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Inuvik-Justice Murray Sinclair on July 1 challenged Indian residential school survivors to come to terms with the past, move beyond their hurts and think about what kind of future they would like to bequeath to their children and grandchildren.
A concrete way to ensure a better future, for this aboriginal generation and those to come, is for survivors to give them back the culture and language that were lost during the forced assimilation of native children in Canada, said Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
Sinclair spoke at the closing ceremonies of the National Northern Event of the TRC held here June 27 to July 1. More than 1,000 former students, their families, representatives of government, churches and the public arrived by land, sea and air to share their experiences at the event held in this town north of the Arctic Circle.
“At some point you have to realize that this is not going to be about you…. Think about your children and grandchildren who will be inheriting this earth. You have to ask yourself as survivors, what is it that you want to leave for them?” Sinclair told survivors gathered at the Chief Jim Koe Park.
Survivors have spent a lot of time telling their stories about the violence they experienced in the schools, and the TRC and the public have listened, Sinclair said.
“That is a significant and terrible issue and we cannot understate how difficult that is and that it has contributed to difficult problems for some people, for mental and spiritual problems,” said Sinclair.
He reminded the survivors that the apology issued by the federal government in 2008 and the churches before then, “was not just for the acts of violence, but for the fact that for 130 years, for seven generations, this country tried to force assimilation upon the indigenous people of this country, tried to force you to become something you were not by taking away your language, by taking away your culture.”
The future of young indigenous people lies in giving them back their language and culture, Sinclair said. “We need to give them the identity because if they know who they are, they will have pride,” he added.
Sinclair cited the First Nations community of Hollow Waters, Manitoba, which made a decision to immerse 60 preschoolers in Ojibway, so that today they have 60 students in the third grade who speak the language fluently.
Sinclair said that the churches, which ran the residential schools, “cannot give you back your language.” While many may feel that the churches’ apology “isn’t enough,” he said, they are “doing what they can, are offering to do what they can…. Whenever we call upon them to assist us they step forward in every way that they can. But they are limited in what they can do. They know that, they accept that. They will work with whatever they can work with.”
Canada’s mainline churches-Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church-administered government-funded schools, which about 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend in the 19th century. The churches have since issued respective apologies and are signatories to a settlement agreement that compensated former students and set up the TRC, which is mandated to document the testimonies of survivors and educate Canadians about the legacy of residential schools.
Sinclair urged survivors to play a more pro-active role in their communities, noting that many of them have talked about “the chaos and difficulties that have gone on in your families, the dysfunction, the loss of children, the loss of youth, the loss of our young children to gangs, drugs, alcohol, to the streets.” While these are the inter-generational effects of the residential schools experience, he said, “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What are the best ways to address that?’ ”
Acknowledging that “it would not be realistic to expect that we will get to every living survivor in this country” with its limited five-year mandate, Sinclair said the TRC will ensure that there will be a process in place to continue the gathering of survivor statements. “It will be our young people. It will be your children and your grandchildren who will undertake it because they need to know. They need to know what’s going on-that will give them answers to what needs to be done,” he said.
TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson also urged survivors to continue on the path to healing, saying, “We need to keep the promises we have made to ourselves and to others.”
Chief Winton Littlechild, another TRC Commissioner, said that throughout the course of the event, many survivors have left “a trail of strength and compassion” through telling stories of pain and abuse. He said he was reminded of an elder who once said that people “must brave where there’s no path in order to leave a trail for someone else.”
Littlechild also underscored the importance of rebuilding families, which have been affected by the schools experience.
Inuvik Mayor Denny Rodgers said his town was honoured to have hosted the event and as a remembrance, it would preserve the sacred fire pit that the TRC had set up for the gathering. A plaque commemorating the event would be installed beside it, he said.
Members of the Indian Residential Schools Survivor Committee sang a survivor’s song during the closing ceremonies, which was highlighted by riveting performances by the Inuvialuit Drummers and Dancers.