Montreal–About 37,000 or nearly half of the 80,000 former students who applied for Common Experience Payment under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) also filed claims for sexual, serious physical abuse and other “wrongful acts” suffered at residential schools, according to Justice Murray Sinclair.
This illustrates the scope of the harm inflicted by Indian residential schools in Canada, said Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada.
“Imagine being in a school where half of the students suffered sexual and physical abuse. If you’re a parent, imagine sending your child to a school like that,” said Sinclair in his remarks at the opening of the Quebec National Event (QNE), the fifth of seven national events that the TRC is mandated to hold under the IRSSA.
Hundreds of residential school survivors and their families, TRC commissioners, church and government representatives, volunteers and members of the general public gathered at Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel here for the QNE, April 24 to 27.
The opening ceremony was preceded by a “Survivor’s Walk and Procession” from the Place du Canada Park to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Quebec Bishop Dennis Drainville, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, and former Quebec Bishop Bruce Stavert were among the Anglicans present at the procession.
For more than 150 years, about 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis 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.
John Cree, a Mohawk elder from Kanehsatake, Que., offered some reflections and prayers at the opening ceremony.
“I hope that grandmother watches over you and takes away some of the pain that you’re carrying…May she take the eagle feather and take away the dust from your ears, so that you can hear better,” said Cree.
“We can’t take away what was done to us, but we can’t afford to carry the burden,” added Cree, whose grandparents went to residential schools. “You have to open your heart and let the child come out.” He urged aboriginal people to remain steadfast, saying, “We are a strong people, we have endured so much and we’re still here, finding a peaceful solution to what happened to us and to our children.”
Prior to the QNE, the TRC held public hearings in six communities across the province of Quebec.
“We heard of tragic loss and heroic recovery, of children being sent thousands of kilometers away from home so they couldn’t return home during the summer months,” said Sinclair. TRC commissioners also heard stories of “harsh discipline, death and disease, and sexual abuse,” he added.
But the hearings have also highlighted “the perseverance and inner beauty of the human spirit,” said Sinclair. Some students spoke of relationships and friendships that have formed out of the residential schools experience, of falling in love getting married, and of meeting teachers who inspired them in the arts, academics and sports, said Sinclair.
Sinclair urged former students to let go of the past, noting how many of them “feel a huge sense of responsibility under the burden of what happened” to them. “You’re not to blame,” he said.
However, everyone is responsible for the future, “whether our families were part of this past or whether you just immigrated here last week,” said Sinclair. “It’s up to us to build a country where a mutually respectful relationship exists [between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people].”