As Marie Wilson listens to stories about terrible pain, she is also witnessing reconciliation and healing.
“People are making declarations of apology, declaring their love for each other,” said Wilson, who, along with Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) colleagues Chair Justice Murray Sinclair and Commissioner Wilton Littlechild, began traveling through northern Canada in mid-April to hear people talk about their residential school experiences.
Over the course of three months the TRC will have stopped in 19 communities in preparation for their upcoming second national event in Inuvik June 28 to July 1.
The northern Canada experience for residential school survivors is different than in other parts of the country.
“Some of the last residential schools to close were in the north. Here today there is still a very large percentage of residential school students living,” said Wilson. Many of the parents have also recalled first hand what it was like to have their children taken away.
“You can’t find an Aboriginal family in the north that hasn’t been impacted directly by residential schools,” said Wilson, who is a long-time resident of the northern territories and is the lead for these hearings and the national event.
In two of the three northern territories, the Aboriginal population makes up the majority of people. The north has the highest ratio of residential school students per capita.
Unlike hearings that took place in other parts of the country where residential school survivors and their families had to travel great distances to take part in the events, the northern meetings have been smaller, more intimate because of community isolation, and the commission is traveling to them.
“Because of that, it’s built on a really significant sense of family, of community,” said Wilson.
She expects the smaller gathering intimacy will prevail in the national Inuvik event, unlike the first national event, which was held in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg event drew more people than organizers had anticipated.
Although only two of the four churches which signed the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) operated schools in the north, all four denominations will have representatives in Inuvik. The Catholic and Anglicans operated residential schools. The United and Presbyterian churches are also signatories to the agreement.
“On a moral basis, it’s extremely important they all attend. It’s part of the reconciliation that belongs to all Canadians, that we all understand what went on in the past,” said Wilson.
She noted that the Inuvik event is also an opportunity for the Anglicans and Catholics to show their own reconciliation. There has been a wider divisiveness in the north, falling out along church lines.
“This is an opportunity for the churches to play a role in healing and addressing those wounds. They could lead in showing reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just between survivors and the church, but also among the parties (of the agreement) themselves,” said Wilson.
As the commission travels through the north, Health Canada is providing residential health support workers, offering a safe environment for residential school survivors. That work will continue during the national event.
Wilson said issues that arose with the supports available in Winnipeg have been dealt with.
“There was no template, no blueprint to follow in Winnipeg. We had no idea we would have that number of people turn out. Everybody did the best they could,” she said. “Everybody has done a thorough debriefing, including Health Canada.”
Wilson said it is important for Canadians to understand that support is needed for residential school survivors and their families to move on. Support needs to be long term.
“The greatest disservice is to become presumptuous and to say it happened so long ago, get over it,” she said. “These are generations of little children taken, not knowing what was going on, not knowing what was happening to them, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again. And some never saw their parents again.”
Ongoing support is needed for people to be healthy and fully functioning, which will result in happy, functioning communities.
Wilson hopes that bringing attention to Inuvik with the TRC’s national event will draw the public’s attention to not only what has happened to Aboriginal people but also to the strong leaders that are in the north.
“There are very impressive Aboriginal people. They are able to lead, to succeed despite their hardships, the abuse,” said Wilson.
A number of local organizations have been involved in helping to plan the event, including the Town of Inuvik, the Gwichin Tribal Council, and the Metis association. The Inuit Tapiriit Kanataami, a signatory of the IRSSA, and the Inuvialuit of the western Arctic were instrumental in getting the national event to the north.