A few reflections on the TRC’s first national gathering

July 15, 2010

Stephen Harper's larger-than-life apology at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

It’s been one month since the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission held its first national gathering, and I feel as though I am still processing the event. Over the course of four days, I heard stories of both devastation and strength, of both anger and hope.

Several moments stand out in my memory:

Patrick Etherington Sr., his son Patrick Etherington Jr., Frances Whiskeychan, Christopher Paulmartin and Jorge Hookimaw’llillerre all walked for 31 days to reach the event. Beginning in Cochrane, Ontario, they walked to promote awareness for the reconciliation process. When they arrived at the national gathering in Winnipeg, Patrick Jr. spoke of the lines of communication opened between his father and himself during the walk.

In many ways, they did what I believe the commission hopes people will do: take the process of reconciliation beyond the confines of the commission, and make it personally meaningful. Because, for the most part, the IRS TRC can only be part of this process.

We also heard from those who worked at the schools. In the sharing circle held on the first day, I heard the experiences of a pilot who had taken children from up north to bring them to schools. He told of separating one young girl in particular who was crying because he had just taken her from her Inuit family. He had thought he was doing what was right. A teacher told of her experiences and the difficult conditions at the Indian Residential School where she taught. She read the names of her students in their honor.

One issue that I continue to wonder about since (and during) the event is the place of religion during this process. The churches played an instrumental role in running the Indian Residential School system, and they will play an important role in reconciliation. I noticed some visible discomfort from some people when church representatives addressed the crowds. At the same time, I also heard former students express their connections to Christian faiths. Before the event, I read a short article in the Globe and Mail where Peter Yellowquill, a survivor of the schools said: “The churches committed spiritual genocide. But I am still a Christian man. It’s complicated.”

At the event, the role that religious leaders played was indeed complicated. At times, they offered apologies, at others, I heard denials. At the opening ceremony, the crowd heard native blessings and ceremonies. At the end of his closing remarks during that first ceremony on that first day, I was surprised to hear the Chair of the Commission, Justice Sinclair, offer the Lords Prayer.

After the event, I visited the the Winnipeg Art Gallery. In the foyer of the gallery, they had erected two large art pieces that contained portions of the official apologies given by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd for the histories involving the taking of Aboriginal children. In some ways, the larger-than-life signs conveyed a sense of power. At the same time, they drew attention to the fact that apologies were simply words. Important words, yes, but they remain meaningless without action.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's official apology in 2008

4 Responses to “A few reflections on the TRC’s first national gathering”

  1. Jim Thomas Says:

    At first the lights went out,as you tossed and turned in your small cot,you wondered if this was the night they would come and get you.As had happened many previous nights,many of your dorm roommates had been taken. You still recall their screams and cries for help, from someone they thought was there to look after them, not take them away from the only security they thought was theirs,when they were returned all you then heard in the dark of the night was whimpers,from young boys trying to find some kind of peace from within. When we talk of reconcilation,let us never forget what these boys and many other first nation persons went through, all those many years of anguish,despair and HOPE.IT IS ABOUT TIME THE OPERATORS OF THESE FACILITIES COME TO TERMS OF ALL THEIR WRONGS AND INJUSTICES. AND JUSTICE STAND UP AND FIND A PROPER WAY TO RECTIFY.FOR THESE PAST THOUGHTS STILL LINGER WITH ME FORTY PLUS YEARS LATER.I STILL SEARCH FOR ANSWERS WHY??? I STILL HAVE DOUBT WHO I AM,EVEN AS A MAN.

  2. tracingmemory Says:

    Hello Mr.Thomas,
    Thank you for your sharing your experience here. It takes courage to talk about what happened in the past. I agree that it’s time those responsible were held accountable for the injustices they committed. Do you think the truth commission will contribute to a sense of closure and justice in dealing with this past?

    Thank you again for your comments.

  3. […] I also believe, however, that the road to reconciliation is always fraught with challenges. Having attended the first national event in June in Winnipeg, I witnessed the complicated journey towards reconciliation. The event was filled with […]

  4. […] to discuss their research. It was the first time I was able to present some of my research on the IRS TRC’s national gathering in Winnipeg, Manitoba last summer, and I think (and hope) it went well. Still from "Canned […]

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