For those who told their stories, and for those who listened, the Saskatchewan National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), held in Saskatoon 21-24 June, was a cathartic experience. At the close of the event, the thousands who attended—Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal—went home with new insights into an appalling era in Canadian history that continues to cast a shadow on the present.
The TRC was established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, which resulted from suits brought by former students against the federal government and the churches that administered the residential schools. The TRC has the mandate to learn about the residential school experience and to inform all Canadians.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools, often against their parents’ wishes. Most were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their culture, and many were systematically brutalized. There are an estimated 80,000 former students living today; however, the residential schools have had an impact on successive generations and contributed to persistent social problems.
The Commission views reconciliation as an ongoing individual and collective process that requires participation from all of those affected. This includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis former students, their families, communities, religious groups, former Indian Residential School employees, and the government and people of Canada. The Commission is documenting the experiences of survivors; nearly 100 people testified each day of the four-day event in Saskatoon.
“To tell the truth, I wasn’t even aware of the Saskatoon event until I read a request from the National Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada asking Baha’is to attend and serve as volunteers,” said Kim Ennis, a Saskatoon artist. “As soon as I read it, I recognized this event would be really important.
“All my life, I have felt something is wrong with the world, that people are divided. When I was young I knew there were Indian people but we didn’t have any contact with them. I certainly never knew the story of the residential schools.
“I felt moved to do something to repair the divide in society, and this event sounded like a move in the right direction. The event itself is an unprecedented opportunity to be together and converse, within a context of truth and healing. I had to take part.”
Ennis volunteered in a number of capacities. He helped set up tipis on the first day, drove a shuttle bus, and later ferried participants around the large site in golf carts.
“Though I didn’t attend the sessions, the work I was doing gave me an opportunity to have wonderful conversations with a lot of people. I came away with a sense that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians have a shared history. We need to learn these facts that were hidden from us, what the basis of our nation is. I realize we have all been harmed by these injustices and we all need to heal in varying degrees, And we can only get there through direct personal relationship, face to face conversations.”
“I had a general idea that the residential schools were negative,” commented Robert White, another Bahá’í participant, “but that is nothing compared to sitting and listening to the stories of survivors. I came away understanding that the experience was traumatic, systematic, and pervasive. I was struck by the stories of the meanness of the individuals who were supposed to care for these children. I was aware of the idea of cultural genocide before, but it has meaning to me now.”
White, who grew up on a farm near Prince Albert, noted that he was the same age as several of the survivors he heard testify.
“I was living near reservations and residential schools at the time, but it was like we were living in parallel universes. This was going on around me. It is a horrific shadow. We have to know it and come to terms with it and heal.
“I was also deeply impressed with the dignity of the survivors, their strength and courage, how they have struggled to get an education, for instance, when they had been told they were stupid.”
“I think it is a positive sign that there were many non-Aboriginal people there bearing witness to what occurred,” said Sally Greenough. “Reconciliation assumes relationship is there in advance, and I wonder how we are to reconcile when we didn’t have a relationship to begin with? That is why it is good to see the non-Aborignal people there, listening to the stories. The good will on both sides is incredibly hopeful.”
“The presentation of a Jewish holocaust survivor was very significant to me, too, as it put the residential school experience into a different perspective. I realized that one aspect of the experience of the school survivors is that it went on generation after generation, just blowing families apart.
“As a Bahá’í, the experience underscored the importance that the Bahá’í community has placed on working with children and junior youth, including those who suffer from the legacy of this experience, to put them in touch with the creative word of God, which I think can help young people and families reconstruct fractured lives.”
Haleh Samimi, who immigrated to Canada in the 1990s, said she was gratified by how carefully the event had been organized.
“They ensured that all participants were not only respected and honoured but also taken care of. I was impressed by the commissioners’ respect, sensitivity and tenderness for the survivors—and really everybody in the room—those telling their stories and those listening.
“There was a fair degree of diversity among those attending, including many who were immigrants to the country like myself, and I suspect many have themselves experienced forms of injustice and resulting trauma. As a psychologist who has studied post-traumatic stress, what occurred to me was that suffering is part of the human experience, in varying degrees. It can be unifying when we stand witness to each other’s suffering.
“I found it extremely powerful that the commission and the survivors invited non-Aboriginals into the circle of healing. That was communicated very clearly. One of the milestones of success in healing is the ability to invite others into the circle.”
“I noticed that quite a few Baha’is participated in the event in some way,” said Paul Hanley. “I think all who did went away with a much deeper understanding of the experience of residential school survivors and the impact of the experience not only on Aboriginal communities but ultimately our whole society.
“I am one of those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, in Regina, almost completely ignorant of the existence of the original people of our country. At that time, there was a form of apartheid in our country and we never met First Nations people, though they were living on reservations all around the city.
“It was only when I became a Bahá’í in the 1970s that I met First Nations people, visited them in their homes and began to know them and their culture. Even then I was only dimly aware of the traumas suffered and the lasting impacts.
“I was very touched by one woman who spoke about her grandson, part of the fifth generation of her family affected by the residential school experience, who has now graduated from university and is part of the first generation to break a cycle of abuse.
“As hard as it was to listen, I felt honoured to be able to hear some of the stories directly. I feel that this is part of my history as a Canadian now.”
Ironically, while religious fanaticism was integral to the abusive environment of the church-run schools, an authentic religious experience seems central to people being able to free themselves from the legacy of the schools.
“All the stories that I heard during the event were from people who succeeded in radically altering their view of the world and their own way of dealing with it as a result of a renewed spirituality,” said Ennis. “This is not only a powerful confirmation of the power of the spirit to resurrect and heal severely troubled souls, but also the root and sustaining force behind the entire event: it was instigated, planned, executed and attended by people of an elevated spirituality. This was evident everywhere.”