The Healing Process Has Begun
For many Aboriginal people attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national gathering at The Forks in Winnipeg on June 16, it was a significant and necessary event. This, the first of seven national meetings, is the beginning of the healing process for the survivors of the Indian residential schools and their families. This was the opportunity for the survivors to tell their stories, describe the living experiences in the schools and the effect that this had on their lives, even today.
Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his opening remarks stated, “To all those who wish to share their experience with us, I promise you this: If you have something to tell, we will hear you. You will not be asked to prove anything. You do not have to share anything that you do not wish to share.” Justice Sinclair acknowledges that there is reluctance amongst the survivors to expose the painful past. (This was also true during the Japanese Canadian redress campaign when many internees did not want to talk about their personal experiences.) The three commissioners, Justice Murray Sinclair, Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild listened to accounts of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, of missing family members, of extreme pain and suffering that led to alcoholism and drug abuse, of separation and crippling of family relationships as well as the loss of language and culture.
The first day of the four day event began under clear blue skies as survivors were registered and renewed old friendships. The next two days, the continual rain and strong winds made some of the tent meeting areas at The Forks inaccessible, but the weather did not dampen the spirit of the survivors who gave their statements or joined sharing circles to tell of the pain and humiliation suffered in the residential schools. One Aboriginal woman commented that the rain and storm was the Creator’s way of showing that many tears were being shed and that the unsettling experience of abuse and pain suffered by the survivors remains. The final day of the gathering wrapped up with a visit from Governor-General Michaelle Jean and the closing ceremony in the evening. The Governor-General participated in a sharing circle with Aboriginal youth where she told them that “we need to confront history together”.
Survivors and their families came from all parts of Canada, the East, West and the North. One man walked with his father and friends from Ontario for 31 days to attend this event. Participants, dressed in the traditional regalia, came on horseback from Virden, Manitoba in the Unity Ride to honour the survivors. In attendance was Chief Robert Joseph who gave the keynote address in Vancouver at the Japanese Canadian Redress celebration in 2008. As the hereditary chief of the Kwagiuth nation on Vancouver Island he made this comment at the Opening Ceremony, “I’m 70 now and it took almost all of that time to share some of the secrets—dark, ugly, painful, degrading and dehumanizing secrets.”
On the final day I participated in a panel discussion with three Aboriginal leaders on “Signs of Reconciliation and Reflecting on our Experiences” sharing the story of the Japanese Canadian internment and redress. More importantly, I described the positive impact that redress the settlement had on the Japanese Canadian community and the parallels that existed between the two group’s experiences. This panel was organized by interfaith groups representing the Catholic, Baptist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Anglican and United Churches. Representatives from these organizations were available each day to talk to any survivors who wished to share their story and offer their personal comments.
Following the panel presentation, Alvin Dixon, a survivor from British Columbia, offered his personal apology to the Japanese people. He explained that as a young boy he remembers that shortly after the Japanese were removed from the West Coast, his father brought home an organ that he bought for $7 in Ocean Falls. He found out later that the organ had belonged to a Japanese family and that their belongings were being auctioned off along with fishing boats and other items. He felt badly that they were benefiting from the misfortunes of the Japanese and offered his apology at the gathering. I talked with Alvin after the session. I found out that he is a member of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and knew several Japanese kids when growing up in Namos, a BC Fish Cannery located south of Bella Coola on the central coast of British Columbia. He is a fisherman and member of the Aboriginal Fishermen Union. He said that when fishing unions in British Columbia were asked by the government whether Japanese who returned to the West Coast after the war be allowed to get fishing licenses, he said the only group to support that proposal was the Aboriginal union.
The four-day event was considered by the Commissioners as a success. Justice Sinclair said that healing was a necessary element so that survivors can move forward in their life. These meetings also provide opportunities to expose non-Aboriginal people to the residential school experiences. At The Forks there were display areas on the residential schools. Academic discussions were held and plays and films shown. Keiko and I attended a play called “Fabric of the Sky” by local Aboriginal writer, Ian Ross. This moving play relates the impact of the residential school life of a father upon his family members of different generations.
Justice Murray Sinclair said that a divide still exists between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, and that the real history of the schools has yet to be told because many survivors are still too ashamed to come forward. He hopes that these national gatherings will bring out the truth that will lead to healing and reconciliation. At the closing ceremony the ashes from the Sacred Fire that burned throughout the four days were presented to the program planners from Inuvik in the North West Territories where the next national get-together will be held in June 2011. Justice Murray Sinclair in his closing remarks invited all Canadians to attend one of the healing events. Other events will be held in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Vancouver with the closing ceremony in Ottawa.
Prepared by Art Miki who attended the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and participated in a panel discussion.