Walk a mile in a survivor’s shoes

Published January 1, 2010

Orillia, Ont.
“What would you do if they came for your kids?”

This, at the simplest level, is the question non-aboriginal Canadians can ask themselves to better understand the dark legacy of the Indian residential schools. Marie Wilson, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) posed this question to a gathering here of 100 delegates. The ecumenical event, organized by the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches, was designed to develop volunteer leaders of healing and reconciliation activities in faith communities.

Your instinct, Wilson pointed out, would be to rescue your children, to protest and force officials responsible out of office. But when more than 160,000 native children were taken from their homes as part of the government’s policy of assimilation, the Indian Act didn’t allow native people the right of assembly, let alone the right to vote.

Those who tried to take their children out of the schools were jailed. “The normal tools that are beautiful in our country today were not available to aboriginal parents,” she said. No wonder native children, some as young as four years old, felt abandoned when their parents never came for them. Wilson said one residential schools survivor talked about thinking, “There must be some mistake why Mom and Dad allowed this to happen.” And yet many non-aboriginal Canadians still wonder why there were family breakdowns and dysfunction after the schools experience, she said.

The TRC’s focus, “on something that happened to children,” is why all Canadians should care, said Wilson. “I think we know enough about ourselves as Canadians that most (of us) care about our children,” she said.
Just because the TRC has been created to pursue reconciliation doesn’t mean Canadians can just sit by and watch. Wilson purged participants to ask themselves “What can I do on a personal level? What can I do on a congregational level? On a societal level? On a national level?”

While the work of the TRC “has the potential to redefine our country,” said Wilson, “this can only happen if we make a huge impact on the non-aboriginal community. If this ends up being an exercise in aboriginal people talking to themselves,” she noted, “we will have missed the best and biggest opportunity of all.”

She urged churches to offer their halls and buildings as places where people can talk and really delve deeper into the country’s history with aboriginal peoples.

Wilson also said:

  • the TRC will urge the federal government to reconsider its refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; this is inconsistent with the residential schools apology that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made in 2008, the TRC believes
  • the TRC will sponsor the first of seven national healing and reconciliation events in late May and early June in Winnipeg
  • the TRC is not a government commission. “We are an independent commission…our accountability is to all parties of the agreement-the national churches, the survivors, the national aboriginal organization and the government,” who are signatories to the revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement
  • all three TRC commissioners consider their work “a sacred trust” and each of them has a spiritual adviser
  • the TRC commissioners “intend to stand strong together” and realize that there is an “enormous impatience” on the part of Canadians to get the truth and reconciliation process going.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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