National gathering set for June 21-24 in prairie city
By Kiply Lukan Yaworski
The Prairie Messenger
The national Truth and Reconciliation gathering in Saskatoon June 21 - 24 is an historic event that organizers hope will bear fruit in greater understanding, reconciliation and healing for generations to come.
Justice Murray Sinclair, who chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), spoke to media May 17, stressing the importance of the upcoming national event as part of the commission's mandate of gathering information and providing public education about the impact of the Indian Residential Schools on Canadian society.
"The public generally in Canada needs to be informed about this era in Canadian history in a way that brings home to them an understanding of why things are the way they are, and how things came about," Sinclair said.
"Our ambition is to make sure that people understand that all elements of society must be educated properly -- not just about Residential Schools but about the impact the schools have had on lives in Canada. We must understand that this is not an Aboriginal problem, it's a Canadian problem."
From the 1870s until the last one closed in 1996, some 130 Indian Residential Schools operated across Canada. More than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were taken from their families, often by force, and placed in the schools, separated from their families and communities. Mandated by the government, many of the schools were run by churches and religious orders.
Residential School policy was to work actively to sever children's ties with their language and culture. Incidents of neglect, humiliation, physical, emotional and sexual abuse also took place. In Saskatchewan there are an estimated 28,000 former Residential School students, the largest number in Canada.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is not a government commission, Sinclair said, but was created as part of the Residential Schools Agreement of 2007 among survivors, the government and various church entities and Aboriginal organizations, to provide a forum for former students to share their experience as part of a national historic record.
"It is our fervent hope that this event will further assist those on a healing journey, or be a starting point for those who are just beginning," said Vice-Chief Geraldine Arcand of the Saskatoon Tribal Council, which is co-hosting the Saskatoon national gathering. "Slowly and steadily, they chip away at the chains that bind us to the generations of trauma," she said.
"We pray that this event will be a catalyst that sparks further education and awareness for those not directly affected by the impact and legacy of the Indian Residential Schools," Arcand added, joining other speakers in stressing the importance of all Canadians coming to an understanding about the impact of Residential Schools on society.
"As residential school survivors, we don't seek pity, we seek understanding," said Eugene Arcand, a member of the national survivors committee of the TRC. "There are reasons for the conditions that exist in our communities today. There are reasons for the conditions that exist in our correctional centres and penitentiaries," he said, citing "the intergenerational dysfunction that has resulted from this dark era."
Residential Schools have damaged individuals and society, and there is a longing for healing, Arcand said. "But we don't want to be told to move on and get over it. We are damaged, the same as any other child who was beaten or abused. We are no different."
The journey of healing is not about laying blame, he added. "We don't want our neighbours carrying guilt. But it happened; let's deal with it. We're not here to hurt you, and hopefully you're not here to hurt us."
Residential School survivors in the province are looking forward to the once-in-a-lifetime national event, Arcand said, thanking all those co-operating in organizing the event, including the churches. "We thank you for your past participation and hope you will continue to work with us in a process of truth, a process of healing and hopefully a conclusion of some type of reconciliation."
Sinclair stressed the long-term nature of a reconciliation process. "It has taken seven generations to get to this point, and during that period of time, each generation has microscopically lost more and more of the culture and language and integrity of the community, than the previous one had," he pointed out.
"It took a long time for this damage to become as entrenched as it is. It is going to take some time to move into a position where the relationship between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people, between the victims and perpetrators, between the various families involved, as well as the various entities involved -- the churches, the survivors and the government -- are in a position where they can talk to and about each other in a respectful way. That is the challenge, I think, of this whole process."
After gathering the history, the statements and documents about Indian Residential Schools in Canada, the commission will establish a national research centre as a permanent resource for all Canadians, Sinclair noted. "Hopefully we will have laid the path for the future discussion and for the generations yet to come."
Vice-Chief Dutch Lerat of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations applauded the courage of former students in coming forward to tell their stories, and the dedication of commissioners Sinclair, Chief Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson in this important work.
"We would like to acknowledge our elders for keeping our teachings alive in the ceremonies and practice of beliefs," Lerat added. He called for including the history of the Residential Schools in the curriculum of schools across Canada -- a call echoed by Sinclair.
For more information about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the national event, including volunteer opportunities, see the website at: trc.ca