Inuvik gears up for Truth and Reconciliation event

Hundreds of residential school survivors are travelling to Inuvik, N.W.T., for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's second national event, which officially begins Tuesday.

Hundreds of residential school survivors are travelling to Inuvik, N.W.T., for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's second national event, which officially begins Tuesday.

Between 850 and 1,000 former residential school students and others across northern Canada are expected to attend the Inuvik gathering, which runs until Friday.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan is scheduled to be at the event's opening ceremony on Tuesday morning, followed by a reconciliation circle that afternoon.

Attendees are being welcomed to Inuvik with a community feast and dance on Monday night.

The estimated number of people coming to Inuvik has required detailed planning in the Arctic town of 3,500, with various groups organizing meals and arranging accommodations for survivors.

"We're expecting lots of people to come, but this community is amazing," Marie Anick Elie, the commission's local coordinator in Inuvik, told CBC News.

"Everybody's pulling together. We know it's going to be a success, for sure."

Inuvik is hosting the second of seven Truth and Reconciliation Commission national events across Canada.

The commission, a federally-appointed body, is holding the events to educate the public about the Indian residential school system that existed in Canada for more than 100 years, as well as allow former students, staff and others whose lives have been affected by the experience to talk about it publicly.

The first national event  took place June 16-19, 2010, in Winnipeg. Similar gatherings will take place in Atlantic Canada, British Columbia, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan in the coming years.

Arriving by plane, road, boat

Organizers in Inuvik say people have been starting to arrive by plane, road, and even by canoe, as early as last week.

A worker in Inuvik, N.W.T., prepares part of a stage to be used during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's national event, which runs from Tuesday to Friday. ((CBC))

"We're not sure about who's coming, and it seems like it's going to be quite a big event," said John Banksland, who works with the commission's survivors committee.

All of Inuvik's three hotels — a total of 223 rooms — are fully booked, meaning many people will be staying at campgrounds, at nearby mining camps, and in private homes.

"I believe they have approximately 850 people registered for the event, but there'll probably be some other people coming down the river and maybe coming in by road," said Inuvik Mayor Denny Rodgers.

Among those en route to Inuvik are people from Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., who are travelling by boat along the Mackenzie River — a six- to-10-hour voyage — to Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., where local residents will drive them the rest of the way.

"They've offered their help to us because it's quite the journey and we don't have the resources when we get there," said Edna Tobac, one of the organizers of the boat trip.

"They've always extended a helping hand to us, and that is returned when they come to our community."

More than 100 people in Fort Good Hope, a community of just 800, are planning to make the trip to Inuvik by boat, Tobac said.

Forced assimilation plan

A total of 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 church-run, government-funded schools were part of Ottawa's plan 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. Some also reported experiencing physical and sexual abuse.

The $60-million Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed by the federal government in June 2008, the same time a formal apology was issued in the House of Commons for the abuses people suffered at residential schools.

The commission's mandate is to document the residential school experience, in large part by gathering statements from former students during public hearings or private sessions.

In the months leading up to the Inuvik national event, the commission's three members held smaller hearings in 19 communities across northern Quebec, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

Emotional testimony

Many who spoke at the community hearings shared emotional, often painful testimony about their residential school experience and how it has affected not only their lives, but the lives of their families.

Commission officials have been encouraging children and other family members of former students, as well as non-aboriginal people, to come to the hearings and share their own thoughts and experiences.

As it has done for previous hearings, the commission is offering support services — including cultural and emotional support, as well as professional counselling — to anyone who needs it in Inuvik.

Sarah Baker, who went to Grollier Hall in Inuvik when she was a child, said she has not decided if she will share her school experiences with the commission this week.

"I'm a bit apprehensive because I just I don't know what to expect," she said.

Sandra Lockhart, who attended a community hearing in Yellowknife in April, said she went through a period of grieving after she shared her experience with the commission, but she has no regrets.

"Some people have bought into an illusion that our strength was taken. It was never taken; it was covered over," Lockhart said.

"When I released my pain, what's underneath there is my strength."