It was four years ago in June 2014 that Edmonton played host to the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national event that brought together hundreds of residential school survivors. One year later, thousands again descended upon the nation’s capital for the commission’s “closing ceremonies” and final report, which included 94 recommendations that were ultimately approved by the federal government.
Much of the TRC’s report was predicated on the personal testimonies of thousands of survivors, many of whom had told their stories in a marked, emotional manner based on their experiences, traumas and lingering impacts. The pain and suffering so many experienced was absolutely horrific. It’s no wonder so many referred to it as their “holocaust.”
|We move along in the spirit of doing good, doing what is right and just, for those impacted by the residual effects of the residential school system. We do so with the intent of furthering peace, harmony and reconciliation among and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
Over the previous years, decades upon decades, the survivors’ silence was deafening. Why? Because they felt ashamed, intimidated and disbelieved, which is precisely what happened. Until one day in the 1990s, a brave survivor in British Columbia stepped forward and spilled his guts about the atrocious abuses he experienced, and he then proceeded with a test case in the Canadian courts of law.
The man in question was victorious. He and a few other test-case winners provided the impetus for a nationwide agreement (the Kelowna Agreement) between Indigenous survivors, the churches and government. It resulted in the largest compensation award in Canadian history.
More stories of abuse, denial and neglect filled the news. They became public knowledge via talks at schools, conferences, on radio and television, on the Internet, on the “winds” and around the world. The silence was no more. So many of the stories came from very credible sources. It was impossible to deny what was true.
The upshot was increased and improved awareness, understanding and acceptance, which have bolstered the process of forgiveness, reconciliation and moving forward.
This journey that we call reconciliation is not easy. Still, we move along in the spirit of doing good, doing what is right and just, for those impacted by the residual effects of the residential school system. We do so with the intent of furthering peace, harmony and reconciliation among and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
For eight long years, I personally experienced the effects of such a school. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a pleasant experience.
We’ve come a long way but still have a very long way to go. Apologies have come and gone from churches and governments. Survivor gatherings and healing circles and ceremonies have transpired. These, of course, contribute to the healing and reconciliation processes. The TRC has done a magnificent job, and its recommendations have been embraced by so many sources, but still require volumes of attention and tons of action. It’s a slow process and will not come to completion for a very long time, if ever.
The process, an honourable one to be sure, is strongly supported by many politicians, corporate bodies, schools and societies all across Canada.
A fine example of school-related involvement is Orange Shirt Day, which usually takes place in late September. Involving students, school staff and the public, this day creates awareness, provides information and knowledge, and helps close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Students are learning what residential schools were all about, how they compromised native culture, language, religion and more. Many now understand why survivors act(ed) and behave(d) as they do/did. Students will continue to learn more as the residential school syndrome is woven into the curriculum. This, needless to say, will go a long way in helping all students to move forward together. It is far from perfect, far from achieving its final destination, but at least it’s happening.
It truly is so heartening to witness students, teachers and administrators marching along, together, in a unified manner with their bright orange shirts attesting to their willingness to be part and parcel of reconciliation.
Terry Lusty is a Métis historian, author, photojournalist and a residential school survivor. He taught high school in Alberta’s north and is an Elder in the Native Friendship movement. ❚
Opinions expressed on this page represent the views of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.