It's no surprise that the Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver is a candidate for top news story of 2013 in British Columbia.
Who would have thought tens of thousands of people would brave pouring rain in September to symbolically demonstrate a "better relationship" between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.
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Robert Joseph believed it would happen. He and his group Reconciliation Canada beat the bushes for over a year, trying to drum up support for the walk, telling everyone that 50,000 people were going to attend.
Looking back now, he admits that projection was a bit of "huff and bluff." He didn’t have a clue how many would actually show.
But multitudes did arrive, armed with umbrellas, crowding Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver as far as the eye could see. They heard an inspirational speech from Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then everybody walked forward together across the Georgia viaduct.
It was a moment of hope, however brief, that offered an alternative to the narrative of despair that so often surrounds any discussion of Indian residential schools.
'Whether or not we attended the schools, our families and our relationships are still being shaped by the traumas those young children experienced — and many see the TRC events as one way to give voice to that experience.' - Duncan McCue, news reporter
The walk marked the culmination of an unprecedented Week of Reconciliation in B.C., which centred on the four-day national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision (TRC). I attended the entire national event, to film a documentary for The National that took our viewers behind-the-scenes at the TRC
Two things struck me about that event, that didn’t make it into the doc. First, I was amazed at the volume of people who attended: an estimated 40,000 visitors, including over 2,000 survivors. I couldn't walk around the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition for five minutes without bumping into friends, relatives, or old acquaintances. To me, it was a vivid illustration of how deeply residential school experiences continue to impact aboriginal people in Canada.
Whether or not we attended the schools, our families and our relationships are still being shaped by the traumas those young children experienced — and many saw the TRC events as one way to give voice to that experience.
Second, a visit to a pair of traditional healers reminded me what happens when one represses emotions. As a news reporter, I considered myself simply an observer of the survivors’ testimonies. But I was curious what it was like for Commissioner Marie Wilson to hear these tragic tales, for hours and hours upon end, so we filmed during her daily “debrief” with spiritual advisers.
When she was done exploring her reactions with a church minister, a psychologist and a counsellor, they asked how I was faring. I’d spent a couple of intense days gathering news, and hadn't paused long enough to ask myself that question.
The next day, I offered tobacco to the Sacred Fire. I also made time to stop behind the main stage, and ask a pair of spiritual support workers if I could be smudged. The two elders beckoned me to stand next to them.
I stood quietly, arms outstretched, as sage smoke wafted about me. They murmured prayers. Their eagle fans brushed my hair, my head, my heart.
Suddenly, I truly felt the pain of the testimonies I had been listening to – the stories of children ripped away from their parents to be raised in a confusing and abusive world. I came close to breaking down in tears.
When they were finished, one of the elders said, "Come here, nephew." They both gave me a long hug.
I've always been thankful for the keepers of indigenous teachings and healing; that day, at the TRC event, I realized how sick a soul – indeed, a nation – could become, if sorrows and truths are left to fester.