Native healing hearings open in Winnipeg

Thousands of aboriginal residential school survivors are in Winnipeg for what are expected to be highly emotional hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
A boy before and after his entrance into a residential school in Regina in 1874. ((Library and archives Canada))
Emotions are expected to be running high Wednesday as thousands of aboriginal residential school survivors meet in Winnipeg for the first national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Residential school students and their families, former school staff and others affected by the experience are meeting at The Forks national historical site from Wednesday through Saturday. It is the first of seven events across the country to collect stories from former students, ranging from good memories to horrific accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

The gathering is a follow-up to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement reached in 2006. That gave roughly 80,000 former students about $1.9 billion in compensation, and it also set up a forum for their stories to be heard and recorded.

Sunrise ceremony

The event got underway at dawn with the lighting of a sacred fire at Oodena Celebration Circle, in a gathering that concluded with the Lord's Prayer and a request that everyone greet each other with smiles.

Aboriginal prayers and languages could be heard alongside Christian prayers in French and English as people swayed to the sounds of drums.

People gathered at the Oodena Celebration Circle for a sunrise ceremony to begin the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first national event. ((Sheila North-Wilson/CBC))
Later in the morning, at The Forks Market Plaza, a pipe ceremony was held along with a welcome from the Truth and Reconciliation commissioners, including chairman Justice Murray Sinclair, who has relatives who are residential school survivors from Manitoba.

Oodena, a Cree word meaning "centre of the city," is a site at The Forks that pays homage to 6,000 years of Aboriginal Peoples in the area.

The Forks, at the junction of the Assiniboine River and Red River, is a historical gathering place.

Michelle Bellegard, an aboriginal community crisis co-ordinator from Regina who is among hundreds of health staff sent to Winnipeg, expects the event will trigger emotions. "In past conferences and stuff, there was a lot of traumatization and other people facing their issues and talking about them," she said.

More than a century of abuse

About 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in more than 130 residential schools across Canada from the late 1870s until the last school closed in 1996.

The schools were government-funded and meant to force the assimilation of young aboriginal people into European-Canadian society. Many students were forbidden to speak their native languages or otherwise engage in their culture at the schools, which were run by churches. Some were physically, sexually and psychologically abused at the schools.

Ted Quewezance, an advocate for former students in Saskatchewan, agrees that disclosing the past can be extremely distressing. "I know survivors that were sober for 30, 40 years, and they're out drinking today because of the lack of preparedness in regards to dealing with the issues of the residential schools," he said.

Quewezance has spent the past few days in Winnipeg training for his role as a Health Canada support worker. He said it is critical that support for survivors continues after this week's event.

Public invited

The commission has set up tents where the public can learn about residential schools. As well, a variety of performances and other programming is scheduled at venues throughout the site. The Winnipeg Art Gallery will host an exhibit and the Manitoba Theatre for Young People will feature a world premiere by playwright Ian Ross. 

'The graveyards around those schools are full of little kids — dead little kids that nobody even knew what happened to them, you know?'—Buffy Sainte-Marie

Musicians including Blue Rodeo and Buffy Sainte-Marie will stage free concerts, beginning Wednesday evening.

Sainte-Marie believes the national event will be helpful for survivors, and she plans to sing songs that she hopes will highlight the residential schools issue.

"It's never going to be fixed but it can be lots better for everybody who was hurt in that way," she said. "Plus, it can help the perpetrators and it can help all of us who care."

Sainte-Marie says what bothers her most are the children that were shipped off to residential schools and never came home. "The graveyards around those schools are full of little kids — dead little kids that nobody even knew what happened to them, you know?"

The commission plans to try to find out what happened to missing children but this week's event is about the survivors, and getting their experiences on record.

Derek Sanderson, a Métis who will be among more than 600 volunteers helping at events this week, hopes many non-aboriginal people will come out. "It's all about recognition, and if every culture gets together to work on the problems that lie from the past, then the healing will begin," he said. "That's my belief."