Residential schools survivors, their families, church and government representatives join a "Unity Walk" marking the start of the first TRC national event in Winnipeg June 16. Photo: Marites N. Sison
On the eve of the first national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada they started coming. By this I mean dandelion seeds that were being carried away by the gentle wind like tiny white parachutes. It was as if a group of children together closed their eyes, and made a wish as they blew on dandelions, sending their seeds flying into the air.
The symbolism isn’t hard to miss -- I thought them to be good wishes that were being sent for such a historic event as this.
The next day, as the opening ceremonies began, it rained dandelion seeds – blanketing the grass around the grounds of Winnipeg’s The Forks, and landing on the heads and clothes of all the people who had gathered.
TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson couldn’t help but say that the flying seeds reminded her of the glowing tree spirits in the James Cameron movie, Avatar.
The moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Herb Gale, thought in biblical terms, saying he was reminded of Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed. The seeds are a reminder of how Canada and its people can still grow and be renewed, he said.
Either way, the scattered seeds (and the incessant chirping of birds) lent a mystical quality to the ceremonies.
When I covered the 2009 Sacred Circle–a national gathering of aboriginal Anglicans in Canada–I had remarked about how amazed I had been at the capacity of native people to forgive past wrongs. Despite all the hurts, pains, disappointments, and in some cases, abuses suffered at residential schools–some of them Anglican-operated, they have chosen to embrace the Christian faith wholeheartedly. Not all can separate faith from institution, but they have shown the way.
The attendance of many residential school survivors who have traveled far to be a part of the first TRC national event has again amazed me. Some are already wheelchair-bound, others are using canes and walkers, and yet they have chosen to come. They have come– courageously, as TRC Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair has noted– to tell their stories because they feel that they owe it not just to themselves, but to their children, their grandchildren, and the rest of us, so that what happened will never happen again.
What a sight it was to see former residential school students – some of them well into their late 70s – sitting or walking alongside teens and in many instances, toddlers, who have come to be a part of what is undeniably a watershed moment in the life of the aboriginal population – and one would hope the non-aboriginal population – in Canada.
An elder once mentioned how even the youngest member of a tribe is always included in community events, and this certainly was no exception. A little girl who looked like she was used to being in large gatherings, clapped and shrieked with delight when the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo was introduced.
I had begun to wonder during the opening ceremonies June 16 whether TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson’s fear that TRC events would end up being a gathering of aboriginal people talking amongst themselves was going to come true. Aboriginal people easily outnumbered non-aboriginal people who have gathered at The Forks, which is a very historic site but isn’t really that accessible or visible to pedestrian traffic. But the crowd – representing various demographics – swelled later in the day, and well into early night. The Winnipeg Free Press estimated the crowd at 6,000.
While the increase in crowd was driven for the most part by an outdoor concert that featured aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists, the hope, of course, is that people would also have learned something about the residential schools experience.
Spotted at the opening ceremonies was Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) National Bishop Susan Johnson. The Lutherans did not operate any residential schools, but have a growing commitment to indigenous ministry. They are also in Full Communion with Anglicans.
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