It was a sight to behold: six hundred cupcakes held high in the air, each one lit in honour of a birthday. The setting was the northern event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), held in Inuvik, NWT, in June.
One of the things we have learned from the survivors of the residential schools is that birthdays were not celebrated. So, in advance of this event, the participating churches, in consultation with the TRC, planned a party.
Over the course of several days, residential school survivors shared their stories. We heard cries of utter loneliness and despair, of many incidents of punishment for speaking their own language and numerous accounts of physical and sexual abuse. Survivors spoke of the long-term emotional impact of their experiences. A number spoke of diminished capacity for healthy and wholesome relationships in family life. They expressed deep remorse for having hurt their spouses and children and a deep desire to embrace them in new ways.
As one particular survivor came to the end of his story, he seemed to gather strength. Half sitting, half standing, he looked around and cried out through tears of joy, “I am no longer Number 148. I am Paul and I have a right to live and to be healthy and happy.”
In that very spirit, the pace for planning a party quickened. The local Anglican parish hall was a beehive of activity. Many of us got into the act of transporting the freshly baked cupcakes from the kitchen to the Midnight Sun Complex, and then icing and topping each one with a candle.
As the survivors came into their party, they were generally overjoyed that their birthdays were being honoured. Each one received a cupcake. Some quietly asked if they could take an extra one or two in memory of a brother, sister, parent or friend who had died since their years in a residential school. As the lights were dimmed, everyone raised their cupcake in the air with delight. TRC Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild invited each to shout out the date of their birth and they did so with great gusto. Then everyone joined in the singing of “Happy Birthday,” not only in English but in numerous dialects among First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples.
It was a beautiful sight, a beautiful sound, a beautiful moment. I shall never forget it.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.