There are certain events that always stay with people, etched in their memories forever. For me, Wednesday, June 11, 2008 marks one such event. On that day, I was at the White Buffalo Youth Lodge in Saskatoon alongside hundreds of survivors of Indian residential schools, as they listened to the prime minister make a statement of apology for the abuse and neglect that had been perpetrated in those schools for over a century.
I had begun working with survivors from the schools the previous year. I have always been drawn to work that enables me to have an impact on people’s lives. I think that is the reason why I ended up working in the public service. My first job was at Service Canada, where I worked on implementing the Common Experience Payment as part of the Indian Residential School Resolution.
When I was offered the job, I was apprehensive, but excited to be working on the issue. I knew that the policies of previous governments had been designed to “take the Indian out of the child” and that those policies resulted in the gross maltreatment of Aboriginal children. Survivors were starting to talk about their experiences, and their stories included accounts of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. I worried that listening to other people’s stories could act as a trigger for my own experience with childhood sexual abuse that occurred at the hands of a family member – someone who was responsible for my wellbeing, but took advantage of my vulnerability. I knew how abuse felt; I knew what it could do a person.
But that’s not what happened. As survivors opened up and shared their experiences with me, I was able to go through my own healing process. I was able to relate to the sense of anger and betrayal many of the survivors expressed. As they started their healing process by finding their voice, I was able to heal as well. I knew I was not alone and that it was OK to want to move forward past the anger. The strength and resilience of the survivors I have met along the way is something that I will remain grateful for and has helped to shape me into the person I am today.
Almost seven years to the day after the prime minister’s apology, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held its closing event in Ottawa, May 31 to June 3, 2015. I was there. The event, final report and recommendations have given me time to reflect on what has happened since the apology, and to determine whether the actions taken since then emulate the words that were uttered.
In looking back, I can see that a number of positive changes are starting to take place:
- Many survivors have found the courage to open up and share their Indian residential school experiences, good and bad.
- More people are now aware of the government’s residential school policy and its impact on Aboriginal families. Far too many still don’t know our own history, but that’s changing.
- A number of new organizations outside of government, including in the philanthropic sector, are now engaged and committed to finding solutions to address the deplorable conditions facing many Aboriginal people in Canada;
- There seems to be a re-emergence of pride in Aboriginal cultures and languages. In many places, the contribution of Aboriginal peoples are now celebrated and acknowledged as a part of the Canadian fabric.
While positive things are starting to happen, these first steps do not mean that the work is complete — far from it. The closing event of the TRC marks the beginning of a new chapter for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada, a chapter in which we all have a role to play. Reconciliation is as much of an individual process as a community process; it is as much for the Canadian public as it is for Aboriginal people.
For those of you who want to contribute, but aren’t sure what to do, here are a few ideas recommended by the TRC:
- Volunteer your time and/or services to a community event.
- Educate and inform yourself about the residential schools and their impact by attending a community and/or national event.
- Sign up for the virtual ribbon campaign “It Matters to Me” Twibbon and show the world that truth and reconciliation are important to you.
- Organize a book club with a truth and reconciliation theme.
- Lobby for national recognition of June 11 as Reconciliation Day.
- Lobby for changes to the elementary school curriculum to include information on the Residential School System
To all of the survivors who are alive today, your strength and courage have been remarkable to witness. Without the willingness to share your stories, we would have never been able to document and learn from a dark period of Canada’s history. Nor will we forget those who attended Indian residential schools but never lived to tell their stories. We will honour your memory by ensuring that no child in Canada, Aboriginal or not, will ever have to experience what you went through. This is not the end, but a beginning.