In a solemn ceremony marking the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Governor General David Johnston urged Canadians to seize a historic opportunity “to look back, and to look forward together” and to begin “a new chapter in the story of Canada and its diverse peoples.”
Created in 2008 to look into the truth about the Indian residential schools, the TRC ended its work with a final report on June 2, describing the residential schools as “cultural genocide” and offering 94 recommendations to redress its harmful legacy and to advance the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
“A moment like this arises very rarely in a country’s history. This is a moment for national reflection and introspection,” said Johnston, who began his speech by acknowledging that the ceremony was taking place in the traditional territory of the Algonquin nation.
“This is a moment to reflect upon our history, our relationships and our responsibilities towards each other. To think about the depth of our commitment to tolerance, respect and inclusiveness and whether we can do better. We can and we must,” he said.
Present at the gathering were Prime Minister Stephen Harper, vice-regal consort Sharon Johnston, TRC commissioners and their families, residential school survivors, church leaders and political leaders including the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May. Harper, whose attendance had not been previously announced, did not speak during the event.
Johnston urged Canadians to think about generations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people-children, mothers, fathers, families, and elders past and present-who have borne the trauma of the schools, noting that “for many that pain continues.”
At the same time, he said, each and every Canadian must also ask themselves: “Where do we go from here?” After all, he said, “We’re all in this together.”
Education, he said, “offers us the best chance of finding our way out of this situation. Our hope lies in learning, and an unwavering commitment to tolerance, respect and inclusiveness in our relationships.”
Johnston said that, as an educator, he was “deeply disturbed by the residential school system’s betrayal of the most fundamental principles of learning.”
Education, he said, “must never be about the narrow exclusion of cultures or worldviews. Rather, learning must be about growth and inclusiveness, discovery of the self, of others, and of the world around us. The approach must be one of diversity and respect.”
The ceremony held in the powder-blue-walled ballroom where the governor general holds state dinners and investiture ceremonies for recipients of the Order of Canada-was steeped in symbolism.
Johnston, Harper and other dignitaries entered the room to the beating of a drum by 12-year-old Theland Kicknoswaya, a Potawatami/Cree Nation member of Walpole Island in southern Ontario.
Behind the podium where Johnston spoke was a Diamond Jubilee portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and in front, the bentwood box carved by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston, which was commissioned by the TRC as a “lasting tribute” to all residential school survivors.
Two chairs were left empty in the front row, honouring the children who died at the residential schools or who escaped but never made it back home.
Evelyn Commanda Dewache, an Algonquin elder and former residential school student, held an eagle feather as she led a smudging ceremony and prayer. Representatives of church parties to the agreement-including Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada-joined residential school survivor Barney Williams and Sarah Fontaine-Sinclair, granddaughter of TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair, in a prayer of hope for a new beginning for Canada.
Evelyn Commanda Dewache, an Algonquin elder and former residential school student, greets Archbishop Fred Hiltz as Roman Catholic Archbishop Gerard Pettipas looks on. Photo: Art Babych
Attended by about 300 people who sat facing each other in a semi-circle, the ceremony turned emotional at times. A survivor stifled a sob as a video of powerful testimonies made by former students was played, while others, including non-Indigenous people, silently wiped away tears.
Johnston said that while the commission led Canada through “a difficult and painful learning process” about the residential schools, it was necessary because “far too many Canadians” are unaware about it and its harmful legacy. “In fact, many of us do not know enough about Aboriginal people and cultures in general, and one of the important lessons of this process is that we must learn more about the first peoples of this land,” he said. “We must better understand each other and appreciate our differences, as well as all that we share in common.”
Johnston said it was fitting that the survivors led everyone into the room for the ceremony. “They’re the ones who have led us to this important moment in our history. They’ve led us here through their resilience, their courage and their collective voice, and I thank them for that.”
Symbolizing hope for the future, Johnston said the ceremony would end with children leading everyone out of the room. “This sequence of events reminds us that, while the survivors of residential schools brought us to this point, it is their children-along with all children in this country-who will lead us into the future…into a new kind of Canada.”
Sinclair and the two other commissioners-Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild-also gave brief speeches and offered articles of remembrance in the bentwood box, which had traveled with the TRC at its national events, regional gatherings and community meetings.
“Rideau Hall is home to the governor general, but this space belongs to all of us,” said Sinclair, noting that the TRC was launched here six years ago because of this and the historical relationship between the Crown and First Nations people.
Littlechild placed a beaded basket in the bentwood box containing the ashes of tear-soaked tissues collected at all TRC events and a hockey puck, symbolizing the way sports became the salvation for students like him at residential schools. The “ashes of tears” will serve as a reminder that “we have wept together as a country and we will heal,” he said.
Wilson asked every woman in the room to stand and bear witness as she placed a traditional rattle that had been given to her by an Aboriginal elder, symbolizing the spirits of the children who had not returned from residential schools.