The release of the summary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Tuesday, June 2 marked a turning point for survivors of Indian residential schools, the Anglican Church of Canada, other churches and the country as a whole.
A residential school survivor and the first bishop of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, Bishop Lydia Mamakwa’s reaction upon hearing the TRC chair present the findings reflected the cautious optimism felt by many survivors.
“For me, it was very emotional when Justice Murray Sinclair started speaking about the report, about the things that survivors went through,” Bishop Mamakwa said.
“Then I began to listen, really listen to him, and I just felt very hopeful after that—very hopeful that the recommendations in there will be implemented,” she added.
“I just hope that something happens after this—that the call to action really takes place.”
In his remarks to the packed room at the Delta Ottawa City Centre, Justice Sinclair called the residential school experience “one of the darkest, most troubling chapters in our collective history.”
That chapter, he said, constituted “nothing short of cultural genocide” through its removal of generations of Aboriginal children from their families, suppression of Aboriginal language and culture, and attempted re-education of Aboriginal children with non-Aboriginal culture.
“Canadian governments and churches and others sought to erase from the face of the earth the culture and history of many great and proud peoples,” Justice Sinclair said.
Underscoring the horrors of the residential schools, fellow TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson offered the disturbing statistic that at least 3,200 students sent to residential schools never returned home.
In almost one-third of such cases, the student’s name was not recorded; in one-quarter, the student’s gender was not known; in almost half, the cause of death remained unknown.
Commissioners were able to identify a number of factors leading to deaths: poor disease and lack of medical care, suicide (often following neglect and physical, mental and/or sexual abuse), fires in the poorly-maintained buildings, and students who drowned or froze in the wilderness during desperate attempts to escape the oppression of the schools.
Despite the horrific conditions and attempted destruction of their culture, the courage of survivors in coming forward and telling their stories through the public hearings left Chief Wilton Littlechild, commissioner, with one recurring message: “Our spirit cannot be broken.”
The survivors, Justice Sinclair said, entrusted the commission—and by extension, all the people in Canada—with two priorities.
“First,” he noted, “the survivors need to know before they leave this earth that people understand what happened and what the schools did to them.
“Second, the survivors need to know that, having been heard and understood, that we will act to ensure the repair of damages done.”
To that effect, the TRC report offered 94 recommendations to policymakers, which included steps such as the adoption by Canada of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown, an annual “State of Aboriginal Peoples” report by the Prime Minister of Canada, equity in education and health care for Indigenous communities, and educating all Canadians on the history and legacy of the residential schools.
Speaking for residential school survivors, Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said that Canada had “come of age” with the release of the TRC summary report.
“What is so very clear today, and was so very clear to us, the survivors and our families and our communities … [is that] the attempt to transform us failed and failed utterly,” he said to applause. “The legacy of the survivors will be the transformation of this beautiful country, Canada.”
Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, pointed to unfinished business by calling on the government of Canada to recognize survivors of residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Inuit regions.
Despite suffering “the same indignities as other Canadian Inuit, First Nations and Métis,” such survivors had seen the federal government deny responsibility due to the lack of direct funding for the schools by Ottawa.
Following the release of the TRC summary report, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, delivered a joint statement on behalf of churches involved in the running of the residential schools, standing alongside Presbyterian, Catholic, Jesuit and United Church leaders.
Acknowledging the deep scars that the residential schools had left on survivors and their families, the statement pledged each of the churches to continue working towards reconciliation based on the recommendations of the TRC, in particular through their commitment to respecting Indigenous spiritual traditions.
Speaking afterwards, Archbishop Hiltz stressed that “this day is about the survivors of the residential schools.”
“My sense is that for them, this is a great day—that there’s a sense in which they are feeling they’ve been heard,” the Primate said.
“They’ve been heard by the commissioners. They’ve been heard by the process of the TRC. Their calls for justice, I think, have been heard. Their plea for their children and a better future for them, there’s a sense in which that’s been heard.”
For the parties of the settlement agreement, he added, it was a day of invitation to act with integrity on their apologies and a challenge for Canadians to learn about the history of the residential schools and never deny or dismiss it again.
To those who remained skeptical of the Anglican Church’s apology or its commitment to change, Archbishop Hiltz invited them to help the church by offering guidance moving forward.
“I don’t think we can ever assume that everybody’s comfortable with the apology that was made by our church,” the Primate said.
“I think that there are many people who would say the apology was not empty, and there’s lots of evidence to suggest that that’s in fact true. But I think for those who feel the apology does not make any difference in their lives, then I think the only posture we can adopt is one of listening. So tell us: How can that apology become meaningful for you?”
“It’s not for me to guess what that is,” he added. “It’s for me to listen to them.”
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