More photos of the event can be found here.
A Tsleil-Waututh Nation youth paid tribute to the courage of his grandmother, a premier offered an apology for the harms done to aboriginal children in residential schools and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) commissioner urged Canadians to join the conversation about how Canada must come to terms with its past.
These were some of the events that took place at the opening ceremonies of the TRC’s British Columbia National Event held here Sept. 18, at the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE).
Thousands of former residential school students, their families, B.C. chiefs, representatives of churches and government, local high school and university students and the public gathered at the Pacific Coliseum for the ceremonies.
“The government of B.C. deeply regrets the harm that was done to aboriginal children and their families and the lasting impact that Indian residential schools have had on them,” said B.C. Premier Christy Clark in her address. “Whatever our ancestry, no matter where we or our ancestors came to this land, all Canadians share with aboriginal people a common sorrow at the cruelty and abuse that took place under the guise of education.”
Clark noted that from the 1870s until 1996, more than 150,000 aboriginal children-some as young as four years old-were removed from their homes and sent to residential schools across the country. The province had 14 of those schools that were funded by the federal government and run by Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches.
The City of Vancouver has declared Sept. 16 to 22 as “Reconciliation Week” and it will offer everyone an opportunity to help heal the trauma of the schools, said Clark. “While we cannot undo the past, we can and we must create our new path, a new journey that we will move along together, together with dignity, with respect and with renewed faith in one another.”
Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, asked Canadians to ensure that dialogues for reconciliation will continue, saying, “There’s much work to do…we must find a way to talk to and about each other in a good way.” Canadian children must not be taught and raised to believe that the Doctrine of Discovery has any validity, said Sinclair, whose words were met with rousing applause and a standing ovation from the crowd. “We don’t want our children in this country to be raised to believe that aboriginal people are and will always be inferior,” he said. “We don’t want our children to be raised to believe that European societies are inherently superior…we want our children to be raised to believe in themselves.”
Holding a talking stick given to him by the Musqueam First Nations, one of the tribes on whose territory the TRC event is being held, Sinclair said the dialogues about the schools and reconciliation must include grappling with the question, “What do we do about this history?”
Sinclair also reiterated the TRC’s call for government and churches to submit all schools-related documents, saying part of the TRC’s mandate is to ensure that evidence of what happened will be available to future generations. “There are still many people today, and there will be people in the future who will be prepared to deny that this ever happened, and we will not ever want that to be said,” added Sinclair.
The legacy of Indian residential schools “is not an aboriginal problem; this is a problem for all Canada,” said Sinclair. As a result of that legacy, “all of Canada has lost out on the benefit from our culture; all of Canada has lost out on the benefit of our intelligence; all of Canada has lost on out on our ability to contribute to the economy; all of Canada has lost out on the fact that our languages are now diminished; all of Canada has lost out on not being able to take full advantage of our culture, our teachings and our system of governance,” he added. “And because of that, this country has been diminished as well.”
Seth George, a 21-year-old from Squamish First Nations, spoke on behalf of his great-grandfather, Dan George, who is chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a Coast Salish band in North Vancouver, B.C.
George urged the youth to listen to their elders, and spoke about his great respect and admiration for his grandmother, Amy George, and all other elders who attended residential schools, calling them “warriors.” Amy George herself spoke about her ordeal at residential school, which she began attending when she was six years old. “I was taught that the worst thing in the world was to be an Indian and that I was a stupid, hard-headed Indian. That has stayed with me all my life,” she said.
Seth George spoke about how he has tried to remind his grandmother that their ancestors have lived on this land “since the beginning of time” and that it has been a matriarchal society. “It’s a big job and you have to be strong. It’s hard, but you must try to keep your head up…You’re not a stupid Indian…I really look up to you for having the strength to carry on the teachings of our culture.”
Amy George said she has been struggling to forgive, saying, “The murder of our people is still going on.” Alberta’s tar sands have had an impact on aboriginal people and animals in the area, she said, noting eye infection and cancer rates. The area “looks like a big nuclear dump; animals are dying,” she said.
Meanwhile, the morning began with prayers at a sacred fire and a “Survivors’ Walk” that included former students, TRC commissioners and parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The Anglican Church of Canada was represented by Archbishop Terence Finlay, the primate’s envoy on residential schools; Archbishop John Privett, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and bishop of the diocese of Kootenay; retired Bishop Caleb Lawrence, assistant bishop of the diocese of British Columbia; Bishop William Anderson of the diocese of Caledonia, and Bishop Barbara Andrews, of the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior.