Like many Canadians, I thought I knew our history. But many of us grew up on the “Milk of Amnesia” approach to the story of Canada. I don’t recall ever learning about residential schools. Or the Sixties Scoop. Or the Indian Act.

About three years ago, I received a letter from Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Commissioner Marie Wilson which would ignite my education about the real history of this country.

She invited me to attend the Northern TRC National Event as an honorary witness.

That meant undertaking “to bear witness to the truths of the residential school Survivors and share what you have heard and learned with others”.

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Shelagh Rogers, honouary witness, attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commision's national event in Inuvik. (Shelage Rogers)

A great honour. I said yes, though I now realize I had no idea what it really meant.

The gathering took place in Inuvik, late June 2011. The temperature bounced from 29 degrees to 6 degrees. It was sunny the first day. The middle two days were rainy and windy and the sun came back on the last day. When Shakespeare pulls this kind of thing, it’s called pathetic fallacy.

In Inuvik, it mirrored the rhythm of the event: day one: camaraderie, community and catching up with old friends. Days two and three--anger, grief and many tears. Day Four: we are sent on our way.

Survivors spoke about feeling lighter having shared their story and having really been heard.

I was the first of a group to be inducted at a ceremony in front of 800 people, mostly residential school survivors. I got up and promised I would share the stories and statements I would witness at every opportunity.

My induction was followed by that of a Holocaust survivor; then a person who had seen his village destroyed in Bosnia. He was followed by an Australian who had helped set up a group to support largely Aboriginal, people affected by past policies of “forcible removal”; then there was a man who had survived torture in Guatemala.

I had a strong sense of “one of these things is not like the other”: What is the white middle-aged woman doing in their company? I came to understand that I could use my voice to speak to Canadians the length, breadth and height of this country.

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Honourary witness Shelagh Rogers with a survivor named Irene at the TRC national event in Vancouver. (Shelagh Rogers)

Every TRC National Event begins with the lighting of a sacred fire and ashes from the preceding national event are tipped into the fire. Some of the ashes come from the tear bags, paper bags used to collect all the tissues used to wipe tears of those speaking and those listening.

There is an opening ceremony with welcomes from representatives of the traditional territories, drumming, prayer and the lighting of the qillik, the Inuit lamp that “lights the way”. Then greetings from the commissioners followed by the commissioners sharing panels.

This is where Survivors give their statements publicly.

Chief Rick O’Brien of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation said “when I think of residential school, I think of everything we have lost. And how that has translated into poverty, high rates of incarceration, addiction. Many of us have lost confidence in who we are as First Nations. Residential school caused us to “lose the sense of being from somewhere. And that’s part of your identity”.

Almost all the survivors talk about the greatest damage being the destruction of the family. Often, these gatherings are the first time survivors tell their story, publicly or otherwise.

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The chief adjudicator of the Independent Assessment Process expects thousands of claims from residential school survivors to be settled in about two years.

They are asked to recall, in a short time, what many have spent a lifetime trying to forget.

One of speakers in Inuvik, a mother, gave her statement and then turned to the audience and said “I want to apologize to my daughters. I never told them I loved them. I’m so sorry. I love you.”

I was sitting about six rows back, weeping. All of a sudden, I felt an arm around me. I looked up and there was an Inuit man, offering kleenex and a bottle of water.

'Residential school affected everything about how we live. They targeted and destroyed our strong family unit, the basic foundation of our communities. They destroyed the glue that holds us together—love, respect and sharing. '- Charlie Furlong

He was one of the health support workers. After a few minutes and a few honks and swigs, I told him I was alright. And he said no you’re not. And he stayed with me as another survivor gave his statement.

His name is Jackie Novalek and he lives in Coral Harbour, Nunavut. I will never forget his kindness.

We heard from the Gwich’in leader and singer/songwriter named Charlie Furlong. He said “Residential school is like a cancer. It catches you off guard when you are weak. RS affected everything about how we live. They targeted and destroyed our strong family unit, the basic foundation of our communities. They destroyed the glue that holds us together—love, respect and sharing. We skipped rope to ‘Ten Little Indians’.”

As more survivors took turns speaking, a pattern surfaced.

Children were taken, often abducted, from their families. They were not allowed to speak their language. Brothers and sisters were separated from each other. They were taught that they were inferior, that they were uncivilized, that they were savages.

As the TRC Chair, Murray Sinclair points out, while they were being taught that, so were non-Aboriginal kids in public schools. Whole communities have suffered. Indeed, we have lost much and suffered ‘a hole in our soul’ as a country.

At the National Events, I have met some of the strongest, most resilient, bravest people I’ve ever encountered. When we have significant events in our lives such as marriage or graduation, we invite people to come and bear witness. These national gatherings of the TRC are significant events.

Those who accept the invitation to bear witness have a responsibility to remember and to take the story forward. It means opening yourself to the truth, allowing yourself to be changed by it.

Everyone who attends these events is a witness. We share a collective responsibility to make things better. To act. Because if we do nothing, nothing will change. 

Shelagh Rogers is the host of CBC's The Next Chapter. On Monday's show she talks to the author of the memoir Indian Ernie. Ernie Louttit was a beat cop in Saskatoon for many years, and he policed many people from his own community, 
 Also on the program an interview with Monique Gray Smith about her novel/creative fiction memoir, Tilly.  She uses incidents from her own life to describe a character who deals with her alcoholism with traditional healing methods.