It’s been about a week since the end of the first national gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Since then I’ve enjoyed joining the More Franchises: A Second Cup event where, among other things, I interacted with those “tweeting” in response to my sermon during the preaching time. As I said to those gathered at Metropolitan United in Toronto and via the webcast: tweeting can be fun, but as the Basis of Union might say, it’s not required for salvation.
Back in Winnipeg on Monday, it was good to reconnect with TRC Chief Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair as he provided context for 80 of us gathered there as religious leaders from around the world, preparing a statement for the G8 leaders that we have delivered to the prime minister (more about that in a later post).
My thoughts keep returning to the significance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—for our integrity as Canadians in the global community. Others are still reflecting as well. I’d like to share two very helpful reflections, the first from the Rev. James V. Scott, General Council Officer, Residential Schools:
The sun rose bright and the sky was clear on the final morning of the four-day Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first national event in Winnipeg. Sun on Day One and Day Four served as hopeful bookends to a time of deep listening to the pain of those whose lives have been tragically changed by the Indian residential school system. There was hope and anticipation on the first day that the long-awaited event would live up to expectations as a meaningful beginning to a historic national dialogue and healing process on this dark and mostly hidden chapter of Canadian history. The sun on the last day seemed to represent our hope, and indeed faith, that we can get through this together, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and see a new day realized in our country—one marked by a relationship of respect and equality.
The middle two days saw pouring rain. At the churches’ listening time on the last day, the Primate of the Anglican Church spoke of hearing survivor stories while being drenched by the rain. The rain became for him, and for many others, a symbol of the outpouring of tears that accompanied those stories, stories that have waited so long to be told. Primate Fred Hiltz said, “I needed to be drenched.” Speaking of the importance of the event for him, he committed himself to attend all seven national TRC events along with as many bishops as he could recruit.
We also heard inspiring stories of courage and of the determination to overcome and to heal, living parables of grace, of forgiveness and reconciliation. At the 9th Annual Keeping the Fires Burning dinner on Thursday evening, where nine grandmothers were honoured for their life’s work and contribution, we witnessed the resurgence of pride in Aboriginal identity, culture, and tradition as they declared, “I am proud to be Native!”
And we heard tough challenges to the churches to accept an even deeper accountability, to reconsider the theology that led to and supported our complicity in the residential school system, and to work to right the ongoing wrongs that are not yet talked about or addressed. At one sharing circle, a survivor held high a Bible and declared that there was nothing in it that sanctioned or justified how children had been treated in the schools.
At the closing ceremony, Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Commission, reminded us all that what we are about will not likely come to full fruition in our lifetime. But it is the beginning of a process that will be carried on by our children and our grandchildren. It is for them that we do this healing work, and it is they who will see its fruits. As the residential school system was a vehicle of harm for children of the past, the national process launched through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be the vehicle of healing and renewal for the children of the future.
Nichole Vonk, General Council Archivist, adds the following report of how survivors poured over the archival material that was offered by the churches in the Learning Tent at this first national gathering—and how survivors and others can continue to access photos online:
Church archivists gathered in the Learning Tent with photos of residential schools that existed in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. Part of the TRC’s mandate involves education about the history of the Indian Residential School system and gathering records from all the signatories to the agreement. Archivists and volunteers from the United Church assisted over four days through sun, mosquitoes, and downpours in copying images for survivors and recording names of individuals in them. Reactions from visitors to the tent varied: some were excited to find themselves, friends, or relatives in photos. Others turned pages and asked questions quietly, with inscrutable expressions, before leaving silently. A few expressed hurt and anger towards the church. Many visitors took home copies of the images to show to families and friends.
The archivists have had the opportunity to learn from survivors; some have been able to correct wrong names or dates with our images. We listened to stories of mischief, discipline, and neglect as we poured over albums together, and it was hard on those of us still trying to wrap our heads around this system and how reconciliation can work after such damage has been done to individuals and family. One of our young volunteers (Jennifer Ching) was visibly upset, as she had not been exposed to the broad history and the knowledge was overwhelming. The experience left her convinced that “Everyone MUST know this history,” especially young Canadians who may not be aware.
To see the residential school photos from the General Council Archives of the United Church, please visit The Children Remembered.
As I left the G8 religious leaders’ gathering, I picked up a copy of the Winnipeg Free Press. It carried front-page news that the Manitoba school system will soon be the first in the country to teach our history about the Indian Residential School system. Another good step for the sake of everyone’s children and grandchildren.
What would you like your children and grandchildren to learn and understand for the sake of healing in the community of God?