Photo: Art Babych
Marie Wilson, a commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), addressed the members of General Synod 2011 on June 11. It was the second anniversary of the Canadian government’s apology for the harm done to aboriginal people in Canada in the residential schools, but she spoke about the work of reconciliation that lies ahead for the TRC and for all Canadians.
Wilson is a journalist who reported on Northern and aboriginal issues for 25 years for CBC-Radio Canada and other media outlets. She told synod members that she grew up in the United Church, then married into the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories (NWT) 35 years ago. She has an eagle feather given to her by a Mohawk elder as well as a spirit name presented in a Cree ceremony. However, witnessing “the unanimous support that your synod gave to the very powerful and important resolutions brought forward by your indigenous caucus this week has got me seriously thinking that I’d like to be adopted by the Anglicans!”
Though many people now know about the history of Indian residential schools and the abuse many students suffered in those schools, Wilson brought the issue into focus in a very personal way, speaking about her grandson who is almost four. Then she asked members of synod to think about “the little people” in their lives. “What would you do if they came and took that little child away from you?” she asked. “Probably just like you, I find that both heart-wrenching and impossible to imagine. But we have to imagine it…if we are ever going to both understand, and feel the truth about residential schools.”
Wilson’s also spoke of her husband’s experience as a residential school student. “For years, my husband could not talk about his school experiences, especially those that included abuse,” she said. “Instead, he, like so many others we have heard from, denied that anything happened.”
Residential schools are often described as a “dark chapter” in Canadian history, but Wilson pointed out that the first schools began before Canada was a nation in 1867 and the last only closed in 1996. “That’s one long chapter!” she said.
The residential schools story is Canada’s shared history, for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, Wilson said.
“The TRC is a profound opportunity for Canada to come to know itself in a new way, to redefine itself, in respectful relations with all the founding nations officially recognized in the highest law: the Constitution of Canada.” That law, pointed out Wilson, identifies three founding nations: “the French, the English, and the aboriginal peoples of Canada; specifically, First Nations, Inuit and Metis.”
The TRC has several mandated goals, she said:
* to research and compile the full truth about what happened at the schools and the lasting impacts
* to write a report on this history based on written records and new oral history to be recorded and written from the voices of those who attended or worked at the schools and their families.
* to oversee the distribution of a $20-million dollar commemoration fund, and to establish a National Research Centre, so that the history of the schools, and the memory of those who were forced to attend, and who sometimes died there, will never be forgotten.
* to support community events and seven national events across the country intended to educate Canadians about this history; and
* to promote meaningful reconciliation for individuals, families, communities, and between aboriginal nations and non-aboriginal citizens.
The first of the national events will be held next week in Winnipeg (June 16-19). Next June, the second event will be in Inuvik, NWT. The third event, in fall of 2011, will be in the Maritimes.
All of the national events are open to the public, and Wilson said that the success of each will depend, in large part, on the active participation and support of all Canadians.
Wilson says one of the most common questions the TRC commissioners get, especially from non-aboriginal Canadians is, “What can we do?” or “How can we help?”
In the Anglican Church of Canada, she recommends looking to leaders such as National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, Archdeacon Larry Beardy, Esther Wesley and Henriette Thompson in the Partnerships department for information, ideas and resources.