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By Marites N. Sison on September, 01 2011

A total of 40,000 birthdays went uncelebrated among those attending the TRC event The Rt. Rev. Lydia Mamakwa. All Photos: Marites N. Sison


This past summer, from June 27 to July 1, the Northern National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was held in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. marites n. sison, senior staff writer for the Anglican Journal, attended the event and filed more than 20 reports. 

Happy (lost) birthday
For a moment in time they were children once more as they each held up a cupcake with gooey vanilla-chocolate frosting and a tiny flickering candle.  And as the lights were dimmed, those gathered around them sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” in English, French, Inuktitut, and other aboriginal languages.

Many birthdays were missed when seven generations of aboriginal children were taken away from their families and sent to residential schools across Canada. At the last day of the northern event of the TRC, these lost birthdays were remembered.

Roughly calculated, a total of 40,000 birthdays were lost among the 650 to 700 survivors gathered at the event, said Chief Winton Littlechild, a TRC Commissioner and former residential school student. The Anglican Church of Canada—one of the mainline churches that operated the government-funded schools— made 800 cupcakes for the celebration. 

Survivors want to move on
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said he sensed “a little less anger” in the way former residential school survivors shared their experiences this year.

In an interview, the primate said the northern event had “a different feel to it” from the first TRC event held last year in Winnipeg. “I sense that for a lot of survivors, they want to tell their story and they want to move on,” said Archbishop Hiltz.  “Last year, it was very much about the [individual] impact,” he said, noting that many survivors spoke of being deprived of love and not learning how to love after they were forcibly taken from their homes to attend residential schools.  In Inuvik, “We heard so many people say publicly to their wives, to their children, ‘I’m sorry’ for not having loved them in the way that they would have wanted,” Archbishop Hiltz said. “That has been very powerful.”

More than 1,000 former students, their families, representatives of government, churches and the public attended the event.

Think of the children
Justice Murray Sinclair challenged residential school survivors to come to terms with the past and think about what kind of future they would like to bequeath to their children and grandchildren.

Sinclair is chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). He reminded the survivors that the apology issued by the federal government in 2008 and the churches before then “was not just for the acts of violence, but for the fact that for 130 years, for seven generations, this country…tried to force you to become something you were not by taking away your language, by taking away your culture.”

Confused about native identity
Attending an Indian residential school gave Lydia Mamakwa the faith that led to her calling as an Anglican priest and later as area bishop of northern Ontario in the diocese of Keewatin. But, at one point, it left her confused about her identity as a native person.

“My experience [at residential school] was more good than bad,” said Bishop Mamakwa, who attended the Poplar Hill School in northwestern Ontario, which was administered by the Mennonite-associated Northern Gospel Light Mission.  “The good thing about it was learning about the Bible.… We also learned practical stuff like sewing, knitting, cooking and home nursing,” she said.

The bad part was “we were made to feel that our identity was not good,” said Bishop Mamakwa, who recalled arriving at Poplar Hill in 1964, at the age of 15, and being told she could not speak Oji-Cree, her native language.

Negative stereotypes
“What’s that?”

“Not interested.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

When two Yellowknife teenagers asked youth in their community what they knew about residential schools, these were the responses they got. Marlisa Brown and Molly Tilden captured these responses in a searing documentary they showed at the recent northern event of the TRC.

The documentary, which also explored the question of whether lack of knowledge has given way to racism, revealed that some youth, including aboriginal youth, harboured negative attitudes toward aboriginal people, saying most are alcoholics who beat up their children.  

Those who suffered abuse and lost their culture as a consequence of having attended residential schools should not be given any special consideration, said one young man. “The way I see it, they had a choice,” he said. “They had a choice to consume that alcohol. They had a choice to smoke that drug.”

Brown, who is half Gwich’in and half Caucasian, and Tilden, who is Caucasian, decided to produce a documentary after they attended a recent workshop on residential schools organized by the International Center for Transitional Justice.  “The past needs to be acknowledged, never repeated, never forgotten,” said the teenagers, who offered a copy of their documentary during a session on gestures of reconciliation.

To view the documentary, visit http://vimeo.com/26588885.

Students identified
General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn debated whether to display the portraits of residential school students at the TRC northern event.

Although she wasn’t sure what kind of reaction the portraits might elicit, she decided to display them as part of the collection that the Anglican Church of Canada—which ran 11 of 14 schools in the North—shared with students and the public. Then, she said, “someone came along and began to identify the [students] in the photographs.” That person, a former student, wrote names on yellow Post-it notes and stuck them beside the photographs. Other students followed suit.

“People felt very engaged in the material in a way that I’ve never experienced before as an archivist,” noted Hurn. “It was so satisfying.”

The exhibit also included hundreds of photographs, clippings and artifacts from the collection of the late Mossie Moorby, a nurse who spent eight years (1964 to 1972) at Stringer Hall, an Anglican-run hostel in Inuvik. Moorby’s daughter, Anne Campbell, not only made the exhibit available but also attended the Inuvik event. 

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