It’s called grassroots reconciliation – small groups of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people sit in the same room to talk about past harm and current prejudice.
It’s catching on across Canada, and on Wednesday, a 10-day workshop wrapped up in Winnipeg.
"I remember one of my workshops in the North West Territories, there was a little old lady, she stood up at the end and she said, 'I told my story, and this is the last time I've told it. And I no longer need to repeat it,'" said Francois Paradis, a priest and workshop instructor at Returning to Spirit, the not-for-profit based in Lorette, Man., that administers the workshops.
Aboriginal and non-aboriginal participants spent five days learning about the residential school system and then another five days on face-to-face reconciliation.
“We have some people that have been here who have great pain … but then also the courage to be able to really come to talk about it,” said Paradis.
Aboriginal and non-aboriginal participants are separated for most of the program until they’re brought together for a final, three-day talk in the same room.
Paradis led one of those group sessions on Wednesday in Winnipeg with instructor John Peter Flett, who survived residential schools himself.
"All the suffering, all the anger — if you let go of that, you'll be able to really focus on the individual. Not as a church or a non-aboriginal person but person to person,” said Flett. “It’s all about communication, understanding how to listen, understanding how to express and not letting their feelings or resentments get in the way.”
Nervous and anxious
Mental-health worker Shauna Pitawanakwat came from Sioux Lookout to participate.
"We spent two days talking about the hurt, spent time talking about the anger, spent time talking about the loss,” she said. “Suddenly coming into the group that represented that? It was very nervous and anxious.”
Pitawanakwat said it took days for her to even say the word “racism” during the workshops.
By the end, she had what she called “a very amazing transformation.”
“It was coming together in a very positive, peaceful and loving process,” she said.
Gerald Dorge, a lifelong Manitoban, said guilt was a hot topic among non-aboriginals.
“We non-aboriginals share some of the guilt, even though we may not have been part of [the residential school system],” he said.
Until this week, Dorge said he hadn’t been very much exposed to the aboriginal community.
“You can’t help but walk away with a different attitude,” he said. “It’s an experience. It’s not intellectual. It’s really something that we experience.”
The workshops have already attracted participants from across Canada, and organizers hope their grassroots reconciliation efforts will have a wide-reaching ripple effect.
“You can see the joy in their faces — the expression they have — that they’re able to be together in the same room and just be together, one to one,” said Flett.
Groups in Quebec and Ontario have already expressed interest in having similar workshops run there.