Ted Quewezance, Executive Director of the National Residential Schools Survivors Society, is a big man—tall and broad. Standing before the crowd of 200 at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology, he says that as a boy he was abused for six years at a church-run residential school. Then he turns to the church leaders beside him and says he was moved by their apologies. One by one he embraces them; the crowd stands and applauds.
This was one scene from Remembering the Children: an Aboriginal and Church Leaders’ Tour to Promote Truth and Reconciliation, which stopped in Ottawa, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Saskatoon in March 2008. Leaders from the Assembly of First Nations participated, as well as from the churches that ran the schools: Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and United. They spoke of their common history, and the churches reiterated their apologies, sharing how they’re trying to improve relationships with Aboriginals.
The tour heralded Canada’s upcoming truth-and-reconciliation commission (TRC) on Indian residential schools. Government-funded and church-run from the 1800s to the 1970s, the schools were a system of planned assimilation. Aboriginal children were taken from their families and brought to institutions, at times hundreds of miles away. Some were cared for, but many suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Their language and culture were repressed. Many died of disease.
Ted Quewezance’s embrace hints at the healing the TRC could bring after this painful history. Some groups have started this work, but the rest of Canada still awaits, with mixed emotion, the official start of the TRC.
Awaiting the Announcement
So what will the TRC be? Details are still uncertain. It will be a five-year forum for former students and others involved (teachers, children of former students) to record their experiences.
The TRC will include statement-taking and truth-sharing forums, seven large public events, and will create a research centre and a permanent commemoration. The $60 million budget is part of the residential schools settlement that financially compensated many of the 80,000 former students still alive. South Africa’s TRC is the closest model, although the tone will be shaped by the commissioners.
Finally things are starting to roll. On April 28, Aboriginal judge Harry LaForme was named chair of the TRC, to be established June 1. In the meantime, Canadians await the government’s announcement of the other two commissioners and their official apology to former students.
This wait is wearing. “We in the church community are impatient for the federal government to fulfill the commitment they made in the last throne speech to apologize on behalf of the people of Canada to Aboriginal Peoples,” said Rev. Hans Kouwenberg, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, in Vancouver March 5. “We are impatient, and we have told them so, for the launch of the TRC.”
The churches aren’t alone. Aboriginal activists like Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, have accused the government of dragging their heels in announcing the TRC. Federal NDP Aboriginal affairs critic Jean Crowder has said, “The delay means that healing can’t start…I know that some of the elders in communities that I’ve been in have been asking: ‘What’s going on?’”
A Spiritual Movement
While the TRC stalls, emotions swirl. Many are skeptical of a TRC organized by a government with a poor Aboriginal justice record—one that didn’t sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and dissolved the Kelowna Accord, a $5 billion package to improve the standard of living in Aboriginal communities.
There’s also anger, reluctance, fear, and most of all, apathy—much of this in church circles, where many are either unaware of residential schools or feel the issue was resolved years ago.
If Canadians are to be engaged at all, it’s through the radical spirituality of the TRC. It will not be a venue for action—though this is of course needed—but a rare collective space to talk, listen and heal. People will open up deeply as they share stories, participate in ceremonies, and discuss ideas like “forgiveness.” In these moments the TRC will reach beyond itself, to touch the lofty goals of Truth and Reconciliation.
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald’s reflections on the Remembering the Children tour capture a sense of what is possible: “The Spirit of a loving Creator was calling us to a surprising new reality and transformation. Pain, regret, sadness, mixed with hope and joy—few moments in life are just like it. [The tour] was not just a well-staged media event; we were witnessing the beginnings of a spiritual movement.”
May Canada’s TRC also not just be a well-staged media event, but may it continue this work of a spiritual movement, one that is God-breathed and leads to tangibly improved relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Because much healing needs to take place, and Canadians need to start soon.
CPJ member Ali Symons is a web writer at the Anglican Church of Canada and helped plan the Remembering the Children tour.
The Catalyst, Vol. 31, No. 2