Inuvik-Unless the federal government addresses the issue around the exclusion of some Metis and aboriginal students from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, healing and reconciliation may not be possible, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has warned.
As commissioners we have significant concerns about the prospects of reconciliation when so many feel so excluded,” said Justice Murray Sinclair in his address at the opening ceremonies of the second national TRC event here. “Controversy still clouds the situation of many aboriginal students who attended church-run and government-funded schools not included in list in the agreement.”
This was a matter that the TRC would address in its final report, said Sinclair.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Metis have attended schools not recognized in the agreement as eligible for compensation, said Metis National Council President Clement Chartier, who also spoke at the ceremonies. These schools were church-run but were either funded by provincial governments or religious orders and were not part of the federally-funded schools system.
“The intent was the same, to assimilate citizens of the Metis nation,” said Chartier. “Metis survivors endured the same forced separation from family and community, the same attacks on culture and way of life, many instances were victims of same physical and sexual abuse.”
Chartier, who attended the Ile-a-la-Crosse residential school in northern Saskatchewan, said he can personally attest to the horrors that some children experienced there. “I attended for 10 years and can speak in honesty and can testify that many of us were physically and sexually abused. We suffered horrendous conditions in those schools, we suffered psychological trauma in those schools,” he said. “Yet we are excluded from the agreement and therefore excluded from the June 11, 2008 apology by Canada, excluded from the Common Experience Payment.”
Other former students also spoke at the opening ceremonies held just a few feet away from the now-defunct Sir Alexander Mackenzie residential school.
Among them was John Banksland, who brought his wife, Annie, and his five-year-old grandson, Terry, to the gathering. His voice choked with emotion, Banksland recalled he was the same age as his grandson when he attended the Catholic-run Immaculate Conception residential school in Aklavik. “There’s no way this little boy is going to go through what I went through,” declared Banksland.
Banksland, who spent 15 years in two residential schools, said he has no memory of his life as a little boy, but he recalls being beaten and shamed at the age of 10. “I lost my language, my culture and my family. I can’t speak my language and I hardly know my brothers and sisters,” he said. But he is moving forward. “I’m 69 and this is the first time I’ve had the courage to wear my traditional clothing,” he said. “It’s time to let go,” Banksland urged his fellow students. “It’s time to start yourself. You’re a Canadian citizen. That’s all we want-to be regular Canadian citizens.”
Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, urged more government support for promoting the mental health of native communities. Urgent action is needed “to deal with the unresolved grief and trauma, and the escalating violence and suicide” resulting from the trauma of residential schools, she said.
TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson, meanwhile, urged survivors to begin strengthening their families “right here, right now.” During the four months that the TRC spent conducting hearings in northern communities, a common sentiment expressed by survivors was that their greatest challenge was relationships at home, said Wilson. “One shared the poignant words, ‘We fed our experiences to our children,'” she said.
Wilson noted that on July 1, Canadians will be celebrating the birth of their country and singing the national anthem. “Leading up to that, I want us to learn from the courage of the truth that will be shared at this national event. The truth can help us all heal and find our way home to the true values of the great country we always thought we were,” she said. The North has a lot to teach the rest of the country, she added, “and we can all measure up to our words when we sing, Oh Canada, the true north strong and free.”
For his part, Chief Winton Littlechild, also a TRC commissioner, urged former students to think about forgiveness. “As we heal, we begin to forgive and as we forgive we experience new healing,” said Littlechild, who himself spent 14 years in residential schools.
The opening ceremonies featured opening prayers from representatives of the Gwich’in, Inuvialuit and Metis peoples and the lighting of the Qulliq, a crescent shaped oil lamp traditionally used by Inuit. It also featured Eastern Arctic and Dene drummers.