At the TRC: The privilege of listening

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Meeting former students of Indian Residential Schools hasbeen
Meeting former students of Indian Residential Schools hasbeen "a huge privilege,"said the Rev. Jennifer Bourque. Photo: MaritesN. Sison

Montreal–The Rev. Jennifer Bourque spent most of her time in the “Churches’ Listening Area” at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Quebec national event, held here April 24 to 27.

She was among those who welcomed individuals who came looking for photographs-of themselves, their brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who had gone to Indian residential schools.

“One woman said to me that she was looking for her mom; she hadn’t seen many pictures of her when she was young,” said Bourque, an Anglican priest from the diocese of Montreal who is chaplain at Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Sitting there was “a huge privilege,” Bourque said, adding that she felt she didn’t really have anything to offer except to “just be there for them.” As participants looked at pages and pages of pictures of children, none of whom she knew but whom others knew well, Bourque said it brought home to her how many people were affected by the experience.

“Some people said they [came] as part of a process of healing,” said Bourque. “It’s something that was notable…people said, ‘I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve done a lot of healing, now I want to be here and maybe I can show other people how that’s possible.”

Archbishop Terence Finlay, the primate’s special envoy on residential schools, also took part at the event by attending several sessions, including being present at town halls on reconciliation and hearing former students testify before the TRC commissioners.

(L to R): Archbishop Fred Hiltz and Archbishop Terrence Finlay at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Quebec national event. Photo: Marites N. Sison
(L to R): Archbishop Fred Hiltz and Archbishop Terrence Finlay at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Quebec national event. Photo: Marites N. Sison

He heard hurt and pain, and “a lot of really strong anger about the fact that the federal government, following its apology, seems to be dragging its heels in terms of implementing some of the promises that they made,” said Finlay. “People are saying, ‘Let’s start moving on education, health, and getting at those issues, instead of just talking about them.’ ”

Finlay said he also heard “a sense of hope” from former students and their families, who have said that they’re taking charge of their future.

He arrived in time for the talent show on April 25, and described the mood as “electric.” While enjoying themselves, participants also sang songs that expressed the hurt and pain of residential schools, he said. “They seemed to be comfortable doing that and that really impressed me. They felt a sense of support that they could be open in their singing about the pain.”

Both Bourque and Finlay explained why they felt a need to be present at the event.

“I thought it was really important to know about the history and to hear from the residential school survivors,” said Bourque. “I think we bear some responsibility, both as Canadians and also as churches, to hear the stories.”

Finlay said it was part of his journey of reconciliation, which to him means acknowledging that his church was “part of a system that created enormous pain, hurt and abuse,” and taking “positive steps in terms of my own relations with indigenous people.”

For more than 150 years, about 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their homes and sent to federally funded schools managed by Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches. The Anglican Church of Canada operated over 30 of these schools across Canada.

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Marites N. Sison
Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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