Truth and Reconciliation
The federal government supported 139 Indian residential schools in Canada, with 24 in Alberta. No one knows how many Aboriginal children were forced into these schools between 1880 and 1986. No one knows how many children died and never returned home.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event at the Shaw Conference Centre March 27-30 was the last national gathering to hear survivors’ stories. I was privileged to listen to some stories, to weep with the heartbroken, and to marvel at the hope and strength I witnessed.
In 1920, the Indian Act required every Aboriginal child to attend a residential school. As Hon. Justice Murray Sinclair (Chair of the TRC Commission) made clear, the purpose of these schools was to assimilate and indoctrinate, not to educate.
Adult survivors remembered being pulled from parents’ arms and loaded into trucks, having their hair chopped off and skin scrubbed with carbolic acid. Some were beaten; some raped. All were stripped of their families, their communities, and their culture.
These are survivors’ words:
“How do you know where you’re going in life if you don’t know where you came from? Being able to forgive frees you.”
“Why are we treated so differently? What do I want from the system? Respect. Understanding. Equality.”
“You must have truth before reconciliation is possible.”
“When my grandson asked, can you read me a story, I had to say no, I can’t read. We spent most of our time working outside.”
“We ran away to pick berries because we were so hungry. When we were caught, we cried because we hadn’t been able to feed the hungry little kids.”
“We were taught to be bullies, steal, fight, and abuse. Now we see the same bullying in our governance. We need to reclaim our real values and not those behaviours we learned in residential school.”
“I was holding onto my dad’s leg when a priest, a nun, and an RCMP officer came. They told dad that I had to either go to school or become a ward of the government… I can’t stand hatred any longer. It makes me sick.”
“I tried running away but was caught by the RCMP. They shaved our heads. We were turned over a bench, stripped, and whipped with a horse harness that had quarter inch picks, until we bled.”
“They called Cree the devil’s language.”
“20,000 native children were adopted by white families in the 1960s. Kids were raped, beaten, never told they were loved, choked, put into virtual slavery.”
Stories like these were heard by Justice Sinclair and Commissioners Chief Winston Littlechild and Dr. Marie Wilson, by honorary commissioners like Mayor Don Iveson and Governor General Johnson, and hundreds of other witnesses in smaller listening circles, in one-to-one sessions, around albums of photographs in the church archive area, through art, in song and dance, and through drumming. The Friday night concert featured talented artists, two of whom were headed to the Juno Awards the next day.
Aboriginal art was displayed around the city. Cree/Metis contemporary artist Dawn Marie Marchand of Bonnyville displayed “A Place to Tell Our Stories”, with hundreds of rectangles suggesting the red bricks of residential schools on which survivors wrote, “I am able to look back to move forward as I continue to uncover, discover, and recover.” Another’s advice is, “Always speak your truth even if your voice shakes.”
McCauley is home to many of our Native brothers and sisters. Let’s make sure it’s a neighbourhood where every voice, no matter how quiet or loud, is heard as we seize Mayor Iveson’s challenge to make this a year of reconciliation.