The first event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) began in Winnipeg in 2010 with residential school survivors lighting a sacred fire where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet; the last one ended in Ottawa on June 3 with children leading the way out of Rideau Hall and into a garden of paper hearts.
“It was the survivors that brought all of us to this point, and that led to the creation of the commission and that really drove and guided their work and shared their stories,” Kyla Kakfwi Scott, the daughter of commissioner Marie Wilson and former North West Territories premier Stephen Kakfwi, said in an interview. “But now that we’ve heard those truths, the work of reconciling really will be for the children.”
The closing event, attended by key members of the TRC process, including the survivor committee, representatives of the parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Governor General David Johnston, honorary witnesses and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had been an emotional one, with many present crying openly at videos from survivors’ testimonies.
But after everyone filed out into the early-June sunshine, the mood lifted.
Outside, church, government and Indigenous leaders were matched with children carrying brightly decorated paper hearts on wooden stems bearing messages of apology, forgiveness and peace in many Indigenous and non-Indigenous languages.
Hearts like these are being planted in “heart gardens” across the country in remembrance of the children who died in residential schools, but in this ceremony, organized by the TRC in conjunction with the ecumenical social justice group KAIROS and the First Nations Sharing society, the paper hearts came from across the country.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, walked alongside a young girl named Eva from the Kitigan Zibi First Nations reserve north of Ottawa, who carried a paper heart with a pair of eagle feathers superimposed on a Canadian flag with the words “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves” written above.
Together, they proceeded down the honorary section of the trans-Canada trail that cuts through the grounds of Rideau Hall and planted their paper hearts with the hundreds of others that children had already planted there.
Drumming commenced, led by a group of young drummers based out of the Kitigan Zibi reserve called the Storm Cloud Singers, and children with bells stitched into their costumes danced to traditional Métis fiddle music. Under the spreading branches of trees planted over the years by visiting heads of state, Hiltz chatted with a member of the survivor committee, while Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau spoke with some participants and middle-aged Indigenous women had their pictures taken with Chief Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
When the last paper heart had been placed, the crowd of children, elders, families and dignitaries made their way to the unity fountain, for a performance from two young throat singers followed by the Ottawa Catholic School Board Choir.
The young Algonquin musicians who led the drum circle felt it was important that the closing ceremonies had so prominently featured Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.
“We’re trying to open up our youth and have a better future,” said Romeo Smith, the lead singer. “The future is about the youth, and we should be worrying about our youth if we want to have a healthy life.”
Maggie Truelove, a member of the choir and a student at St. Mark’s Catholic High School in Ottawa, felt it was important for non-Indigenous children to participate in the events as well.
“Everyone is equal, so we were trying to make [residential school survivors] feel like that, because what we did was wrong and it wasn’t smart at all. We’re trying to make amends,” she said.
While Truelove had known “a bit” about residential schools before coming to sing, she now feels that she has a much better sense of what went on. “Now that I know about it, it’s something terrible. Everyone should know about it.”
Kakfwi Scott, who is heavily involved in community-building and Indigenous education in the Northwest Territories, said she is confident that the new generation of leaders being raised up is already charting a new course with their own children. She would know: she is raising two young daughters of her own.
“There’s a whole generational of parents, really, who are taking [their cultural heritage] back for themselves and also involving their children in it,” she said. “It’s not like going back to the way things were, but it’s also not losing what we had before. [It’s] finding a way to fit all of them together.”