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Justice Murray Sinclair has been gathering the stories of survivors of aboriginal residential schools since his appointment as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last July. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

After travelling the country and hearing horrific tales of abuse suffered by aboriginal residential school survivors, the head of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission says he realizes that forgiveness is not an option for many victims.

The commission's first official national event is still several months away, but new chair Justice Murray Sinclair has been on the road since his appointment last July, gathering stories from former students from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.

"Many people say they can never forgive anybody. We've heard elders say you can't forgive an institution that doesn't have a soul or a spirit," Sinclair said in an interview from the commission's new headquarters in Winnipeg.

"It's not a question of forgiveness for them. It's a question of moving on. Some have said there will never be any reconciliation for them and we just accept that as part of the truth-telling process."

The $60-million commission is finally getting underway after losing the first year of its mandate to infighting and the resignation of its commissioners. They couldn't agree whether reconciliation or historical documentation should be at the heart of the commission's mandate.

Part of a landmark compensation deal reached with residential school survivors, the commission is to hold its first national hearing in Winnipeg this June, followed by six other hearings across Canada.

Graphic details of rampant sexual and physical abuse are expected to be heard.

'This has to be more than just optics.'—Michael Cachagee, director of National Residential School Survivors' Society

About 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the government schools over much of the last century. The last school closed outside Regina in 1996.

When the new set of commissioners was appointed last July, they set about attending survivor ceremonies and information sessions across the country, averaging about seven a month.

They quickly decided to use the travelling meetings as a chance to begin gathering stories from school survivors, Sinclair says.

Some of those stories were told in the open, others in private. Most took at least two hours.

"A lot of the painful stories that people talk about, both in the open sessions and in private, are about things that they saw happen to other people … and the pain of seeing that and the fear they felt," says Sinclair, without going into detail.

"Everybody has a particular level that they need to achieve before they feel that they can move on from it," Sinclair says.

Suspicion looms

Michael Cachagee says he understands how it is that many can't forgive.

The executive director of the National Residential School Survivors' Society says forgiveness was a concept taught to many by the very churches that ran the schools and perpetuated the abuse that haunts victims.

"They talked about spirituality and they talked about forgiveness and all that other stuff," Cachagee says. "Then they did some horrible, horrible things to us."

Many survivors are also suspicious about the whole commission, especially given its inauspicious start, he says. Some feel left out of the process and feel like it's being run by the Crown — the body responsible for the schools in the first place.

"A lot of suspicion still hangs there today," Cachagee says. "This has to be more than just optics."