As clinical head for aboriginal services at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Dr. Peter Menzies has seen his share of residual trauma.

Much of this comes from the forced stay of generations of native children at remote, religiously run residential schools.

Himself Ojibwa, Menzies treats native men and women who now make the big city their home and who suffer from loss of identity, depression, substance abuse and the effects of being caught up in the child welfare system.

In theory, at least, Menzies understands why many of these survivors might tell their stories to the newly re-formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But at the same time, he is concerned there won't be enough community or mental health support for the many already fragile people who would make these submissions.

"You're reopening up a can of worms that has been buried for years by substance abuse, by ignoring the problem and by defence mechanisms and disassociation," he says.

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Diane Simon and her then four-year-old son Muin participate in a "letting go" ceremony in Shubenacadie, N.S., in June 2008 on behalf of former residential school students. It is one of many similar ceremonies and reunions taking place across the country as part of a long-term healing process for aboriginal Canadians. (Mike Dembeck/Canadian Press)

"Now, who is going to help them? Where is their safety net?"

'A daunting task'

On July 1, the new chair of the commission, Justice Murray Sinclair of Manitoba, along with commissioners Chief Wilton Littlechild of Alberta and Marie Wilson, a broadcaster from the Northwest Territories, formally began their five-year mandate.

Their job is to create a record of what happened in Canada's Indian Residential Schools (IRS) between 1883 and 1996. It is, observed Sinclair, "a daunting task, almost scary."

Modelled in part on the truth and reconciliation hearings of post-apartheid South Africa, the Canadian TRC is meant to help repair some of the emotional and psychological damage done by the government-mandated schools.

As well, it is hoped, it will help build a new relationship between Canada's Aboriginal Peoples and everyone else.

But as a CBC investigation has discovered, the TRC is not very well known even among natives, many of whom are currently fighting just to prove their attendance.

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Manitoba Judge Murray Sinclair, the new chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is getting underway after a one-year delay. (Wayne Glowacki/Canadian Press)

The commission is also clearly undergoing some growing pains as it attempts to fulfill a huge mandate after an almost year-long false start.

Exercise in humiliation

Not all native students suffered in these schools. Some have fond or at least reasonable memories and received an education.

But for too many the schools were an exercise in humiliation and often brutality.

They crippled the cultures and languages of First Nations and inflicted a stunning blow to their spirit. Some children even died in the schools' care.  

Perhaps the most lasting blow, though, was the loss of the intimate bond between parent and child and the intergenerational trauma that came from the breakdown in family structures that the schools helped create.

Ian Littledeer's is an almost too typical story. While he was away at a residential school at Sioux Lookout for nine years, his parents' marriage broke up. His, too, didn't last very long and he struggled for many years to break himself from the problems of alcoholism.

He is almost a walking embodiment of Dr. Menzie's plea: who is going to look after them now?

Growing pains

The TRC says it is ready to help. A real person immediately answered the commission's crisis hotline (it's available in English and French) when it was tested. The commission is promising health support services and counselling at all its hearings.

But it is clear the TRC still has a long way to go to get its house in order.

For example, it did not respond directly to questions about its progress but sent statements from its website to the CBC.

"We are moving forward as quickly as possible to receive statements from anyone affected by the residential schools," the email said.

Another email also noted that it was putting its budget together and increasing its communications and outreach.

But the upshot is that several aboriginal groups couldn't wait for the TRC to pull itself together.

For example, the Native Council Fire Cultural Centre in Toronto was so concerned about losing the stories from aging, former residents that it started its own round of interviews months ago.

That was before the former chief commissioner, Justice Harry LaForme, resigned in October 2008 amid a squabble with his colleagues, who themselves then stepped down on June 1, 2009.

Other native groups, such as the Legacy of Hope Foundation, an Ottawa-based group that was established 11 years ago to deal with former residential school students, have already laid some of the groundwork for the TRC by recording over 500 stories from former residents.

Healing "reunions" are also being held by different groups in Northern Ontario and the Prairies.

Little known

Of the 150,000 who attended the schools, only 80,000 may still be alive. Many are elderly and have spent a lifetime burying the past. Few seem aware of the TRC beyond the ugly split that delayed its work.

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Spreading the word: Phil Fontaine, the outgoing chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a former residential school student, listens to Kevin Daniels, interim national chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples in the Senate in June 2009 on the anniversary of the Canadian government's apology. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Generally, individual survivors don't know what the heck is going on," says Mike Cachagee, executive director of the National Residential Schools Survivors' Society, a body set up in 2005 to give voice to former students.

What's more, "there's no word for reconciliation in our language (Ojibwa)" he says. "They may not understand."

What the former residents are focused on at this point is compensation, another element of the court-approved $1.9-billion Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), which was put in place in the summer of 2008.

Apart from setting up the TRC, with its five-year, $60-million mandate, the agreement also provides for compensation to former residents and money for different healing strategies.

The compensation agreement says that anyone who can prove they went to an IRS can claim $10,000 in a common experience payment and $3,000 for each year they were at the school.

Students who suffered particular abuses can go through an independent assessment process and apply for more money.

But this is proving problematic, Cachagee says: government and churches are missing records and perhaps as many as 30 per cent of former residents are being denied their due.

The effect is that many former residents are "being re-victimized," he says. "They want you to tell the truth in order to reconcile, but we don't have the truth."

What was lost

Another challenge for the TRC is that many former residents are unaware of the commission and just beginning themselves to open up to the past, says Karen Wastasecoot, a Manitoba-based consultant who helps people navigate the compensation process.

"For a lot of people, when they tell me their story, it's the first time they've told anyone," she says "It takes courage to tell someone else what happened to them and it's traumatic but with each telling it gets a little easier."

This fall, Wastasecoot and her former school chums will gather at the McKay Residential school in Dauphin, Man. It's not the first reunion but she says this one will focus on healing.

Another school reunion is also being held in Spanish, a northern Ontario community that was home to the St. Joseph's and Garnier residential schools. On the invite list are townspeople who attended the schools as day students as well as representatives from the Catholic Church and the federal government.  

Joe Tom Sayers, a project manager of the Community Healing Strategy Project of the Shingwauk Education Trust, a vast collective along the northern shore of Lake Superior, says these reunions can be a place for former students to open up.

"These reunions are the ideal venue for truth-taking, healing and reconciliation," he says. But he believes the process of reconciling with the rest of Canada won't come about because of the TRC alone.

"What motivates a lot of people to come forward is not to tell Canadians but to pass it on to another generation — their children and grandchildren and help them understand," says Sayers.  

"Nothing happens overnight," he says. "It's a process. I can't see it happening within the mandate of the TRC. It will take a longer time."