Saying “the truth will eventually heal us all,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chair Justice Murray Sinclair today urged Indian residential schools survivors to tell their stories. And he urged the rest of Canada to listen to them with honour and respect.
“We have an opportunity today to be a part of something extraordinary…We are going to be witnesses to something that hasn’t taken place before in this country,” said Sinclair at the opening ceremonies of the first TRC national event in Winnipeg.
Hundreds of survivors, their families, aboriginal leaders, church representatives, government leaders and members of the public gathered for the first of the four-day event being held June 16 to 19 at The Forks, an historic site of early aboriginal settlement where the Assiniboine River flows into the Red River.
It was an emotional day for some, who could be seen wiping away silent tears as speakers talked about the sad chapter in Canadian history. In it, nearly 180,000 children were torn from their families and forced into mostly church-run schools. The policy: “take the Indian out of the child.”
Earlier in the day, a sacred fire was lit and a tobacco and drum ceremony with elders and chiefs was held at the Oodena Celebration Circle, an amphitheatre at The Forks that pays homage to 6,000 years of aboriginal history. Aboriginal and non-aboriginal seniors, families with young children, teenagers, and couples sat on the steps or on blankets laid out on the grass of the Oodena, Cree for centre of the city.
Sinclair emphasized the importance of sharing the residential schools experience. “Sadly,” he said, “this story has been relegated to the sidelines of Canadian history and regarded as having little bearing on today’s society.”
Sinclair said that many Canadians believe that since the federal government has apologized for the 150-year legacy of residential schools that it’s time to put the issue to rest.
“But the story is not complete. We are missing something. And what is missing has everything to do with the situation that we see around us to this very day,” said Sinclair. “It’s something that will explain why we see a divide between aboriginal people and the rest of Canada. It explains why we see so many disparities in our communities.”
Canada will be enriched by the stories of survivors, said Sinclair. “Your story has the strength to ensure that what happened at the residential schools will never be repeated,” he told survivors. “This is your moment. We can change the future. Our relationship to each other can change. We owe that to our children and to our grandchildren.”
He assured them that “If you have something to tell, we will hear you. You will not be questioned. You will not be asked to prove anything. You don’t have to share anything you don’t wish to share…You will be treated with respect. You will be treated with dignity.”
He invited Canadians present at the event “to listen, to reach out to all around you…you will notice a resilience and strength that is nothing short of remarkable.” He added: “This is a story about Canada, and Canada needs to take notice of what it is that is being said…There is an unmistakable, absolute truth experienced when the person across from you summons up immeasurable courage to tell you something they may have never told anyone… It is the type of truth that causes the most stoic of us to squirm.”
The TRC’s ultimate goal, Sinclair said, “is to lay the groundwork that will help us to close the divide between aboriginal people and the rest of Canadians.”
The four churches that operated the residential schools from the late 19th century until well into the 20th century – Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian – were also represented in the opening ceremonies.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said the emotional, physical and sexual abuse that some students suffered in residential schools is “a shame that we still carry as a church and as a people.” He said that the Anglican church “recognizes that we still have some distance to go” in the road to healing and reconciliation. “Long is the journey, but we are committed to see it through.”
He also spoke about the steps that the church’s governing body, General Synod, took to support indigenous peoples when it met in Halifax June 3 to 11. Among them was the support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the setting aside of June 21 as the National Aboriginal Day of Prayer in its calendar, and full integration of indigenous ministry into the life of the church.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, urged all peoples of Canada to “come together… to overcome our differences,” saying “it’s a harder road if we choose to be separated by a lack of understanding, a lack of brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Atleo paid tribute to the “strength, courage and resilience of all the survivors” of residential schools, including his late grandmother. “It’s in their memory that we gather here as well.”
He also challenged to Canada to live up to its image as a champion of human rights around the world. “It’s time for this country to reflect it back on itself,” he said.
Atleo urged government to undertake much-needed reforms in the area of education for aboriginal people. “If the residential schools for over a hundred years was a tool that disconnected our people… shouldn’t education then be a tool for emancipation and freedom?” he said to applause. “If education was the tool that took our language… should not education be the tool that returns our language?”
dropout rates between non-aboriginal and non-aboriginal students.
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, meanwhile, said he was willing to meet with aboriginal leaders “to reform and strengthen education for aboriginal children,” noting that there exists “an intolerable gap” in high school dropout rates between non-aboriginal and non-aboriginal students.
He also announced that the government would propose that the Indian Residential Schools Act be repealed as “a gesture of closure.”
After the ceremonies, churches hosted a brown bag lunch of sandwiches and juice for survivors and their families. They then embarked on a “Unity Walk” toward the Commissioner’s Sharing Circle Tent, to listen to some of the stories of survivors.