The opening ceremonies at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s regional event in Victoria this spring were winding down when commissioner Marie Wilson made her way to the podium. Pointing to the boxes of tissues placed on tables in the sunlit assembly hall, she told 2,000 residential school survivors, family members and supporters, “This is a tear-friendly gathering.”
Emotions were laid bare and tears flowed openly for the next two days as survivors told their stories of being physically, sexually and psychologically abused at five Vancouver Island schools for First Nations children owned by the federal government and run by Canada’s mainline churches. Stewards patrolled the aisles of the meeting rooms, offering tissues and comfort to Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals who were overwhelmed by what they were hearing. Tear-soaked tissues were collected in paper bags that were later burned in a sacred fire.
The Victoria event — one of a series of regional gatherings that complement the commission’s big national events — held special significance for The United Church of Canada. From 1891 to 1973, the United Church and its predecessors ran the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni, B.C., a three-hour drive north of Victoria. A lawsuit launched in the mid-1990s by former students who were sexually abused at Alberni opened the door to thousands of other lawsuits from residential school survivors across Canada. Those, in turn, led to the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission now charged with informing Canadians about what really happened at residential schools.
There was no shortage of truth-telling in Victoria, but I did not see much evidence of reconciliation. Survivor after survivor spoke of how they cannot get past their hatred of churches and their deep suspicion of the federal government. A room was set aside for dialogue between church representatives and survivors, but hardly anyone visited. Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals mostly kept to themselves.
Genuine reconciliation means these solitudes must be bridged. Truth-telling is an indispensable part of the process, but so is truth hearing. Churches must keep bearing witness to their complicity in a system that was built on racial and spiritual arrogance. They owe it to survivors to push harder for public education programs to help overcome the indifference and ignorance that still prevails in many parts of the country.
Near the end of the Victoria event, I sat with former moderator Very Rev. Robert Smith and his wife, Ellen, at a reconciliation session. When it was the United Church’s turn to speak, former moderator Marion Best and Mike Lewis of St. Andrew’s United in Port Alberni described the soul-searching that led to the congregation’s 1997 apology to survivors of the Alberni residential school, and, a year later, to The United Church of Canada’s official apology for its part in the residential school system.
I glanced at Smith and noticed he was daubing his eyes. I have no idea what was going through his mind. Maybe the many miles and twists in the journey since he offered the United Church’s landmark apology to First Nations peoples in 1986. Maybe the many miles still to go. One of the roving stewards — an Aboriginal woman old enough to have attended a residential school — noticed him too. She put her hand on Smith’s shoulder and offered him a tissue. He looked up at her, smiled faintly and accepted.
Genuine reconciliation will begin almost imperceptibly, in small gestures and moments of humility. It’s still a long way off, but it’s possible. It has to be.
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