From tearful, firsthand recollections to scholarly advice and insight, hundreds of participants gathered this week at a conference called by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hear information and advice on how to create a National Research Centre that will house information about the century-long residential schools system that tore at least 150,000 aboriginal children from their families and tried to purge their culture.
The takeaway from this three-day international forum, in Vancouver from March 1–3, was that any center should focus not just on surviving students but also on those who were left behind—parents and grandparents—and those who came after—children who the school survivors did not know how to parent.
Healing the damage and the legacy of intergenerational trauma “will not happen in my lifetime,” TRC Chairman Justice Murray Sinclair told the assembled as the three-day conference wrapped up on Thursday.
“It has taken seven generations for us to get to this point,” he said. “It may take us seven generations perhaps to get to the point where we can trust each other.”
Going into the future, “this is about writing the missing chapter in Canadian history,” said Phil Fontaine, former Assembly of First Nations national chief and a residential schools survivor. “This is about making sure that never again will people be abused because of their race in the way that our people were abused.”
He urged the commission to get out into the streets, to reach aboriginals and mainstream Canadians alike.
“Canada has to come to grips with its shame,” he said. “It has to accept in the fullest way possible that the story of the residential school experience is also their story. It is also about them. It isn’t just about 150,000 survivors.”
Those survivors, too, had their say.
“We had the same pedophile,” said survivor Joseph Williams, relating what his best friend from residential school days had told him when they met up again as adults. Williams had been taken from his family at age 5 and suffered years of sexual and other abuse.
The sequestering of the children from their parents and the assumption that they were being given something better actually gave rise to conditions of impunity in which unvetted adults could take advantage of defenseless, isolated youngsters.
The policy met its goal in “killing the Indian in the man,” as rubric went at the time, but it did not provide anything to replace it.
Canada is now taking advice on how to make the country whole again from the likes of Freddy Mutanguha, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. The 34-year-old, who lost his four sisters during the 100-day slaughter in 1994, told the Canadian Press, “Reconciliation is possible. When people achieve to be in the shoes of others, you can come from the pain to dialogue.”
Mutanguha should know, the Canadian Press said. Today he runs Rwanda’s biggest memorial to the genocide of about 800,000 of its Tsutsi people by the Hutu.