Monday, April 23, 2012
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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recently held events over two days in Victoria BC that marked the culmination of four other public hearings in different areas of Vancouver Island. The TRC Regional Event in Victoria (April 13 and 14) offered a unique experience to all Canadians, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to hear first hand the experiences of those who had attended the residential schools.

Along with Victoria resident Allison Holt, my husband Chris and I were among the 3,000 people who attended the public sessions over the two days. We had come 'to bear witness' to the experiences shared by those who had been impacted in some way by the residential school system in Canada. For some of the people now in their 60s and 70s it was the first time they had opened up about their experience. 'We are survivors', was a common statement.

During the opening ceremony on Friday morning, the chair of the three person Commission, Judge Murray Sinclair, talked about an archive being created for future generations based on the statements and submissions collected at each session, some public and some private, so that no one will be able to claim the abuse did not happen. He charged us all with the responsibility 'to bear witness' to tell others of what we heard and learnt.

The Bentwood Box, steamed and bent from a single piece of red cedar, was carved by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston, as a lasting tribute to all Indian Residential School survivors, one of whom was his grandmother. The Bentwood Box holds all the statements and submissions and travels with the TRC to different provinces and Territories. Finally it will be housed in the National Research Centre.

Judge Sinclair talked about the education system that took away the culture and language and which is still denying history. To address education and rewrite history books is part of reconciliation. He encouraged us to talk with each other in our communities to fix/repair this damaged relationship with kindness and respect.

Grand Chief Ed John, a lawyer living in Vancouver, said 'We need to set aside our ignorance and indifference of the past. It is not what you stand for. It’s what you stand up for.'

Commissioner Marie Wilson, a Dene living in the North West Territories, asked 'How do we go forward? Reconciliation is an ongoing process.' She told us that the work of the TRC is two-fold:

  • to contribute to the healing of the individual, community and nation
  • and to contribute to the education of the individual, community and nation.

Oral history is part of the First Nations' tradition and she asked that we listen with good hearts and clear ears.

Radio host Shelagh Rogers skillfully and with warmth, facilitated two Town Hall sessions on the topics of Reconciliation – It Matters to Me and A Call to Action.

Day two began with Expressions of Reconciliation with men and women representing the churches who had been involved in the residential schools. There was also a former RCMP speaking of his experience and former teachers. A United church in Port Alberni told of how they had moved ahead of the national church body to begin to educate themselves and then began local community actions to 'right the wrongs' and build community in their neighbourhood and town.

Many people shared ideas of what they felt could be next steps, such as more healing centres, talk with politicians, re-write history books, more opportunities for the Aboriginal youth to learn their culture and language to try to stop the flood of teenage suicides.

I returned home impacted by the pain that so many have suffered and are still suffering through. I feel deep respect for the tremendous courage it took for each one to share and be vulnerable.

The TRC moves to other provinces before returning to BC and ending in Vancouver in September 2013. What am I going to do to bear witness leading up to this event? I can visualize Creators of Peace circles for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women.

I am encouraged by The Citizen Project in the province of Quebec planning Public Forums and Circles of Trust, that some of my colleagues are involved with.

As Judge Sinclair said about the need for healing and reconciliation, 'This is a Canadian problem, not just an Aboriginal problem. The most important part of the
conversation is with each other.'

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