The Anglican Church of Canada yesterday offered symbols of its commitment to support the healing journey of Indian residential school survivors and their descendants in a special ceremony held here at the first national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event.
These symbols or “gestures of reconciliation” included a copy of the documentary, Topahdewin: The Gladys Cook Story as well as resolutions passed at the recent meeting of General Synod in Halifax recognizing the rights of indigenous people to self-determining ministry within the church.
These documents, along with many others, are being stored in a bentwood box carved by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston. Crafted from a single piece of red cedar, the box was commissioned by the TRC as a “lasting tribute” to all Indian residential school survivors, including Marston’s own grandmother, who attended a residential school at Kuper Island, B.C.
The box has carved panels representing the unique cultures of former First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students and their descendants and honours former students who have died. It will travel with the TRC to its seven national events throughout Canada before being housed in a yet-to-be determined permanent venue. “The TRC Bentwood Box reflects the strength and resilience of residential school survivors and their descendants, and honours those survivors who are no longer living,” said the TRC in a statement.
The TRC is part of the 2006 Settlement Agreement between survivors, the federal government and churches that administered residential schools. It aims to document and acknowledge the truth about a sad chapter in Canadian history that saw thousands of native children being taken from their families and forced into mostly church-run schools as part of the federal government’s policy of assimilation.
Offerings to the bentwood box, which will travel next to Inuvik on June 11, 2011, were also accepted from many others. Aboriginal actress and filmmaker Georgina Lightning gave a copy of her directorial debut, Older Than America, which delves into the impact of residential schools on aboriginal culture.
Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and South African Archbishop Emeritus, sent a letter that was read by South African professor Piet Meiring. In 1995, Archbishop Tutu chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up after the abolition of apartheid. Meiring sat with Archbishop Tutu on that commission.
“After so many generations of young people enduring the vicious system of residential schools, never again should children and other vulnerable groups be subjected to exploitation and harm,” wrote Archbishop Tutu. He said the TRC events will help Canadians confront the “bitter past” of the residential schools and “redress the wrongs.” He noted that victims and survivors “have summoned the courage to speak to the nation” and pointed out that “the journey offered by the TRC is not an easy one,” but it is one “that all Canadians must take.”
Offerings were also accepted from Lloyd Axworthy, prominent Canadian politician and president of the University of Winnipeg, and representatives from the Manitoba Museum and the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, which is set to be completed in 2012.
In his remarks, Axworthy expressed his university’s commitment to make higher education accessible to aboriginal students. Axworthy said elders have reminded him that the University of Winnipeg is a Treaty 1 university and that at its heart is “the importance and vitality put on education and learning” for aboriginal people. Treaty 1 was established in 1871 between Queen Victoria and various First Nations in southeastern Manitoba.
“We also understand how profound the changes can be when education does take place,” said Axworthy. The University of Winnipeg currently provides grants to 400 students of aboriginal background and has more than 1,000 aboriginal students. This number is growing at a rate of 2 to 3 per cent per year.
The university, which hosted about 150 residential school survivors at its dormitories during the TRC event, offers one of a few unique programs on aboriginal governance in Canada, and is one of a few universities in the world to offer a program on indigenous development.
In addition, Stuart Murray, chief executive officer of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, sent a letter announcing that the stories of residential school survivors will be part of the museum’s collection. He noted that in national consultations conducted by the museum, many Canadians had expressed the desire to have the residential schools story shared in the museum. “Stories will be gathered…so that Canadians and visitors from around the world will gain a better understanding about the schools and their impact,” he said. The exhibit will also “celebrate the resiliency of aboriginal people and recognize the valuable contributions they have made,” said Murray.
Claudette Leclerc, Manitoba Museum director, offered thoughts expressed on leaf-shaped paper by museum visitors who viewed the exhibit on residential schools, Where are the Children? The paper leaves, which numbered about 500, were on a “Sacred Tree” that was part of a “Sharing Circle” set up at the museum during the exhibit.
Leclerc expressed the museum’s commitment to continue educating Canadians about the residential schools. “Mere words cannot express the sorrow I feel… It’s inexcusable
that so many Canadians do not fully understand the devastation caused by the schools,” said Leclerc. “The challenge is to educate (people) so that we will ensure that no tragedy like this will happen again.”
“I have to say that as a Canadian and an Anglican, I hang my head in shame for what we have done to so many of you,” said Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, during the June 18 ceremony. Archbishop Hiltz said he had listened to the painful testimonies given by survivors at the women’s sharing circle earlier that day and had been reminded of what former primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, had said when he issued an apology to school survivors on behalf of the Anglican church in 1993.
At that time, noted Archbishop Hiltz, Archbishop Peers said, “I know how often you have heard words which have been empty because they have not been accompanied by actions.” Archbishop Hiltz added that “For me, that’s a big challenge for churches… and for government, that, along with an apology, there are appropriate actions that give integrity and sincerity to our words.”
The Anglican church remains committed to providing the TRC and survivors access to residential school-related information through the General Synod archives, said Archbishop Hiltz. The church is also committed to providing files on missing residential schools children and unmarked graves.
He also cited General Synod 2010’s call for the federal government to endorse “now and without condition” the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald said General Synod 2010’s decision to give constitutional recognition to his office, the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Sacred Circle, “absolutely unprecedented in our church here and worldwide.”
More offerings are expected as the TRC event, which has been hampered by steady rain, ends today.