I am attending the seventh and final National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Edmonton (March 27-30). I have been at all but one of these events. I know to prepare myself, that the listening will be heart wrenching work. But I also know that I am about to witness unimaginable resilience, which I believe holds the key to a hopeful shared future.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed to reveal the truth about the Indian Residential Schools system, a devastating part of Canadian history. Over a 130-year span, more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended boarding schools funded by the government and run by churches. Isolated from their families and communities, many children suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse and were often prohibited from speaking their languages or expressing their culture.
At the National Events, I have been moved beyond words by the stories of former students, and their children and grandchildren who experience intergenerational loss and pain. Perhaps most difficult are the stories of what survivors do to escape the pain, and how this can sometimes include hurting the people they love most.
Alongside this deep grief, consistently and impossibly present, is a tangible sense of hope.
I have found hope in the incredible courage of people who choose to remember the very things they want to forget. I see hope in the ways that people survived incredible suffering, displaying inconceivable resilience. Hope shows itself in the fact that against all odds Indigenous peoples have preserved or recovered languages, cultures and traditions and ‘thriving’ has replaced ‘survival’ as a personal and community expectation.
The Indian Residential schools were part of an official national policy of assimilation. The Statement of Apology delivered by Prime Minister Harper on June 11, 2008 confirmed this intent: “Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.”
This policy to erase the identity and diverse cultures of Canada’s original peoples left virtually no family, community or nation untouched. But ultimately it failed. The truth of this Truth and Reconciliation process is that Indigenous nations, in their diversity, refuse to be erased from Canada’s story.
Hearing the stories has led me to believe that these attempts to eradicate Aboriginal knowledge, languages and cultures have robbed us of something incredibly valuable. John Ralston Saul concluded that “Canada is in trouble because it has been untethered from its aboriginal moorings.” We need Indigenous cultures and traditions to complete Canada. We need Indigenous world views to help us deal with complex national dilemmas, such as the ecological crisis, that dominant world views seem unable to address.
From the National Events I learned that the past, present, and future are connected. An honest assessment of our history is required to deal with the injustices of our present and to open possibilities for a shared future. Whether it is the continued reality of missing and murdered Indigenous women, boil water advisories, or deficiencies in First Nations’ education, current discrimination and inequities threaten to undermine words offered in apology.
What I find most hopeful is how so many Indigenous peoples continue to offer welcome and to claim that our future is a shared journey of living into the ancestors’ original visions of mutuality. We are all treaty people, and it is possible to realize shared responsibility through honesty and respect. It’s a humbling invitation.
And it’s not too late. Everyone is welcome to the National Event in Edmonton, or to hear testimony at www.trc.ca. Reconciliation will neither be accomplished by the end of this event, nor by the time the Commission mandate wraps up in June 2015. Every Canadian can contribute to the renewal of our country in justice and reconciliation. It may just be the most hopeful thing you ever do.
Jennifer Henry is the Executive Director of KAIROS Canada.
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