On the Road to Healing: “From Indian Residential School to Truth and Reconciliation” Conference Held in Peterborough
There was stark reality on display at the “From Indian Residential Schools to Truth and Reconciliation” conference, held this past weekend at Trent University, in Peterborough, ON. There was also a great deal of strength and hope.
The grassroots level conference brought together residential school survivors, church representatives, and members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). Area residents were invited to learn about the dark history of Canada’s “Indian Residential Schools,” and the impact on the victims that attended them.
During the conference, survivors were given opportunity to share their experiences and memories – some of which were horrific in nature.
The event also acted as a suitable venue for members of various churches and the wider community to offer gestures of reconciliation.
According to conference organizer and Niijkiwendidaa Anishnaabekwewag Executive Director, Liz Stone, the weekend was aimed towards a wide audience – not just residential school survivors.
“We set out to educate the public,” she explained. “To have them hear actual stories – real truths – about what happened. We wanted to present the words and memories of people who were involved, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal.”
“People need to understand that this isn’t just an Indian issue,” she stressed. “It is a community one. A Canadian one.”
Stone, in fact, was surprised at the number of residential school survivors in attendance.
“Many of these victims don’t feel secure in attending conferences like this,” she admitted. “It’s difficult for a lot of these survivors to show up, speak out, be public about what happened.”
It is not just the residential school experience – and the toll it takes on the lives of survivors and their families – that keep victims from attending such events. Oftentimes it is the response from members of the larger community.
“So many times, they’ve been told to shut up,” reveals Stone. “They get told ‘You’ve got your money, now shut up.’ Or ‘That was 100 years ago, now shut up!’ It’s hard for them to feel secure, invited, safe.”
According to Stone, the number of attendees was surprising.
“If we had gotten 200, we would have thought the crowd to be gigantic,” she said. “And we have between 300 and 350. But things are going extremely well.”
The conference, which was organized by the Kawartha Truth and Reconciliation Support Group and the Niijkiwendidaa Anishnaabekwewag Services Circle (a local non-profit native counseling organization), also attracted a sizeable number of church representatives – both leaders and congregation members.
“These church members should be commended,” said Stone. “They’re taking some of the first steps towards reconciliation – towards healing. They are taking the lead in a lot of this process. More so than the government.”
United Church General Council Officer, James Scott, was encouraged by the conference.
“During original settlement discussions and the creation of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there was an emphasis by the churches and by survivor and aboriginal groups that there be both national and community events,” he explained.
“The national meetings were to be hosted by the TRC. The community ones were supposed to be more organic in origins, where hundreds of communities would plan their own events and invite the TRC to take part or witness what was going on. A conference like this one is organized by local people – in this case, a coalition of local groups – who recognize the importance of the issue, and who don’t want to wait for someone else to come along with funding or external leadership. For this reason, I’m quite excited about it. I think it is what we envisioned 5 years ago during our negotiations.”
According to Scott, much of the organic nature of these conferences starts with people who recognize the need for public awareness.
“This stems from years of spadework – preparatory work – of people saying that we need to know about this part of our history. That it needs to be taught. And that we need to know more about the people who are living right beside us. It’s not a one shot deal. It is part of a process.”
Scott witnessed both anger and hope at the conference.
“I’ve seen some people getting quite upset,” he says. “People saying – and rightfully so – that the churches have not done enough. But I have also seen some very positive dialogue. People moving forward. Apologies. Acceptance.”
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Commissioner, Marie Wilson, was also encouraged.
“During my address, I asked audience members to stand up if this was their first Truth and Reconciliation experience,” she reported. “And approximately half of the people in attendance stood. I find this very encouraging. People are showing a willingness to learn. They are showing a willingness to invest in themselves and their own awareness and understanding.”
For Wilson, the diversity of participants was also noteworthy.
“There is an interesting and important demographic mix present here,” she said. “Any event that allows and creates a safe space for people who have never met before to sit and talk to each other – and to listen to each other – is a very good step forward. I saw this happening in the larger talks, and in the smaller workshops. I’m excited, and encouraged by it. These are the nuggets of hope that we need to see – and are increasingly seeing across the country.”
Keynote speaker, James Bartleman, offered a more somber voice, linking residential schools to a more systemic series of injustices towards First Nations people. The former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario spoke of his significant time traveling to native communities – and of bearing witness to the ruinous effects of this injustice on native populations.
“These are devastating stories that you don’t hear about in the mainstream,” he said.
“In the past two years, there have been 18 young people kill themselves in the northern community of Pikangikum alone.”
He then pointed out that the Pikangikum situation is hardly a unique one.
“There are suicide pacts amongst youth in these scarred communities – much more common than is known or reported upon.”
In many communities, episodes of self-loathing are endemic.
“I visited the community of Mishkeegogamang, a half-hour south of Pickle Lake,” he recalled. “What struck me was the number of fresh graves. And on these graves – and in the cemeteries – you saw all of these baseball caps, dolls, toys… I talked to the chief and he said that they had lost something close to 200 people from violent deaths over the past decade. And he told me that everyone hated themselves – particularly the kids.”
Bartleman talked of this self-hatred manifesting itself.
“You see these brand new houses – and the windows are smashed, the furniture destroyed. They hate themselves. They hate their houses. They burn down the school. The chief tells me it is because they have no hope. There is no hope.”
The problems that existed during the period of residential schools continue to exist today.
“Native people are invisible,” he said. “And the injustice towards them does not register in society. 25 percent of all prisoners [in Canadian prisons] are Native. And no one cares. Hundreds of Native women are killed – or disappear – and it is water off a duck’s back. Native people have the lowest level of literacy in the country. They are the most poverty stricken. It is an obnoxious fact that, in Canada, we tolerate a system where Native children on reserve receive between 50 and 80 percent of the funding for education that other kids do.”
After his address, Bartleman pointed out that there is hope.
“There is a developing middle class in Native society,” he said. “And that is helping. There are success stories. When young people are given an opportunity, they do better. But these opportunities need to exist.”
Curve Lake artist and residential school survivor, Freddie Taylor, called the conference an opportunity for healing.
“People need to find ways to healing,” he explained. “We all heal in different ways. And the experience that we victims have been through is painful. Traumatizing. My experiences with residential school made me sick. The abuse I faced – physical, sexual – it made me turn to alcohol.”
During the conference, Taylor took time to talk to attendees on a one-on-one basis. He spoke of how his art – and his Creator – helped the healing process.
“I mean, I can only talk about my experience… my road. But I hope that someone can get something out of it.”
With roughly 80 000 residential school survivors still living across Canada, the belief is that there are many, many roads to health.
And there is hope that conferences like this will provide the first steps on that journey.