“The time has come to speak up. The time has come for us to work together to listen and shine a light on the gaps in this memory, difficult though it may be. Now is the time for us to travel the road of truth and reconciliation together,” said Jean at the Oct. 15 ceremony attended by members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), former residential schools students and their families, as well as representatives of churches and government. “I and the institution I represent have made a commitment to act as the witness of this journey that we must take with courage and responsibility, because I believe in the luminous promise of the truth, which we have chosen to embrace.”
Jean urged Canadians to participate in the TRC’s work saying they have a collective responsibility to confront the country’s history with aboriginal peoples and now have the opportunity “to right a historical wrong.”
The chair of the TRC, Justice Murray Sinclair, whose own father attended a residential school, noted that there are still people who say, “That’s in the past, why don’t they just get over it?” But, he said, “We and you are not out of the past yet. Our families were broken apart and must be rebuilt. Our relationships have been damaged and must be restored. Our spirits have been stolen and must be returned. Our love of life was turned into fear, and we must work together to learn to trust once again.”
Sinclair announced that the TRC has received permission to hold seven national events to hear stories about the residential schools experience over the full five years rather than the initially agreed-upon two years. The first event will be held next spring in Winnipeg; other events will take place in Alberta, British Columbia, the Maritimes, Quebec, Northern Canada, and Saskatchewan.
From the mid-19th to the 20th century, churches – including the Anglican Church of Canada – operated 130 schools for more than 150,000 native, Métis and Inuit children. These schools were part of the government’s policy of forced assimilation. Many students sued the government and churches, citing loss of language and culture as well as physical and sexual abuse. In 2006, a settlement agreement involving former students, churches and government was signed, which included the creation of the TRC.
Sinclair said the commission was prepared to hear stories in whatever form former students and those involved in the residential schools would choose. “We want each national event to make it possible to receive your stories in many ways: through individual statements, through sharing circles, through poetry, through song, through dance, through video. Whatever means may be possible, whatever means may be meaningful,” he said.
He also unveiled plans to make the TRC’s work more accessible – its website will be redesigned to make it more interactive and useful, especially to former students, giving them advice, for instance, on how to prepare their own residential school memory books.
During the ceremony held in the Rideau Hall ballroom, Jean noted how apt the massive colourful painting was that served as a backdrop to the gathering. “This monumental work, born of the generosity and talent of one of our greatest painters, Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau, opens a window on the perspectives of the ancestors, of the peoples who are our deepest roots, and whose presence on this vast and generous land dates back thousands and thousands of years,” she said. “Morrisseau’s work, by virtue of its imposing presence in this clearly European-style room, is also an invitation to dialogue. As though the civilizations that shaped our history were encountering one another, not in conflict this time but in harmony.”
Jean noted that the event brought also together aboriginals and non-aboriginals, youth and children, and citizens from every background. “We have a great deal in common: a country, values, a memory, a history. A history filled with pages that are at once luminous and glorious, dark and troubling,” she said.
As she listened to the apology delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to residential school students on June 11, 2008, Jean said she couldn’t help but remember the “devastating archival photos” that she saw when she visited Dawson City, Yukon in 2007. The photos, which were on exhibit at the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation Cultural Centre were “heartbreaking, infinitely sad, showing aboriginal children forced by the dozens onto the backs of trucks, eyes wide with alarm, terrified,” she said. “They were so small – some younger than five years old.” Jean said she also thought about the parents and grandparents of these children “who were told that they had nothing to teach them, nothing to offer them…”
A highlight at the ceremony was the presentation of “gestures of hope and reconciliation” for the TRC by a group of aboriginal and non-aboriginal children and students, who worked as partners in a special workshop to learn more about the residential schools. “We look to the past to understand,” said one pair. “We look to the future to build stronger communities,” said another.
“These are powerful messages from children that we can have respectful partnerships with each other….Something amazing can happen when aboriginal and non-aboriginal perspectives are brought together,” noted TRC member Marie Wilson.