First Nations, Métis and Inuit from across Canada convened, shared, prayed and made permanent records of the abuse that they suffered at the hands of the government-imposed Residential School System at the Truth and Reconciliation National (TRC) Event held in Winnipeg from June 16-19.
Many of Canada’s First Peoples attended the event alongside various members of the Canadian government and representatives from many of the religious institutions that ran the schools for over a century.
Among them were Grand Chief, and former National Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, lawyer Diane Soroka, who worked on behalf of the Crees in the initial residential school court cases in the 1990s, and two busloads of Crees from Waswanipi and Chisasibi.
Coon Come told the Nation that he attended the event as both a Grand Chief and as an individual survivor. Though there will be other national TRC events, including one in Quebec, he felt it important to be present at the first event because of how many survivors were hurt and disturbed by the initial failure of the TRC to function. In light of this, he said it was especially important to see the TRC now get off to a strong start.
The Grand Chief presented his own prepared statement to the thousands who attended the event along with some suggestions as to how healing could occur. One of them was that more efforts were needed to attract more non-Aboriginal people to these events as Canadians need to know and to understand what was done to the victims if there is to be any meaningful reconciliation.
“There seems to be a general feeling that, although it is essential to record and document all aspects of the Residential School era, so that all Canadians and future generations will have a better understanding of the destruction it caused, that is just one part of the process.
“For reconciliation to occur, it must include action to assist Aboriginal individuals and communities to overcome the pervasive effects of institutionalization and abuse. Canada’s commitment to reconciliation has been questioned since it has refused to extend the funding for the Healing Foundation,” said Coon Come.
The Aboriginal Healing Foundation lost its funding at the end of March, leaving 134 healing projects across Canada without the means to continue.
Soroka, who worked alongside Coon Come for many years throughout the legal battle for the survivors and addressed many concerns with the residential-school payouts, accompanied Coon Come once again to assist him with ongoing files and information on them.
Though not a survivor herself, from the time she did spend at the TRC National Event, she could say that she felt the TRC is still trying to find its way to carry out its mandate and that was why they were looking for input from the attendees.
In her opinion, the event was very positive as she could see that many of the survivors found it meaningful though many seemed concerned that they did not want the event to turn into a show or see one of these events held periodically only to have people forget about it.
At the event, survivors had the opportunity to share their stories in private areas where they had the option to videotape themselves to submit them for an archived public record so that their experiences would never be forgotten. Soroka however acknowledged that for many this would not be of interest or was inaccessible due to the cost and travel associated with going to Winnipeg for the event.
“There were a number of ways for people to communicate their stories but a lot of people just aren’t ready and many just don’t see the point. Or, if they are going to communicate them, it will be to their own immediate family or to their communities so that people will understand, particularly their own families so that they will have an understanding of their behaviour over the years. This seems to be more important than showing up at a national commission,” said Soroka.
Approximately 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend residential schools that were run by both the Canadian government and various religious institutions. The vast majority of them suffered horrific abuse at the hands of these institutions. Today there are approximately 85,000 survivors still alive.