At the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) six-year work of collecting testimonies and facts around the Indian residential schools, its chair Justice Murray Sinclair urged Canadians to believe not only that healing and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can happen, but that “it should happen.”
However, healing and reconciliation will depend on the overall commitment of all Canadians “to respecting the history of the traditional keepers of this land,” said Sinclair in his remarks at the opening ceremonies of the TRC’s closing event at the Delta Hotel in Ottawa.
“While we may not all share the past, we certainly share a future. We are bound to each other,” said Sinclair, as he reiterated a message he has been reminding Canadians for the last six years: “This is not an Aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem.”
Hundreds of former residential school students and their families, along with representatives from government and churches, including the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, packed the hotel’s ballroom for the ceremony, which began with the powerful beating of drums, prayers and the lighting of the quliq, an oil lamp traditionally used by Inuit.
Sinclair urged Canadians to do more than listen. “We ask you to act. Truth and apology are achieved through words, yes, but the next step – reconciliation – is achieved only through acting differently.”
Each one – whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal – has a role to play in achieving reconciliation, he added. “Through a process of personal, political and social action we can, and we must, rectify the harms brought about by the residential schools to bring about a more just, equal and inclusive country.”
Established in 2009, the TRC’s major mandate is to document the truth about what happened in the residential schools – through records and testimonies of former students, their families, communities and staff – and to educate Canadians about it.
For more than 150 years, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their homes and sent to federally funded schools managed by Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches. There were students who suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse in these schools. Between 1820 and 1969, the Anglican church operated 35 residential schools across Canada.
While reconciliation will not be easy, said Sinclair, “the rewards will be many; it’s achievement will be our success.”
Education is also crucial to reconciliation, said Sinclair. “Reconciliation will require a change in the educational process that our children receive and how we teach our past to change the attitudes and behaviours for future generations.”
Sinclair thanked residential school survivors for their courage and commitment to sharing their experiences, which he said, has “enabled the truth to be heard by all people of this land” and helped begin the process of “healing for you and for the rest of the country and for the ongoing work of reconciliation to begin.”
Many of the survivors’ stories have been “difficult to hear or even comprehend,” said Sinclair, but he added, “we cannot let discomfort prevent us from accepting the truth, rather it should set the course for our actions in the future.”
The TRC’s work has been difficult emotionally, physically and spiritually not only for the commissioners but also for the survivors and their families and those who have listened as witnesses. But, he said, “the work that we’ve done has been necessary and essential work.”
TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson, who inducted new honorary witnesses, said the TRC had faced huge job of filling filling “the deep hole of ignorance in our country” about its history and it had to climb “a huge mountain of attitudinal shift necessary for reconciliation to take hold and to become meaningful and more alive.”
Honorary witnesses “witness the truth of what survivors lived through and witness it forward by telling others what they’ve seen and heard and why it’s important to honour the memory and significance of it,” she explained. The TRC now has almost 80 honorary witnesses – individuals and groups prominent in the local, regional, national and international stage.
There was an unexpected moment of laughter and joy in the proceedings as Wilson introduced one of new honorary witnesses, Sharon Johnston, vice-regal consort and advocate of aboriginal families. Wilson inadvertently referred to the honorary circle of witnesses as “honorary circus,” which drew laughter from the audience. “Well, we’ve certainly been jumping through hoops,” Wilson said quickly, to more laughter, as she asked Johnston: “Do you still want to join us?”
Other inductees included: Former Supreme Court Justice and prominent international human rights lawyer Louise Arbour; prominent Canadian novelist and short story writer Joseph Boyden; Cynthia Wesley-Esquimax, vice provost of Lakehead University and governing circle member of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; Jonathan Sas, director of the Broadbent Institute and grandson of Holocaust survivors; and Sylvia Smith, a teacher from Ottawa, who created Project Heart, which commemorates the lives of thousands of Indigenous children who died at the residential schools.