I spent part of my weekend at the Edmonton National Event for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had heard about the commission but was skeptical about its purpose before I went. After an hour in a sharing circle, I realized I was witnessing a powerful historical event. First, second, and third generation survivors: Cree, Blood, Sisika, Nakoda, Shoshonee, Salish, Dene, Inuit and Metis, from all corners of Western Canada, all together in one room speaking their common truth, courageously, in front of strangers and cameras, all of it recorded. There were thousands of people in attendance, many of them non-Aboriginal.
The Edmonton event was dedicated to the sacred teaching of wisdom, knowledge learned through experience. As one of the survivors put it, “you’ve heard about the residential schools, you’ve heard about the abuse, but it really hits home when you hear the stories of real people affected by the experience.” That’s how I felt after the first hour: I was starting to get it.
At residential schools, the children were called savage, stupid, and dirty and they were tortured. One man spoke about being dressed in a skirt as a child and stood on a stool in the corner because he had lost his handkerchief. After class the nun sent him with one of the brothers to look for his handkerchief in the outhouse; the brother threw him in the pit and he had to crawl through the excrement. There was no handkerchief. Another spoke of the children having to scrub their skin with floor brushes until their elbows and knees bled. If the food was rancid, they had to eat it. If they threw up, they were sometimes made to eat their own vomit. Younger children were sexually abused by teachers, by nuns, by priests, even by older children in the school, themselves victims of abuse. One man spoke about returning to his community where he was re-victimized by other survivors. Many spoke of their abuse of alcohol and drugs to numb the pain of the trauma they had experienced.
One survivor said, when he got out of school, it was natural that he would end up at the Edmonton Institution. A friend told him, “It’s better than residential school. They let you speak your own language and they give you tobacco.” In the circles this weekend, some came who had just been released from prison; others came who are leaders, teachers, nurses, lawyers, country singers, and hockey players, several with their families nearby. They all wept; we wept with them. Many came seeking forgiveness for violence they had committed against their children, against their spouses, against the community. Those of us who listened sought forgiveness too. Some spoke of suicide attempts. Many spoke about the healing they had received in their grandchildren. Many also spoke about their recovery from drugs and alcohol.
It hit me that many of these victims of trauma have been isolated not only from society at large, but in their own communities, isolated by the weight of shame. Many spoke of feeling an enormous load lifted off of them once they had told their story.
Perhaps the most moving acts I witnessed all weekend were the offerings of tears. At the end of each session, at every door, organizers collected the wet Kleenexes of all of those who spoke and all who had listened. Afterwards, they were burned together in the sacred fire.
Marci cho. Hay-hay. Thank you.