A time to be silent and listen

Published April 12, 2012

The TRC expects more than 2,000 survivors of residential schools to share their experiences at its first regional event April 13-14 in Victoria, B.C. Photo: Marites N. Sison

I recently attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) regional hearings on Vancouver Island at the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre in Duncan, B.C.  It was a profoundly moving event during which much pain was shared by residential school survivors.

Since the Anglican Church of Canada acknowledged its role in running the schools and offered an apology for the abuse that took place, the leadership of the church has worked to address the legacy in various ways. This includes establishing a healing fund, supporting projects for indigenous self-determination and advocacy, and the 2007 Settlement Agreement which made the commitment to pay $15.7 million for compensation and healing work.

The Anglican Church of Canada has long valued its relationship with its aboriginal brothers and sisters and has worked hard in the process of healing and reconciliation.  This has been its goal before and after the 2007 financial settlement was reached. 

I came to the hearings, then, with knowledge and awareness. But nothing could have prepared me for the raw emotion, pain and sorrow that was tangible in the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for those courageous individuals who publically shared their stories on those two days. I felt extremely humbled and profoundly moved by all that I heard. 

When a reporter asked me what I thought about the TRC hearings, I told her that this process was long overdue and that I had come to listen. When she asked me if there was anything else I wanted to say, I declined.  But there was one more thing that I wish I shared with her and it was this:

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say: “But a lot of good was done in those schools too!”  I have heard these sorts of statements from non-aboriginals who did not have any first-hand experience in the schools.  I find this response frustrating because, firstly, I believe it is very disrespectful for someone to be uttering such a comment while we are in a time of listening to those who did experience such horrendous cultural, physical and sexual abuse.  Saying this at the time when we all need to be listening and not speaking diminishes and disregards the stories and the story-tellers. 

Secondly, if it is true that good was also experienced in the schools, the fact remains that the residential schools were wrong from their inception and their very existence is an incomparable disgrace in Canada’s history.

It is my hope that any who are inclined to make such statements will refrain from doing so out of respect and honour for those who are now telling their stories.  We need to be silent and listen.  We need to be uncomfortable and sit with the pain and the shame we feel without saying: “Yes, but good was also done in those schools.”  We need to acknowledge the wrong and say how sorry we are that this happened and take responsibility for our role in it.  And we need to work hard to do our part in the process of healing and reconciliation. 

We read in the Book of Ecclesiastes, that “for everything there is a season” (3:1) including “a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (3:7).  Perhaps for Canadians, this season-this time-has finally come through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Ultimately I believe this is really about our future and a better Canada for everyone. I am so grateful to my aboriginal brothers and sisters whose courageous stories and sharing will help us all move forward.

The Rev. Scott Pittendrigh is the rector of the Anglican Church of St. John the Baptist, South Cowichan in the diocese of British Columbia.


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