Truth and Reconciliation
September marks the beginning of fall and the return to school. Besides the usual reluctance for summer to end, for some, this month brings terror, sadness, and grief. For residential school survivors, the overwhelming sense of dread of this time of year still persists to this day. This September was hopefully different for many, bringing in a new season of hope as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held its national event in Vancouver, BC from September 17th-22nd. It was the sixth of seven events across Canada to address the legacy of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system. Government-funded and church-run schools were designed to assimilate aboriginal children by eradicating their culture, language, and spirituality. The 150-year regime of the IRS left generations wounded due to widespread physical, sexual, and emotional abuse: forced labour; disruption of family ties, communities, and traditional ways of life. In all, over 150,000 children were taken and an estimated 3,000 died.
TRC events foster and support healing for survivors, educate the public, and acknowledge past wrongs in a way that will bring aboriginals and non-aboriginals together. TWU suspended classes on September 18th and arranged transportation to enable students, faculty, and staff to attend the opening day. Nine buses of Trinity Western University students, faculty and staff traveled to the Vancouver PNE grounds. Two elders in the audience spoke of their approval of the many students present, “They cancelled classes at the Universities. That’s very respectful.”
Reconciliation week began in Vancouver with the All Nations Canoe Gathering on September 17th. First Nations leaders, elders, and survivors paddled dozens of canoes up False Creek to formally ask permission to step ashore before being welcomed to Coast Salish territory.
The lighting of the Sacred Fire and a prayer for strength and peace marked the official opening day as the procession of survivors and supporters made their way into the Pacific Coliseum.
TRC chair Murray Sinclair’s opening remarks, “This is not an aboriginal problem. This is a problem for all of Canada. This country has been damaged as well,” received a standing ovation. A Squamish Nation Chief asked, “What is reconciliation? I don’t think there’s an answer to that. It’s whatever lies within your heart.”
In an official expression of reconciliation, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt said, “Policies like the IRS have no place in Canada and can never be repeated. It is important that the truth be known. Our government has committed to preserve the historical records.” All survivor statements, public or private, will become official historical record.
Other TRC events included statement gathering, church archival displays, sharing circles and face-to-face apologies to survivors, an education day for high school students, screening of films, and cultural performances.
With resilience and quiet dignity, a few survivors faced the crowd of thousands and told their stories. Sainty Morris described how a priest forced him and his cousin to drown a puppy and the punishment they faced for having a pet, “They brought me down into a dark place and made us kneel from 7 am to 10 pm with no food or water. Before that I was never afraid of the dark. Now I can’t sleep without a light. I live in fear of the dark because of the IRS system.”
Leonard Alexcee was taken from Prince Rupert to Port Alberni at 11 years old. After being sexually molested and years of alcoholism, he advises how to approach moving forward, “If your parents or grandparents want to tell you their story, listen to them. They are getting sick and tired of keeping it way down.”
Margaret Commodore, who attended the same school, also suffered sexual abuse. “In counseling I screamed in agony to try to get rid of that man. My healing journey goes on and it will last for the rest of my life. Reconciliation? I can’t forgive my abuser. Someday I will forgive. I was just a little girl and he took so much away from me. I won’t apologize for my tears because I deserve them! I’m very grateful to the resources available to survivors. A lot of mistakes were made in the past but now a lot of good has been done.”
The event closed with the Walk for Reconciliation on Sept 22. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke to a crowd of seventy thousand. The period of residential school systems is a sad chapter in Canada’s history. Amongst heartbreak of the past, a new attitude of hope is being embraced. Government, churches, and community have come together to acknowledge and show support for survivors as we transition into a new era of reconciliation. As Canadians, aboriginals and non-aboriginals, we walk this journey of healing together.