It wasn’t your average academic conference. When about 450 students from The King’s University College in Edmonton attended their school’s interdisciplinary conference, “Truth and Reconciliation: Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools,” on Jan. 21 and 22, they got a lot more than textbook lectures about history.
Survivors came to meet the students and talk with them about the abuse and losses they suffered at the schools. Church leaders spoke about their churches’ roles and responsibility running the schools and in the great harm done to native people. There was drumming, singing, praying and dancing, as well as anger, apologies, tears and hope. And according to some of the survivors and other participants, maybe there was even the beginning of reconciliation itself.
The conference was spearheaded by Roy Berkenbosch, head of the interdisciplinary studies program and a social justice initiative at King’s, who said he was inspired to bring the subject of truth and reconciliation to the students after watching the federal government’s official apology to residential school survivors in June 2008. “We made a decision that this conference would be about the truth and reconciliation process, trying to understand the experience of residential schools and trying to find our place in the work that needs to be done in order to bring reconciliation and healing to all our communities.”
In addition to the numerous native speakers, students from Blue Quills First Nations College in St. Paul, Alta., were also invited to attend the conference and share meals with King’s students in order for the students from each school to get to know one another.
The point that all Canadians have a role to play in reconciliation was made throughout the conference. Maggie Hodgson, an educator who has worked on justice and healing initiatives for many years, told the crowd that she has been asked by many people why the National Day of Healing and Reconciliation, which she founded, isn’t held on the same day as National Aboriginal Day. “I said because reconciliation is not an aboriginal issue. It is a Canadian issue. It is your history and it is our history.”
Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, the church’s first national indigenous bishop, noted that in the past “the church as been very good at telling the government to live up to the treaties…. [But] it has been very poor at understanding what the treaties say about indigenous peoples, that they are people, that they have authority, that they have a right to self-determination.”
Archbishop Terence Finlay, the retired bishop of the diocese of Toronto and the Anglican primate’s special envoy for residential schools, re-iterated the church’s apology for its role in the schools and also expressed his concern that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work has been stalled by the resignation of Commissioner Harry LaForme. “I need to tell you now on behalf of the Anglican Church, we’re in this for the long haul, regardless of what happens with the TRC,” he said. “We also believe that the healing of Canada is crucially important. For the injustice that was caused by the residential schools eats at the psyche and the soul of our country. What a glorious thing it would be if we could move together to restore a sense of empowerment, a sense of identity, a sense of the great gifts that each nation brings and offers.”
Emotions ran high at times throughout the two-day conference. Roy Littlechief, an elder from the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta, expressed his frustration that the $600 million Aboriginal Healing Fund had been “wasted” and many survivors felt “abused all over again” in the process. Another survivor and elder, Ted Quewezance, was also frustrated, but said money was not the issue. “Everybody knows there’s been a $4.7 billion agreement in this country. It’s not about money. Give me a billion of that. I’m not going to forget what they did to me or my family,” he said. “The problem we are having is that we are so caught up in process. No one is looking at the human element of what happened to us as human beings…. It’s all about process, policies, government driven, and that’s not right …All we want, as survivors across this country and as First Nations, as Inuit, as Métis people is peace – within our hearts, within our families, and within our communities.”
Many of the native speakers acknowledged that the churches have come a long way in recent years. Speaking at an evening gathering at the Canadian Native Friendship Centre, Chief Robert Joseph of the Gwa wa enuk First Nation who is a survivor of residential schools, said he was full of hope. “I believe from this place, this evening, that reconciliation has already started for some of you,” he said. “”I never believed this 10 years ago. ….At national dialogues, we gathered in forums like this of survivors, church representatives, government representatives, public representatives, Canadians, and we cursed and we swore, and we pounded tables, and we hated and we resented. And yet we are here this evening, far from that time, far from that moment of seething rage, hopelessness and despair. We see that when we reach out to each other, we can move mountains.”
At the close of the conference, Mr. Joseph asked all of the students to be a part of the Truth and Reconciliation events when they begin, but he said reconciliation also had to be personal. “It’s up to you and I,” he said. “We can’t rely on our politicians. We have to leave this place forming in our minds your own individual, personal reconciliation plan.”