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How can we help the healing from residential schools?

The Ottawa Citizen and The Victoria Times Colonist and The Saskatoon Phoenix by Julie Cafley 19 July 2012

For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed of being Canadian. I was in a Saskatchewan community centre, with tears of sadness streaming down my face.

The scene was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission public event in La Ronge, a small rural community in northern Saskatchewan. The commission was created through the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history.

On June 11, 2008, the prime minister apologized to the First Nations, Inuit and Métis people who were forced to attend the Indian Residential Schools. The commission is holding sessions across the country for survivors to share their experiences and the national closing ceremony will be held in Ottawa. This opportunity for survivors is unique in the history of reconciliation movements.

I felt an immediate sense of discomfort even upon being invited to attend. While I knew the commission was public, was it really open to non-aboriginal Canadians? Would I be witnessing private moments intended for the community itself? Was I really welcome?

It appeared that our group was among the only non-indigenous people present. Contrary to my initial concerns, we were warmly received in the most open way possible. Our hosts greeted us with an intimate smudging session and shared their personal stories of abuse, sadness and sheer devastation — stories that they weren’t yet ready to share with the wider community.

Commissioner Marie Wilson framed and facilitated the public session that followed in an exceptional fashion, explaining the process to all present. The commission is at the mid-point of its five-year journey, travelling across Canada to create an oral history of the 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who were put in these schools, often against the wishes of their families. In most cases, the children themselves were forbidden to use their language or practise their culture.

This process is a critical part of the healing for these communities and the truth-telling is essential for reconciliation and relationship-building for our nation.

Following prayers, drumming, the smudge ceremony and introductory remarks, the first survivor came to the table. Accompanied by a support worker on each side, he paused before relating his courageous story. It took about 20 painful minutes. I felt shame. I felt anger. And I felt so very, very sorry. (Ironically, the tears flowing off my cheeks caused the aboriginal mental health support workers to check in on me from time to time, to make sure I was all right.)

But I was overwhelmed. How could we have done this? How could Canada have done this? How, as Canadians, could we have justified this process? How can we or, better yet, how can I do something to help the healing?

I am embarrassed that I only learned about residential schools as an adult. It’s shocking to think that so many years of primary, secondary and university education can simply avoid this significant part of our collective history as Canadians. To date, my children’s experience has been similar to mine.

Sitting through the hearing, I felt a strong desire to share my experience, to do something concrete and meaningful. All Canadians — our children, our parents, our neighbours — need to be a part of this healing, not only the aboriginal Canadians, not only the survivors.

Listening to the courageous stories hurt — a lot. But it didn’t hurt more than those who lived this wretched history, who survived the physical, sexual, mental abuse; the parents who had their children ripped out of their arms; the children who were taken away from all that they knew … their communities, their homes, their culture.

I promised myself the day of the hearing that I would share this experience and encourage all non-aboriginal Canadians to bear witness to these stories. The incredible work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is only at half done; time remains for each and every Canadian to be a part of this healing.

I told my three boys, aged six, nine and 12, about residential schools and it was a difficult conversation. They were shocked that the last school had closed as recently as 1996. Eighty thousand survivors are still alive today. This is modern history. My nine-year-old asked me, “If my ancestors did this, does this mean that it is my fault too?”

“It is not your fault, sweet one, but, as a Canadian, you have an obligation to help make it better. What are you going to do?”

Julie Cafley is vice-president at Canada’s Public Policy Forum and is an alumnus of the 2012 Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference. She lives in Chelsea, Que.