The seventh and final national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) began in Edmonton March 27 with TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair stating that the goal of reconciliation must be to establish “a relationship of mutual respect” between indigenous and non-indigenous people of Canada.
With only a year left in its term, the TRC’s last event will focus its conversations on reconciliation, Sinclair told thousands who gathered at the Shaw Centre for the Alberta National Event. “What should we as commissioners say to Canadian society and the world about what we have to do about this [reconciliation]?”
Canadian Anglicans led by the primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, are attending the event, which ends Sunday, March 30. From the mid-19th to the 20th century, churches-including the Anglican Church of Canada-operated 130 federally funded schools for more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children as part of the Canadian government’s forced assimilation policy. Many former students reported sexual, physical and emotional abuse at these schools and the consequences have rippled across generations. The Anglican church operated 30 schools, including seven in the province of Alberta: Atikameg (White Fish Lake), Blackfoot Reserve (Gleichen), Blood Reserve (Cardston), Brocket, Lesser Slave Lake, Wabasca and Whitefish Lake.
Sinclair reminded those gathered that the TRC was established as a key component of the revised 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement at the request of former residential school students who wanted to tell the Canadian public and the world about their experiences.
The mandated events have been important in helping survivors to heal and in forging “a nationally memory for this country to ensure that these won’t happen again,” said Sinclair.
Achieving mutual respect requires leaders across the country to stand up publicly and say, “we need to change things, we need to change the way we talk and behave,” said Sinclair in his remarks, which were streamed live at the TRC’s website. “It begins with this: our leaders today must learn to talk to and about each other in a more respectful way.”
Racist attitudes toward indigenous people have been institutionally ingrained, but they can be undone, said Sinclair. “People are not naturally born to be racist-we teach them to be; we model that behaviour for them.”
Sinclair urged the youth to carry forward the task of reconciliation, saying that it will not be achieved within the TRC’s term and possibly not even in this lifetime. “It’s a heavy responsibility…but we will achieve it, if we commit to it,” said Sinclair. “We can’t allow the current situation to continue anymore.”
Sinclair also called on survivors to help young aboriginal men and women recover the language, culture and spirituality that were lost during the 130-year legacy of residential schools. He noted that aboriginal youth are not only demanding to know who they are and what it means to be an Inuk, an Anishnabe, a Dene or a Métis, they also want to be able to say that they are proud of their identity. “We want them to say that [they are proud of who they are], but in order for them to say that, we have to give them something more than anger; we have to give them something more than frustration. We have to give them a pathway to self-respect and pride,” he said.
TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson, for her part, urged Canadians to work together for reconciliation, saying that while the past can no longer be changed, “we can address the present square on.”
She said those gathered at the event are there not as conference participants, spectators or witnesses, but as “implicated witnesses” who have inherited this sad chapter of Canada’s history. “We can decide together, as ancestors of the future, what we choose to leave as a legacy about what our country will become.”
At the opening ceremonies, which the TRC noted was being held in Treaty 6 territory, Elder Bob Cardinal began his opening prayer by reminding people to look at the prayer cloth on stage, which he said was a symbol of “getting along together, loving one another and trying to walk a good way.”
Clark, along with 13 other prominent Canadians, were inducted as honorary witnesses for the TRC, whose goal is to raise awareness about the residential school experience and encourage Canadians to work toward healing and reconciliation.
Canadians as a whole “must recognize what deep damage was done in our name by our institutions-the government and churches,” said Clark. However, he said, the residential school system was “only one part of the unfairness and disrespect with which we have treated our indigenous citizens.” He pointed to the government’s “sorry record” involving treaties and the continuing high rates of disease, mortality and imprisonment affecting aboriginal people. The relationship between government and First Nations leadership has been “fractious and disappointing,” and there has been a decline in genuine interest in indigenous issues among non-indigenous Canadians, he added.
There is a rising tide of disappointment among aboriginal people as a result of continuing injustices, said Clark, who warned that “disappointment as a social force is becoming more combustible.”
Other honorary witnesses inducted at the Alberta National Event were: Governor General David Johnston, Frank Iacobucci (former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada), Dr. Evan Adams (deputy provincial officer, B.C.), Dr. Cindy Blackstock (executive director, First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada), Wetaskiwin Mayor Bill Elliot, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, Atty. Jim Gladstone (former world champion calf roper), David Langtry (acting chief commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission), Jane Middelton-Moz (authority in multi-generational trauma, director of the Middelton-Moz Institute), Dr. Mary Simon (chairperson, National Committee on Inuit Education), David Tuccaro (founder, president and CEO, Tuccaro Inc.), Joseph Boyden (award-winning author), and Wab Kinew (musician, broadcaster and educator).