Saying that the activation of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been slow and a lot of former students are dying, a Toronto-based aboriginal group has launched its own community-based version of the commission.
This commission, which will hear and document the experiences of about two dozen former residential schools students, includes Rev. Andrew Wesley, an Anglican priest who is Cree and who attended two residential schools for 11 years. Mr. Wesley provides counselling at Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre with the diocese of Toronto’s Urban Native Ministry program.
“There are many residential schools students who have passed on to the spirit world and many more who are aging with health conditions,” said Gordon B. Peters, a member of the Turtle clan of the Delaware Nation, who has also been chosen by the cultural centre as a member of this local commission. “Council Fire fears their stories will never be heard unless we do this. The historical record is also for their families who have no idea about the extent of their experiences.”
Shylo Summers, Council Fire president, told a press conference, “these (former students) are heroes of today and their resilience is a testament to the value of indigenous nations’ life ways and teachings.”
Mr. Wesley urged not just former students but also representatives of the federal government and churches involved in the operation of the boarding schools to be part of the events that the local commission will hold to gather the stories. (The Anglican Church of Canada, functioning as an agent of the government of Canada, operated 26 Indian residential schools.)
Asked whether the group was also willing to listen to the stories of former students who had positive experiences at the schools, Mr. Peters said, “we don’t know what people will say, but we’re going to listen to everyone’s story and I’m sure we’ll hear both positive and negative.”
Mr. Peters said his group, which has a budget of $35,000, intends to issue a final report and recommendations to the Council Fire board of directors by March 31, 2009. The report would also be made available to the TRC, which is part of a revised residential schools agreement that took effect September 2007. (The TRC aims to provide former students and their families with a chance to share their experiences in a culturally-appropriate setting, and to set the historical record straight about the 150-year legacy of forced assimilation through the Indian residential schools.)
The local commission said it intends to provide former students “an opportunity to clearly express their views on issues relating to the impacts of residential school and other ongoing life in a setting that is safe and culturally-based.” It also intends to “create not only a historical account of the residential schools, but to provide another step in aiding former students with taking full control of their lives.”
In a press statement, the Council Fire said its commission members have an “extensive background to establish a balanced perspective in support of the hearings from surviving students of residential schools.”
Also appointed by the Council of Fire was Darlene Ritchie, a Haudenosaunee of the Oneida Nation, who has been the executive director of At^lohsa native family healing services in London, Ont., since 1999.