The first national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded Saturday night with Justice Murray Sinclair, TRC chair, expressing satisfaction that it had been a “special, excellent start.”
During the event held June 16 to 19, more than 1,000 residential school survivors spoke privately to TRC statement-takers and in some cases, during sharing circles witnessed by the public. The event achieved “remarkable acts of reconciliation,” Sinclair told a crowd gathered for closing ceremonies at the Oodena Circle of The Forks National Historic Site. “We know that this journey is far from complete.”
More than 40,000 people visited the site and took part in various activities during the event, said Sinclair. “We are told this is unprecedented….”
Sinclair thanked survivors, saying, “your path has often been lonely, but in sharing your experiences with us you allow us to walk with you and to show you, I hope, that you are not alone.” Having heard the stories and now “armed with the understanding you have given us we look forward with hope to a future built on understanding and on respect,” he added.
Hundreds gathered for the simple, poignant ceremony that saw survivors, families, friends and strangers clapping their hands to the rhythm of drums and prayers on a warm summer evening lit by a half moon. It was capped by a magnificent display of fireworks and hugs all around. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, received a big hug from an aboriginal woman seated near him, who said, “Isn’t this wonderful?”
Earlier in the day, Governor General Michaëlle Jean took part in a traditional offering of tobacco to the sacred fire and listened to stories of aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth, some of them directly linked to residential school survivors. She also joined a powwow held on the grounds of The Forks, an historic site of early aboriginal settlement where the Assiniboine River flows into the Red River.
Addressing youth and those who gathered to listen to them speak, Jean said the TRC’s work is helping to re-found Canada. “This has to happen in our history. We need to come together to confront history together,” she said. “This is our greatest responsibility, and has to be a shared responsibility.” She added: “Today, we are going to make things happen differently…We need to share the pain, we need to cry together . . . we are alive, and we are very strong.”
Jean also paid tribute to the school survivors for having the courage to share their stories.
The path to healing and reconciliation is “not easy,” said Jean. “It takes a lot of courage to share those stories, to listen to them…But we have one responsibility we have to carry out together. It’s breaking the wall of indifference.”
TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson expressed the hope that survivors who attended the event felt some measure of healing and realized that they are not alone. “I hope that you will go home lighter knowing that the circle of support is large and growing,” she said. “May you go home supported with love…Go well.”
Sinclair thanked the Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches which took part in the event. “They have not only persevered in supporting this commission as we go about our work. They have contributed generously to a fund to establish the travel arrangements so many of you could be here,” he said. He noted that churches had also arranged billets for some survivors and provided bagged lunches throughout the event.
He also thanked many Canadians who supported the event, including the 750 volunteers, universities that opened their residences to survivors, artists, playwrights, filmmakers, and authors. International observers from South Africa, Peru, Guatemala and the United States also provided insights into the work of their own Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, noted Sinclair.