Freda Bear to her mother Gertrude Walker. Photo: Kaj Hasselriis

Ruth Scalplock, a 66-year-old residential school survivor, came from Alberta’s Siksika Nation to Winnipeg to attend the opening of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings into residential school abuse. 

Not to make a statement to the commission, though. “I want to support the survivors,” she said. The process of speaking out herself is too “painful.”

Scalplock isn’t alone in her decision to remain silent. Of the 1,000 people who registered for the first day of the Truth and Reconciliation gathering on June 15, fewer than 10 per cent volunteered to make statements in the first two days, either in public sharing circles or behind closed doors at the hotel where the main hearings were held.

But Scalplock doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Like many others who came to Winnipeg’s Forks National Historic Park to witness the event on traditional native grounds where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, she’s thrilled that the issue of residential school abuse is getting national attention and recognition.

“It helps young people and society to understand why we have so many social problems,” Scalplock said. “Young people wonder why we can’t go forward. A lot of them don’t understand what we’ve gone through. They have to be educated and come to these gatherings.”

Starting in the mid-19th century and continuing for over 100 years, the Canadian government collaborated with church groups to open residential schools. All across the country, aboriginal children were taken out of their homes and forced into boarding schools, where priests, nuns and other religious leaders taught them the ways of the white man and tried to beat native identities and languages out of them — often literally.

Two years ago, the federal government apologized for the racist, abusive school system and promised to set up a Truth and Reconciliation process based on the one held in post-apartheid South Africa. However, this country’s commission hearings aren’t just a group of people sitting around conference tables, relating past crimes.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings were launched under a huge white tent, with a sharing circle complete with traditional prayers, drumming and smudges. Translators speaking 10 different native languages were on hand as well as social workers armed with tissue boxes.

As hundreds of survivors (including Scalplock) and the national media watched, sharing circle participants passed around a ‘talking stick’ in the form of a microphone and said whatever they wanted in response to one simple question: “How did residential schools affect your life?” The inaugural sharing circle included Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Shawn Atleo of British Columbia, commission head Murray Sinclair, arguably the country’s most respected aboriginal judge, and federal Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.

The sharing circles are open to all, but not everyone thinks the hearings are a good idea. The day before the gathering started, half a dozen protesters stood with signs saying “Justice before reconciliation” and “Where are the children buried?” They’re concerned that the exercise is an excuse to sweep the worst excesses of residential school abuse under the carpet, discourage victims from pursuing abusers in court, or from seeking further reparations from church and state.

“We are being too nice to these people,” said Chief Peter Yellowquill in a statement. “When they gave us their ‘apology’ they were just giving themselves a de facto immunity for their crimes.”

Scalplock thinks residential school survivors and their families need more than just a commission. “There’s so much work to do in so many areas,” she said, including post-secondary programs and diabetes treatment for aboriginal people. “We need dollars for healing, for counselling and therapy,” she said.

But Scalplock called the hearings a “start,” a view shared by most at the gathering, including Denise Cook, one of the volunteers at the registration desk.
Cook encouraged participants to make statements. “Too many people are negatively holding it within themselves, and developing health problems like heart disease and stress,” she said.

But she added that the process was about more than just collecting statements.
The Truth and Reconciliation mandate includes creating a historical record of residential schools, making public recommendations to people involved in the compensation process, funding initiatives that pay tribute to survivors and establishing a national resource centre.
Still, there’s no taking away from the fact that most of the damage can never be undone. One of the women in the first sharing circle, who identified herself as Charlene, said her grandfather committed suicide at a residential school and her family will probably never know where he’s buried.

Another participant, a man named Ira (he refused to provide his full name), drove in from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba and watched the proceedings with the cane he said he’s needed ever since he injured his back at school. “I’m still fighting it,” he said, but he doubted he would make a statement.

Even if participants aren’t making statements, though, they’re talking amongst themselves about their experiences. One mother-daughter team debated about the value of speaking out.
“You should make a statement,” said Freda Bear to her mother Gertrude Walker.
“I don’t feel like making statements,” replied Walker.

Bear went on to tell her mother how the legacy of residential schools affected her, as it affected generations who never set foot inside the schools. Because Walker wasn’t taught Cree, neither was she.

“There’s a crowd of people here speaking Cree but I don’t have a clue what they’re saying. That really bothers me,” Bear said.

Then she turned once more to her mom and repeated, “You should make a statement.”
“I never thought about it but maybe I will,” Walker conceded.

The next national Truth and Reconciliation gathering will take place in the summer of 2011 in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. In the meantime, statement gatherers are criss-crossing the country, taking audio and visual recordings of individual survivors. People can also submit written statements, or statements in the form of poetry, music or other works of art.

Kaj Hasselriis is a Winnipeg-based freelance journalist.

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