Turning a page, adding a page in Canada’s history book

Published April 1, 2008

When you think about it, the numbers are rather daunting. Anyone who has followed the issues surrounding the old Indian boarding school system – and especially members of the churches that staffed the schools – is familiar with some of the statistics.

Eighty thousand living former students. More than 130 schools across Canada. A $2-billion federal compensation program. A $515-million federal aboriginal healing program. Nearly $16 million dollars paid by the Anglican Church of Canada to limit its liability and compensate former students. Hundreds of former staff, a few in jail as proven abusers, many more conflicted or defensive about their roles in the schools.

Behind the numbers, though, are people – individual human beings affected in different, profound ways by their involvement with the schools. “There are many, many truths” about the schools experience, suggested Bob Watts, an aboriginal man from the Mohawk and Ojibway First Nations, who is interim executive director of a new federal government initiative called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He spoke on March 5 at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology in a great hall ringed with totem poles that seemed to be bearing silent witness. Mr. Watts, along with leaders of the Presbyterian, United, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, aboriginal chiefs and former students, had walked to the museum from the Vancouver School of Theology, led by chanting drummers.

The procession, although unfortunately scheduled after dark, was an impressive component of a four-city tour (see related story, p.1) by church, aboriginal and government leaders to call attention to and support the commission’s work.

One could argue that the tour’s dates were a bit premature, since the three commissioners were not yet named by early March. Public information so far indicates that the panel’s work “will be an open process,” that former students will be able to share their experiences “in a safe and culturally-appropriate manner through statement taking or truth-sharing.” There will be “seven national events” and proceedings in native communities, but details are not yet available.

Taking a page from such commissions in Sierra Leone, Peru and South Africa, the Canadian version will be open to the full range of stories about the residential school experience.

What was obvious from the Ottawa and Vancouver events was that the most important part of the leaders’ tour was the fact that it was a people-to-people experience. There, in one room, were all of the church leaders (due to its decentralized nature, different Roman Catholic prelates attended each of the four stops), Mr. Watts from the federal government and native people who had actually experienced the schools. There were white people and native people who were there to listen and there were even descendants of former students, such as 41-year-old chief Shawn Atleo, who said his grandmother had a vision of a book page “that’s really heavy, that will need everyone to turn it.”

In Vancouver, those leading the program of speeches and short videos were the aboriginal people behind the statistics. Chief Bobby Joseph of the Gwa wa enuk First Nation, who went to the Port Alberni school for 10 years, asked those in the audience who were survivors to stand. Some two dozen of the 200 people rose. Among them were Anglicans Gloria Moses and Andrew Wesley.

The setting was quite different from the forums that have heard former students’ stories: open court and the less-adversarial setting of alternate dispute resolution hearings. Church and secular publications have published a wide range of articles about the schools. Within the Anglican church, aboriginals have shared their stories with non-native clergy and laity at national Sacred Circle gatherings.

Sitting before them was Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the Anglican primate; Rev. Hans Kouwenberg, moderator of the Presbyterian Church: Rev. David Giuliano, moderator of the United Church and Archbishop Raymond Roussin, Roman Catholic archbishop of the archdiocese of Vancouver.

The church leaders listened and spoke, reiterating their denominations’ regret and apology for the system’s failings, regret made all the more acute coming from organizations built upon the love of Christ and God. Native elders blessed the leaders.

Human beings listened to other human beings. Words of hope and healing were spoken. Now, names, faces and emotions behind the statistics will come forward in a broad national context, adding new pages to the book of Canadian history. Let the work begin.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

Keep on reading

Skip to content