The first national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) achieved “remarkable acts of reconciliation,” according to Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC. Sinclair expressed satisfaction that it had been a “special, excellent start.” He also told the crowd gathered for closing ceremonies at the Oodena Celebration Circle of The Forks, a national historic site in Winnipeg: “We know that this journey is far from complete.”
More than 1,000 residential school survivors spoke privately to TRC statement-takers and in some cases, at sharing circles witnessed by the public. More than 40,000 people took part in various activities during the event, held Jun. 16-19. “We are told this is unprecedented,” said Sinclair.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, supported calls made by survivors for more time to share their stories, saying that the work of healing and reconciliation cannot be rushed. He described the experience as “very, very humbling” and said “…this event for me has just sent a strong, powerful signal that we’ve only just begun.” The church needs to be “100 per cent supportive of the work of the TRC,” said Archbishop Hiltz, adding that if the healing journey with survivors takes “a long time and requires a long-term commitment, so be it.”
The primate listened to former students share their residential school experiences. “I felt so ashamed,” he said. The church has not paid enough attention to “repentance for the wrongs we’ve done,” he said, and to issues around “inherent racism that still exists in Canadian society and in the church.”
The TRC, which has a five-year mandate, was established as part of the revised 2007 settlement agreement that involved residential school survivors, the federal government and churches that operated the schools.
About 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended government-funded residential schools operated by churches across Canada from the late 19th century to 1996. The Anglican Church of Canada administered about three dozen of the 130 schools at various times between 1820 and 1969. In the 1990s, former students came forward with stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in these schools; hundreds sued government and churches.
Governor General Michaëlle Jean who attended the event, said the TRC’s work is helping to re-found Canada. “We need to come together to confront history together,” she said. “This is our greatest responsibility, and [it] has to be a shared responsibility.” She added: “Today, we are going to make things happen differently….We need to share the pain, we need to cry together…we are alive, and we are very strong.”
TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson expressed the hope that survivors who attended the event felt some measure of healing and realized that they are not alone. “I hope that you will go home lighter knowing that the circle of support is large and growing,” she said. “May you go home supported with love…. Go well.”
Sinclair thanked the Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, which took part in the event. “They have not only persevered in supporting this commission as we go about our work, they have contributed generously to a fund to establish the travel arrangements so that many of you could be here,” he said.