If any commissioners to the 40th General Council had lingering uncertainties about the meaning of right relations, Marie Wilson helped to clear them up as she stepped to the podium as a featured speaker Monday afternoon. “Nothing I will say,” she said, “is as important as what you have heard from the survivors who have already spoken.”
Wilson was recently named one of three commissioners to the reconstituted federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission probing the legacy of residential schools. Her visit to the General Council meeting in Kelowna, B.C. was part of a major session devoted to the truth and reconciliation process and the United Church’s part in it. The church ran 13 residential schools for the federal government Canada, and has accepted legal and moral responsibility for its part in a system that wrenched Native children from their families, communities and culture, and often led to physical and sexual abuse.
Wilson had spent the previous few days in Kamloops, B.C. at a healing event staged by the B.C. Indian Residential Schools Survivors Society. Along with the society’s director, she and three residential school survivors made the two-hour trek south to Kelowna to share stories with General Council commissioners and discuss the meaning of truth and reconciliation, as well as the aims of the commission established as part of the Harper government’s apology to Native people in 2007.
Commissioners, who until now had focused much of their attention on internal United Church issues, sat rapt as the survivors described their years in residential school and the efforts they have made to heal the deep wounds left by the experience.
Ben David, a Nuu-chah-nulth elder from the west coast of Vancouver Island, told commissioners he had been sexually abused for six years in a residential school run by a Catholic order. He said the truth and reconciliation process has helped him start a “journey of healing after 50 years of silence,” adding he hoped that some day “we can all sit down together to talk about what happened in these schools, that we can be brothers and sisters.”
Seventy-five-year old Andrew Yellowback of Vancouver said he is still overcome with emotion when he thinks of the father he didn't see for 45 years after being taken away to a residential school at age five. “My residential school experience was very nasty,” he told commissioners. But he concluded by saying he has forgiven the church. “It took me a long time to forgive. I learned that in order to forgive, I had to have the love the Creator gave us.”
The meeting room at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus erupted in applause when 54-year-old Jeff Seymour of Kamloops B.C. declared, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life healing. I’m going to spend the rest of my life living.” Seymour said he escaped the “horror” of the residential school he attended by “hiding in books, where they couldn’t get me.” Recently returned to school after years of alcohol abuse, Seymour also raised the theme of forgiveness. “We have to learn to forgive,” he said. “Forgiveness is freedom.”
Rev. James Scott, the United Church’s senior adviser for residential schools, introduced Marie Wilson by pointing out that she is an active United Church person from Yellowknife. As she began her remarks, Wilson told Council she had “a familiar feeling of home” in the meeting room, adding, “In a way, I feel I know all of you.”
In her address, Wilson credited the United Church with helping to sustain the momentum that led to the federal apology last year and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation process. She outlined the commission’s plan for the next five years and offered Council her thoughts on how individual church members can help make truth and reconciliation a reality for all Canadians. “Talk to each other. Make sure you are not alone. Open your circles.”