Former students’ experiences have transformative impact

The Rev. Riscylla Shaw and Archbishop Fred Hiltz help prepare cupcakes for the birthday party for former Indian residential schools students at a Truth and Reconciliation event in Inuvik. Photo: Maritess N. Sison
Published July 17, 2011

Inuvik-Two Anglicans from the South who joined the Northern National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) here said they have been transformed by their experience of meeting former students and listening to their testimonies about the Indian residential schools.

“The experience has been very profound, deeply moving,” said the Rev. Riscylla Shaw, incumbent at Christ Church Anglican in Bolton, Ont. “I’ve been mentally, emotionally, physically exhausted, but spiritually uplifted by what I hear from people.”

In an interview, Shaw, who is a Métis priest, said she heard students share not only their struggles to overcome the negative effects of the school, but also what steps they’re taking to heal themselves.

Some have made commitments to move forward with their lives, “and it inspires me to commit to that, too,” Shaw said. “I also hear that people have achieved some sense of peace. This shows that their “inherent goodness cannot be killed,” said Shaw. “Although we can try and kill the Indian in the child or the Inuit in the child or the Métis in the child, we can’t kill that and it’s a good thing.”

Shaw, whose parish has been involved in the work of healing and reconciliation with aboriginal people, said she felt called to be at the gathering. “I came because I wanted to be a witness,” said Shaw, who also participated in the first TRC event in Winnipeg last year. “I want to hear what people have to say and I want to give voice to people who haven’t had voices and say, ‘Yes, I hear you. Yes, I’m listening and I will respect your story and I will share your story.’ ”

More than 1,000 former students, their families, and representatives from government, churches and the local community gathered for the TRC event held here June 27 to July 1.

The Winnipeg and Inuvik events are two of seven major national events that the TRC is mandated to host as part of its job of gathering the testimonies of former students, their families and staff. The end goal is to provide a comprehensive record of the 130-year legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada and to educate Canadians about it. The TRC was created as part of the historic 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement involving former students, the federal government and churches that administered the federally-funded schools whose aim was to assimilate native children into mainstream Canadian society.

Janice Carter, who moved to Inuvik from Ontario over a year ago, said simply reading about what some former students endured at the schools in the 19th century just doesn’t cut it.

“You can read the books and they can upset you. You can feel how much alienation the people felt after spending how many years at residential schools. But when you talk to the people that are older, you really still feel the pain,” said Carter, who is a parishioner at the Church of the Ascension Anglican Church here. “The pain is there and it’s real.”

Carter, who took native studies at Trent University, said it had been “a shock” to learn that some schools operated way into the 1990s. “People in Canada knew then what had happened. They knew the emotional problems people were having because of being removed from their parents at age five or six. Why didn’t they stop?” she said.

Carter said she had worked at a homeless shelter in Ontario in the 1980s and had seen a lot of natives wander from the east coast to the west coast and back. “It was so sad to see them wandering in Ontario because they had nowhere to go to. They didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere,” she said. “I felt very much unable to help them, but we didn’t even know what the problem was then…. They weren’t telling you why. Some (of them) didn’t understand it either.”

Shaw said that former students she met at the event were pleased to see church representatives at the event. “They want to their story and they want someone to listen to it,” she said. While at the event, Shaw said she had the “real honour and privilege” of having been requested by a former student to sit with her as she gave her statement in private to a TRC representative.

Some students were curious about why she attended the event, said Shaw, to which she had replied, “It’s important to the future of Canada and in fact, there are many Anglicans in the North.” It has, in fact, been said by many leaders that “the future of the Anglican Church of Canada is in the North,” she added.

Shaw noted that while the Winnipeg event was equally moving, she felt that “it was a very tender thing for people to be able to reveal themselves and share their stories.” At the Northern event there has been “a huge openness” on the part of people to have their stories heard and shared.

Carter expressed the hope that the TRC event will “really reconcile a lot of people” and give way to healing. “I think at some point, you have to say, that was a long time ago, now I have to forgive. There’s no forgetting, but I think you can live with the consequences better, and deal with your life,” she said.

The fact that former students were able to share their experiences after decades of silence or not being listened to is “remarkable,” said Carter. “This really shows the tenacity of the people. They really want to get better. They really want to leave this behind them to improve their lives. I really give them a lot of credit for that.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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