FORT RUPERT—More than two dozen former Indian Residential School students took steps toward healing while leaving an historic record for succeeding generations this week when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada arrived on North Vancouver Island.
The commission took both public and private testimony Monday and Tuesday at the Kwakiutl Band gymnasium, as cameras and voice recorders catalogued the grief, anger and demands for justice from the participants.
“This is the beginning of your healing,” said Wata (Christina Joseph), who testified along with her daughter, residential school survivor Laura Joseph. “Some of us have never spoken of this before, to anybody. We are looking for some place to heal, and I hope the government doesn’t close the door on us.”
The commission was formed in 2009 with a five-year mandate that will result in a final report of conclusions and recommendations in 2014. Through 2010 and 2011, it hosted a series of national events before launching into a tour of local hearings.
Coincidentally, this week’s hearings in Fort Rupert came just three days after the commission released its interim report, a damning publication that described the residential schools as an assault on Aboriginal children, families and culture and which included a list of 20 recommendations focussed heavily on both school and public education and on funding of mental health and wellness and early childhood education programs for survivors.
Testimony from survivors across the country will be catalogued and archived for a historical record and may well be used by future scholars and educational programs in Canada’s schools.
“This testimony is most useful when you have Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together, wondering what this malaise is rooted in,” said Bobby Joe Joseph, who facilitated this week’s event. “Because it’s not in our genes. It’s rooted in mistreatment, abuse and pain spread over an entire generation of time.”
Echoing the conclusions of the commission’s interim report, testimony gathered this week indicates the harmful effects of the residential schools did not end when the students became adults or returned to their homes and families.
One speaker after another spoke of contemporary issues with alcohol and substance abuse and children removed to care, indicating the schools’ effects continue to impact succeeding generations.
“The details may vary from location to location,” said Commissioner Marie Wilson, who oversaw this week’s event. “But the broad themes are similar across the country, of separated families, of loneliness, fear and humiliation.”
Grief and tears overspilled much of the testimony. But many speakers clearly retained anger at the government and called for aid in healing.
“We’ve never had a place to go in our area (for counselling),” said Wata. “And when they send someone to us, that person was never in residential school and don’t know what it was like. I think that’s very important.”
But there was also hope. Some speaker spoke of their dreams that one day all people of Canada would know the history of the residential school program, understand the trauma inflicted upon its former students, and learn to recognize and appreciate the basic humanity of their fellow citizens, regardless of cultural background.
“I guess I want something better for my children, better than what I have,” said Nancy Wamiss of Quatsino. “And I hope that one day we will all wake up to see that, for our kids. And I thank you and everyone else for listening to my story. Gilakasla.”