There is an air of anticipation, of history waiting to happen here, as Indian residential school survivors and their families, and representatives of churches and government began arriving in Winnipeg June 15 for the first national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada.
The event, which is expected to draw up to 8,000 attendees, aims to document and acknowledge the truth about a sad chapter in Canadian history that saw thousands native children being taken from their families and forced into mostly church-run schools as part of the federal government’s policy of assimilation.
The Anglican Church of Canada-which administered about three dozen residential schools and hostels between 1820 and 1969-will be represented here by its leaders, including the primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, and National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, as well as local parishioners and staff.
In a press briefing, TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson said one of the important obligations of the event is to “educate all of Canada.” Each and every Canadian “has a huge stake in this,” she said. “What we have kept repeating is if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in our work, ends up being a series of very well-intentioned activities that lead to only aboriginal people talking to themselves, our country will have missed the best opportunity that we had in nation building, in possibly our entire history.”
Seven national events are part of the mandate of the TRC, which came out of the 2006 residential schools settlement agreement reached by former students, the government and the four churches that operated the schools – Anglican, Presbyterian, United and Roman Catholic.
The churches-which have embraced the truth and reconciliation process-will have a strong participation in the event. Local Anglicans have been urged to be present, with parish priests reading an invitation letter from the diocesan bishop, Don Philips, in the Sundays leading up to the gathering.
The event scheduled June 16 to 19, is being held at The Forks, an historic site of early aboriginal settlement where the Assiniboine River flows into the Red River.
On the first day, Wed., June 16, church leaders will join the Lighting of the Sacred Fire Ceremony and the Opening Ceremony, and will host a lunch reception for survivors. Survivors will then tak a “Unity Walk,” to a Sharing Circle, where they will share their stories with TRC Commissioners. Survivors who prefer to have their stories recorded in anonymity will be able to do so in the private statement gathering tent.
There is a dizzying array of events lined up for survivors, their families, and churches, as well as for ordinary Canadians who may know little or nothing about the residential schools or, for that matter, about aboriginal people.
The Learning Tent is where one can gather the history and impact of residential schools. The Inter-faith Tent will feature such events as “Paths to Reconciliation” and “Native Traditional Spiritualities in Conversation with Christianity.” The Sports Tent will feature aboriginal athletes. The Inuit Tent features Inuktitut Teachings. The Metis Tent will offer Metis perspectives and yes, fiddling. An exhibit and lecture, “Where are the Children?” will delve into the stories of the children who went missing at residential schools. There will also be concerts featuring popular aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and Blue Rodeo as well as stage plays. There will be special programs for children and teens.
At 5 p.m. each day, there will be a program called “Gestures of Reconciliation” at the Gathering Tent for people who feel moved to seek or accept forgiveness. Event organizers said aboriginal stand up comics have been invited to host the event to give people a chance to feel “light-hearted,” at the end of each day.