He did, but there was little time left in the session. The students told us that they wanted to hear more from him. So the next day, we asked each teenager to write down one question anonymously, and then we handed them over.

Barney Williams, Chairman of the Survivor’s Committee, sat down and started reading through the questions. “Hmm,” he said, furrowing his brow as if deep in thought. And then, “Wow, what a good question.” “Did anything good come out of the school?”

“What was the hardest part?”

“What did you miss the most?”

He was moved. He read each question aloud and responded clearly and directly, cycling through his memories from decades before. The questions weren’t voyeuristic. They weren’t asking about the abuse he had suffered—though he had suffered abuse. Instead, they were about the kinds of things that teenagers could relate to: loneliness, being powerless against adults, and the desire to belong.

On the last day, we gathered once again and talked about what the participants would take away from the event. Their creativity, their lucidity, and their sense of the gravity of what was at stake for them and their society was evident.

One of the girls referred back to a story Barney had shared. At the residential school, he told them, there was almost never any fresh fruit. If there was an apple, the cooks would peel the apple and just give the students the peel as a “treat.”

We remembered the story, but we weren’t sure where she was going with it.

“I’ll never eat an apple the same way again,” she said. Barney nodded his head and smiled, as we contemplated this teenager’s own interpretation of the idea of “never again.”

ICTJ | Canada TRC Youth Retreat from ICTJ on Vimeo.

PHOTO: Students and a nun at Cross Lake Indian Residential School, Manitoba, February 1940. (Canada. Dept. Indian and Northern Affairs / Library and Archives Canada)