Remembering the past to give hope for the future
The equinox, for many First Nations people, represents change and transformation. Spring in particular is a time of awakening, renewal as well as rebirth. It is also time to journey towards the gathering place. This special place, where meetings, exchanges, celebrations and mourning take place, is full of meaning and memories because it remembers the past, bears witness to the present and offers hope for the future.
The second storey of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montréal was transformed into such a place for four days in April 2013. The event welcomed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) during which, “Anyone who has been affected by the Indian Residential Schools and their legacy is invited to share their experiences… safe in the knowledge that everything they say will be recorded, honored and preserved.” In addition to the Commissioners, whose mandate was to record stories from survivors and their families, there were dozens of volunteers and well-being support workers to ensure a safe space. As one of the many well-being support workers, I was privileged to witness firsthand the tremendous strength and resilience demonstrated by the Residential School survivors, their families and community members. This is my brief account of those four days.
Stealing the heart of a culture
Many shudder at the mere mention of Residential Schools and with good reason. Its primary goal was to “kill the Indian in the child”. Generations of Aboriginal children were taken from their families and communities, forced to speak a foreign language, robbed of their traditions and ceremonies and stripped of their cultural identity. These children were deprived of the very building blocks conducive to positive mental health and holistic well-being.
Many psychosocial problems Aboriginal people experience today find their roots in ongoing colonization and assimilationist policies, which the Residential Schools system was part of. Despite this fact, ignorance surrounding Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal people throughout history remains. To raise awareness, educational conferences were offered on themes such as the History of Aboriginal People, the Indian Act and the Royal Proclamation.
During the public sharing circles that ran parallel to the gathering of official statements, I heard the story of a lady who, at 13 years old, was raped by a visiting priest. A nun would escort her to him on a regular basis, as she was, to her dismay, “his favourite”. The rapes eventually stopped when she became pregnant. The teachers shamed her and she was forced to give the baby up for adoption. A boy, she was told, because she never held him, or even saw him.
An elderly gentleman recounted his difficult life marred by alcohol addiction, short stints in jail for petty crimes and the shame he carried for a large part of his life. He thought his parents abandoned him, but, in reality, an Indian Agent took him by force along with all the other children of the community. They were loaded onto a train and travelled for a whole day and into the night without food, not knowing why they had to leave or where they were headed.
The Residential School experience does not end with the survivor leaving the school, nor does it stop with the last school closing in 1996. This regime profoundly wounded the health and well-being of the students as well as their parents whose children were stolen. Sadly, many students did not even survive. Taking the children was like taking away the heart of their culture.
The Indian in the child survived
How do an entire people “move on” from such profound assaults on the very core of who they are as a nation? How does one “get over” such experiences? I don’t believe they can, but they learn to live with the memories. Sharing their stories—their truths—and listening to those of others, lessen the pain, anger and shame and new-found strength pushes them forward. Indeed, throughout the four days of the TRC, I saw several survivors come to share their story surrounded by family and friends who travelled across the country to offer support.
One would have expected a somber atmosphere laden with ghosts of history and heavy with grief. However, amidst the hard truths, recounts of atrocious experiences and stories of raw pain, the hall rang with laughter and joyous exclamations of reunion. In the cultural room, wafts of sweet grass and sage filled the air. Friends—old and new—shared tea, confidences and comforting words. A few streets from the Queen Elizabeth, a sacred fired burned, accepting tobacco, prayers and tears. Sunrise ceremonies were held each morning to greet the dawn and thank the Creator for a new day which brings with it a sense of renewed hope.
Participants parted following the TRC’s National event closing ceremony in Montréal, hopefully leaving behind at least some of the weight of the past and coming one step closer on their healing journey. Sharing their truth can allow reconciliation with their past, who they are as Aboriginal people, as well as between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. The gathering places are no longer those of the past, but during those four days I was privileged to witness people’s courage and wisdom live on even after so many years.
 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada : http://www.myrobust.com/websites/montreal/index.php?p=670