I spent the day at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first national event, here at the Forks in Winnipeg. My heart is full, and — to borrow the expression Marie Wilson, one of the commissioners, used — it’s also “leaking.” The day felt weighty and often emotional. I can only imagine how intense it must have been for the many survivors of the residential school system and their families in attendance.
This event will likely be well covered by the media, so I’m not going to give any kind of journalistic play-by-play but simply a few of my own impressions and experiences.
I’m attending the event in response to the call by the TRC to come and bear witness to the dreadful legacy of the residential school system in Canada, a system set up by the government and implemented through various church groups to “civilize and Christianize” native people by forcible assimilation through education. The intent, stated most bluntly, was to “take the Indian out of Indians.”
I consider myself reasonably well informed about that history, and sympathetic to the goals of the TRC. Last November, I even wrote an editorial urging Mennonite Brethren to attend. (I did spot several local MB pastors there.) But I wasn’t expecting it to become as personalized as it did today. Was it because H. and I are just back from visiting our four grandchildren, ranging from ages eight to two? Then to hear stories of an authority figure coming to the door, taking the children away. Taking them away! I’m putting that in the context of our grandson, 8, and granddaughter, 6, and their parents, our children. All I can see is that it would devastate them. Destroy them.
A non-aboriginal pilot described one job that haunts him still: the autumn day he had to pick up two children on the edge of a lonely lake, and see the wrenching away from their parents of two children that young, and not just until Christmas, but until June! The father and boy were stiff and trying to be stoical, the daughter and her mother were clinging and filled with anxiety. The two children wailed the entire flight. When he dropped them off in Kenora, there was a taxi waiting to take them to the school, but no adult to accompany or explain what was happening. He often wondered, he said, what happened to those two kids.
Well, there were enough other stories, told already in the first public sharing circle (there are also more than 20 spaces set aside for the private taking of statements over the next days), to figure out what probably happened to those kids. Punishment for speaking their own language. Punishment for waving to a sibling. Physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual abuse. Such as one woman, Lavinia, mentioned: a yardstick stuck into her mouth and pushed down her throat, and “Lavinia will never amount to anything.” And more, and more.
What if it had been me, I found myself wondering, taken from my parents, or my children taken from me, or my grandchildren taken? This isn’t about me, of course, or even my family, it’s about some 150,000 other children taken and their parents left behind, to whom by one story after the other we bear witness. But today I listened as a daughter, mother, grandmother and the apology we Canadians have made to the aboriginal community was personalized.
2. Generous conversations
I wondered whether aboriginal people might feel somewhat wary of the white people attending the event and halfways expected to be given a taste of being an outsider. Which, in truth, I am. But I was surprised and blessed by being the recipient on three different occasions throughout the day of generous conversations with aboriginal people I happened to be sitting beside. All three were residential school survivors.
One elderly man, from Nelson River, said he tells his children he “went to hell for eight years.” He pointed at several places on his body where he had damaged bones or scars from beatings. A woman from St. Albert, Alberta, who travelled by bus to come, arriving just this morning, told me of being in residential school from three-and-a-half until grade 8. She is still reluctant to speak her story, she says, and doesn’t know if she’ll give a statement, but she clearly wanted to be in this milieu where truth would be spoken.
Another woman with whom I ate the bag lunch handed out by the interchurch group, said it reminded her of how the nuns would stand with pans of dry bread and molasses. She gestured at an elderly nun in a habit a few feet in front of us and said how scared she had been of the nuns and how mean many of them were and how homesick she had been. And no one had ever told her what was happening. (And what was with the nuns? Had they too had all the maternal warmth scared out of them in their own religious “system”?) Her mother had been to residential school for 10 years, and never hugged her, this woman said, and then she had to go to residential schol too. And later she struggled to show affection to her children as well.
3. Spiritual emphasis.
I was impressed with the spiritual emphasis of today’s proceedings. The aboriginals begin and end their ceremonies, meetings, sharing circles with prayer. Many who shared spoke their thanks to the Creator. They know this is where healing and belonging begins, and they are unashamed to say so.
Said the moderator of the sharing circle, “I left residential school with bitterness, anger, shame, a sense of guilt. My self-esteem was nil. I was on skid row seven-and-a-half years… Thirty years ago, thanks to my Creator, I found myself at a prayer place. I spoke to my Creator in my own words. My life started to turn around.” (He has been sober 30 years.)
Many “official representative” remarks were made today. It felt almost endless, the opening welcome did, with everyone needing to say their (longish) piece. Various native leaders spoke; representatives from the Catholic, United, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches spoke; Chuck Strahl, the Minister of Indian Affairs, spoke. All necessary words, of course, good words, though I think we all felt it merely preamble to the truth of survivors’ words that would emerge in the course of the event. Of the ecclesiastical representatives, Catholic archbishop Pettipas struck me as the least effective, in terms of public presentation. He said the truth — “our very sorry history,” “our sin history,” “inexcusable experiences of abuse” — but his manner seemed academic, perhaps a wee bit defensive?
I was impressed with Chuck Strahl, and proud of him actually, as the politician involved. He spoke personally and warmly. “As a father and grandfather,” he said, “I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to be separated as families.” He insisted we take “an unflinching look” through this process, “to build a strong foundation for the future.” He also announced, to applause, that sections of the government acts that established the Indian Residential School system would be repealed as a symbolic reiteration of Prime Minister Steven Harper’s apology made some years ago.
Strahl also sat in today’s opening sharing circle, and when it came his turn, he again managed to combine the personal and official. “We ask for forgiveness,” he said, twice. “You shouldered the burden alone… we don’t deserve your sharing.” He also admitted, “You can’t be Minister of Indian Affairs without being changed as a person,” for this stuff, he said, is more about things of the heart than policy.