Many people joined together in a circle of reconciliation at Wakefield’s United Church on Sunday January 24 to support and listen to the stories of residential school survivors from Kitigan Zibi Algonquin First Nation. The event, sponsored by Wakefield’s United Church Minister, Gisele Gilfillan, and members of the local Baha’i community, was an inspiring example of what can happen when you combine the power of a grassroots initiative with the beautiful light of the human heart.
“When I was home over the holidays, I asked my Sto:lo Grandmother if there was a word for reconciliation in our language, “ Truth And Reconciliation Commission representative Viola Thomas shared with those present. “She thought about it for a while and finally replied that it meant something like ‘taking back our spirit.’ ”
For many of those present at the circle, supporting residential school survivors in a process of ‘taking back their spirit’ first necessitated learning more about the legacy of residential schools. The circle was the first local event to provide Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples an opportunity to open their minds and hearts to what is sometimes a painful reconciliation process.
By the turn of the 19th century, there were over 22 industrial and 34 mission boarding schools in existence across the country. During the 1920s, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, further amended the Indian Act, introducing the term “Residential School” and making it mandatory for all Indigenous children in Canada of school age to attend school. Any parent caught preventing their child from attending a residential school was charged and sent to jail or given a hefty fine.
The 130 schools that existed over time were located in every province and territory, except Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The Government of Canada operated nearly every school as a “joint venture” with various religious organizations. On April 1st, 1969, Canada assumed total responsibility for the school system. While most residential schools ceased to operate by the mid 1970s, the last federally run residential school in Canada closed in 1996 in Saskatchewan. More than 150-thousand children attended residential schools and approximately 80-thousand are still alive.
Throughout the 1990s, various allegations of sexual abuse against students by former staff at residential schools began to surface. This increasing awareness of the lasting legacy of these residential school experiences ultimately lead to apologies directed to former students by major Church dominations in Canada.
During this same period, however, litigation naming the Government of Canada and major Church denominations grew from several hundred to approximately 7,500.
To address the growing costs and frustrations associated with these litigation processes, in 2007 the Assembly of First Nation’s (AFN), former National Chief Phil Fontaine negotiated a settlement agreement with the Government of Canada. The agreement is the largest settlement in Canadian history, and includes payment for survivors to compensate for loss of language and culture; a process to deal with serious claims of abuse; and the establishment of the national truth and reconciliation commission.
In 2008 the Canadian Government formally established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with a five-year mandate to address the historical legacy of the experiences and impacts of the residential schools on Aboriginal peoples. As a form of restorative justice, this official independent body will provide a culturally appropriate opportunity for former students — and those affected by the legacy of residential schools —to share their experiences
The TRC will not be determining guilt or innocence, but working to create an historical account of residential schools and participating in a healing process to encourage reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.
While the TRC continues to spend millions of dollars on large national events, high-profile meetings and reports that will one day end up deep in the recesses of the national library, the success of the grassroots event in Wakefield is a reminder that sometimes less is more.
For more information on the next local event to address the legacy of residential schools please contact Gisele Gilfillan, 819-459-3292.
Published in the West Quebec Post, January 28, 2011