I have previously written on this subject and feel that it is time to renew it once again in Wrights Lane. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will host its fourth National Event in Saskatoon at Prairieland Park next month, June 21-24. This is an opportunity for all Canadians, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to learn more about and bear witness to the 150-year legacy of the residential school system.
Over the course of a century and a half and several generations, 150,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nations children were placed in Indian residential schools in an attempt to assimilate Aboriginal peoples. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as a result of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Its mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in residential schools, and guide and inspire a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.
As parties to the agreement, and to their credit, the Anglican, United, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian churches are actively supporting the work of the TRC. Worship services in my St. Andrew's Presbyterian church in Southampton which neighbors the Saugeen First Nations Reserve, will be devoted to the healing and reconciliation process for the next couple of Sundays leading up to the meeting in Saskatoon.
This National Event will help to unveil the unique experiences of residential school survivors from Saskatchewan in particular. Survivors, both direct and inter-generational, former school staff and others affected by the schools have been invited to come forward and provide private and/or public statements about the impact of residential schools on their lives, that of their families and of their communities.
All members of the public are invited to observe the proceedings as witnesses. The role of a witness is to observe or account for the significance of the event. Bearing witness to the thought provoking statements of residential school survivors and others helps to validate the survivor experience and brings us on a path towards reconciliation.
A number of churches and the Canadian government were involved in the residential school system for Aboriginal children, and therefore it is critical for all of us (churches and the Canadian public in general) to be aware of, if not involved in, the process of truth-telling, healing, and reconciliation which is the aim of the TRC.
Besides schools in Saskatchewan, churches operated the Birtle school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the Cecilia Jeffrey school near Kenora in Ontario. These schools, which had opened in 1883 and 1902 respectively, continued to operate until the 1970s.
In September 2007, while the Settlement Agreement was being put into action, the Liberal government brought forward a motion to issue a formal apology for the treatment of children in these schools. The motion passed unanimously. On June 11, 2008, the House of Commons gathered in a solemn ceremony to publicly apologize for the government’s involvement in the residential school system and to acknowledge the widespread impact this system has had among Aboriginal peoples.
The federal government's apology was met with a range of responses. Some people felt that it marked a new era of positive federal government -- Aboriginal relations based on mutual respect, while others felt that the apology was merely symbolic and doubted that it would change the government’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples.
Although the apologies and acknowledgements made by governments and churches are important steps forward in the healing process, Aboriginal leaders have said that such gestures are not enough without supportive action. Hence, communities and residential school survivor societies are undertaking healing initiatives, both traditional and non-traditional, and providing opportunities for survivors to talk about their experiences and move forward to heal and to create a positive future for themselves, their families, and their communities.
The four-day gathering in Saskatoon will be a major step toward healing and reconciliation, as were the previous three national meetings, but I will be surprised if we read much about it on the front pages of newspapers here in Ontario. Our national media can, and should be, a major player in the process too.
In my next Wrights Lane post I will talk about another important initiative in the form of the 5th Annual Symposium, Claiming the Promise. A Retrospective On African Canadian History, which will take place in Chatham, June 14 to 16. This event is part of "The Promised Land Project", a multi-disciplinary research undertaking funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council's Community University Research Alliance. The focus of the PLP has been to study the role and evolution of early black settlements in the Chatham-Kent area of Southwestern Ontario which includes my hometown of Dresden. It is another story that deserves wider circulation and the attention of all of us.