Two recent events, within days of each other — and both with strong religious undercurrents — appeared to have advanced reconciliation between First Nations people in Canada and the non-aboriginal community.
Both events were part of the continuing outcome of the apology for the federal government’s role in the residential school tragedy. The apology was delivered two years ago in the House of Commons, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Held in Winnipeg, the first of seven planned sessions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) drew 425 statements from survivors of the Indian residential school system.
It took place June 15-19 at The Forks, the historic meeting place of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, on the outskirts of the city’s core.
In Ottawa’s Civic Centre, the National Forgiven Summit took place June 11-13. It brought together over 4,000, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people — with the latter making up some two-thirds of the crowd.
The Forgiven event was spearheaded by Chief Kenny Blacksmith, a Cree from the Ottawa area. Blacksmith had considerable backup and encouragement from a variety of evangelical and charismatic Christian communities from across Canada.
A “substitutional statement” of repentance was the main feature of the event’s opening night — two years to the day after Harper’s apology.
The statement was offered on behalf of the church — several denominations of which had run the residential schools.
Forgiveness was offered by some residential school survivors and aboriginal leaders, including Chiefs Elijah Harper and Billy Diamond — both well known for their Christian witness within the First Nations.
The following afternoon involved a ceremony of forgiveness — including presentation of a Charter of Forgiveness and Freedom — to Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.
Prime Minister Harper followed up with a video link. He acknowledged the benefit of forgiveness in the healing process, and the continuing responsibility of the government to pursue reconciliation with the First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples.
Harper concluded his comments with a slight alteration of his oft-used closing phrase, “God bless Canada.” This time, he declared: “God bless the land” — in a nod to aboriginal respect for nature and the earth.
A more complete account of the Forgiven Summit, written by Evangelical Fellowship of Canada vice-president and legal counsel Don Hutchinson, can be found at www.christianity.ca. It is entitled A Heart of Forgiveness.
The TRC event was designed to give a platform to residential school survivors. Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, the TRC chair, noted in his opening statement that “it has been a painful experience for many, but an important first step — in what will be a lengthy process for our country.”
Minister Strahl also attended the Winnipeg event, participating in the traditional peace pipe ceremony which was part of the opening activities.
Sinclair, who also noted that he hoped to hear both the difficult and the positive stories coming out of the residential school experience, was Manitoba’s first aboriginal judge. He has sat on the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench since 2001.
Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCCO), which has been supportive of the TRC process, noted that residential schools for aboriginal people in Canada date back to the 1870s. An MCCO press release issued on the first day of the Winnipeg event noted that more than 130 residential schools were located across Canada, with the last school closing in 1996.
“These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural and spiritual development of aboriginal children,” the statement read.
The schools were mainly staffed by people from the Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican and United denominations. But Mennonite groups and churches have often worked closely with First Nations, particularly when their communities were located in close proximity.
According to MCCO, there was Mennonite involvement in Ontario schools at Poplar Hill, Stirland Lake and Crystal Lake. MCCO is encouraging students from those schools to “tell their stories as part of working toward healing for so many.”
One of the most startling aspects of opening day was Sinclair’s reference to hearing stories of “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of aboriginal young people who went missing, when they were moved from their homes to the schools. Such possibilities have been rumoured for many years, but the apparent lack of school records has hampered further research.
In evaluating the first TRC event, commissioners indicated the time taken by individuals to tell stories averaged two hours, with the longest being seven. The storytelling took place in tents set up at The Forks.
The commissioners had expected 600 statements. While the reporting of only 425 seemed a bit disappointing to some, there were at least two mitigating circumstances: the lack of setup time before the first event (only six months); and the inclement weather in Winnipeg. Heavy rains and winds had buffeted the tents for hours, during the event.
Six more events, in various parts of Canada, are scheduled over the next few years. The next, set for June, 2011, will be in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.