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Note: This article may be triggering or distressful. To access the Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line, dial toll-free 1-866-925-4419.
VANCOUVER—The national Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools, which started over two years ago, has been largely ignored by the Canadian public, despite the participation of thousands of residential school survivors and countless others, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
In fact, the first and only history lesson many Canadians ever received about residential schools was through the Prime Minister of Canada's "Statement of Apology to Former Students of Indian Residential Schools," issued in June 2008 and broadcast from coast to coast.
The commission is now over halfway through its five-year mandate. Although the government established the commission in 2008, it took until July 2009 before Head Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair, Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild, Commissioner Marie Wilson and a ten-member Indian Residential School Survivor Committee began gathering statements and documents.
The core of the commission’s mandate is to establish the truth about the schools, educate all Canadians about that history and begin a dialogue about reconciliation.
"Residential schools were part of an overall approach toward Aboriginal people in this country," Head Commissioner Justice Sinclair told reporters in Vancouver at a press conference in February, when the commission issued an interim update on its activities and released several preliminary recommendations.
"It is commonly said that it takes a village to raise a child. The Government of Canada took Indian children away from their villages and placed them into institutions that were the furthest thing away from a village that you could expect," he continued. "Then on top of that, the Government of Canada set out to destroy their villages, so when they got out of those institutions, they didn't have a village to go back to."
Thus far, the commission has held statement-gathering and outreach events in over 500 communities across Canada—including a prison in the Northwest Territories—and national events in Winnipeg and Inuvik.
It has not been easy for survivors to get to a microphone and relive their experiences at these events. But the commission has helped them realize what they’ve overcome.
"I think if you document something, you can't say it didn't happen,” Kecia Larkin, 41, told The Dominion, after speaking at the commission’s regional event in Victoria in April. “And if people who have spoken find some pride in themselves, in the courage to speak out, then that's something that has been accomplished.”
At the regional event in Victoria, 158 residential school survivors and other affected people shared their experiences. More than 2,000 people attended the event and another 3,300 people from 16 countries tuned in to the live webcast.
The commission is not only examining the history of residential schools, but also their ongoing impact on communities as a whole, and on intergenerational survivors like Larkin—the residential school students’ children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth.
"I've seen a lot of pride there," said Larkin. "But it was very painful for a lot of people. It was very heart wrenching. It made people cry out loud."
From the 1860s up until the 1990s, more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children attended residential schools. Some schools were operated directly by the Canadian government and some by Canada through partnerships with church organizations.
Cut off from their families and communities, students were forbidden to speak their own language or engage in their own cultural and spiritual practices. Many children experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Larkin’s mother and grandmother attended residential schools, and her father attended a boarding school. As a young child, she traveled around North America with her mother, who was involved with the Red Power movement in the early 1970s, which came out of the American Indian Movement and a growing sense of pan-Indian identity. It was not until they moved to Alert Bay when Larkin was four years old that she experienced the legacy of the schools. After being caught for years in cycles of familial violence and abuse, amidst a community dealing with youth drug use, suicides and sexual abuse by the local school principal, she left her home at the age of 15.
Larkin moved to Vancouver and wound up in the child welfare system, which she considers a modern-day extension of residential schools, and on the streets in the Downtown Eastside. After experiencing multiple traumas, she became a heavy drug user and later tested positive for HIV.
Months after discovering her HIV-status, Larkin was able to leave the streets and settled in Victoria, on unceded Coast Salish territory. Over the past decade she has spent much of her time doing advocacy work in the medical system and is co-chair of a group of women that created the first Aboriginal Women’s HIV and AIDS Strategy in Canada.
“Because of colonialism, our experience is very different, which is tied to not just violence but also residential school, and it’s intergenerational,” Larkin said.
Larkin now has two children of her own and has made a conscious effort to give them a better environment to grow up in than the one she had.
"I don't have a lot of connection with my community and culture, and I think that's how it's impacted me directly, and my children, and my family,” she said. “I tell my children what I can, what I know."
The idea that Canadians need to change the way they think about Aboriginal people’s history and experience is one that the commission emphasizes.
"In talking about residential schools and their legacy, we are not talking about an Aboriginal problem, but a Canadian problem," reads the commission's 2012 report. "It is not simply a dark chapter from our past. It was integral to the making of Canada. Although the schools are no longer in operation, the last ones did not close until the 1990s. The colonial framework of which they were a central element has not been dismantled."
The commission was created through the ratification of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007. It was a result of residential school survivors launching the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history against the government, churches and individual school staff for the abuses they endured.
The agreement also established a nominal “common experience payment” for all students who attended the 134 schools and residences identified in the deal, as basic compensation for the people’s sufferings under the residential school system.
But there are many survivors who feel dissatisfied by the compensation offered. Perry Omeasoo, a Cree residential school survivor, told the commission that he was raised by his grandparents as a young child. After his mother’s prior residential school experience, she was unable to parent him and was mostly absent throughout his life.
"It was almost nothing,” Omeasoo said of the compensation payment at a Commissioner Sharing Panel. "I would have rather had my mother. And for that, I will always be resentful."
Not only do some survivors not find the payment healing, but the forms that survivors had to fill out to qualify for payment triggered mental breakdowns in some.
"Amazing how sheets of paper can be so re-traumatizing," said Kat Norris, a Salish residential school survivor and the spokesperson for Indigenous Action Movement. "I had previously gone through years of counselling, so I assumed I was going to be fine. Instead, I totally backtracked, put it on the shelf, and went into a depression."
Norris is a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School, which she calls the “Alcatraz of residential schools.” She was sent to the school with her two younger brothers and her sister, as young children. When they arrived at the school in the evening, her brothers were taken away from her, straight out of her hands, because of the strict gender segregation.
"The common thread we survivors share is sibling separation," she said.
"It's one of the biggest painful memories of my whole life, seeing them both walking down the hall, looking back at me, not knowing where they were going and I couldn’t do anything," continued Norris. "We only learned, as adults, about how much we all suffered at that school."
There are diverse opinions about the 2008 statement of apology among residential school survivors and other Indigenous people, Norris said. She herself expresses mixed reactions.
“For me, it acknowledged our Indigenous Holocaust," Norris said. "Immediately, I felt I could breathe, I felt free. And it's because our experience was acknowledged."
At the same time, she explained, “it isn't enough. It is a token apology, trinkets, again, from a government that continues to barrage our people with ingenious legislation bent on keeping our land and destroying it forever. It is felt that we can simply be paid off and silenced forever. Realistically, our pain carries on throughout our lives, as shown by intergenerational impact.”
Norris is planning to give a statement of her own experiences at the commission’s national event in Vancouver next year.
While statement-gathering and outreach activities are ongoing across the country, the commission also has several national events left in its mandate: June 21 to 24, 2012, in Saskatoon; September 18 to 21, 2013, in Vancouver; yet-to-be-determined dates and locations in Quebec and Alberta; and a closing Ceremony in Ottawa.
"We know that the damage continues," Commissioner Justice Sinclair told those gathered at the event in Victoria. "In two years this commission will no longer be around, but this conversation must continue."
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist and researcher currently based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territory. She hopes to make it to Saskatoon in June.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.