Truth and Reconciliation event starts in N.W.T.

Upwards of 1,000 residential school survivors are in Inuvik, N.W.T., for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's second major hearing.

Truth and Reconciliation event

12 years ago
Duration 2:47
Upwards of 1,000 residential school survivors are in Inuvik, N.W.T., for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's second major hearing

Upwards of 1,000 residential school survivors are in Inuvik, N.W.T., for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's second major hearing, which got underway on Tuesday.

The Inuvik gathering is one of seven events the federally appointed commission is holding across Canada as it documents the country's Indian residential school system, which existed for more than 100 years and has shaped generations of aboriginal people.

In an outdoor ceremony at Jim Koe Park, prayers were offered in various northern indigenous languages, and drummers from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories performed.

The opening ceremony also included speeches from officials and former residential school students like John Banksland, who spoke of the desire many former survivors have to heal and move on with their lives.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan attended Tuesday morning's ceremony and a reconciliation circle that took place in the afternoon. The event runs through Friday.

Honourary witnesses

The commission is hosting the event to allow former students, staff and others whose lives have been affected by residential schools to share their experiences. It also aims to educate the public about the residential school system and its effects.

A large outdoor stage is set up at Jim Koe Park, one of several venues for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's second event in Inuvik. The event began Tuesday and runs through Friday. ((CBC))

On Tuesday afternoon, the commission introduced several "honourary witnesses" that will observe this week's hearings, including former governor general Michaëlle Jean, broadcaster Shelagh Rogers and Holocaust survivor Robbie Waisman.

Another honourary witness, John Dommett of the Australian aboriginal group Connecting Home, said he came to Inuvik to see how Canada is going about righting the wrongs caused by residential schools, and how former students are healing.

Dommet's organization works with aborigines who were taken from their parents as children during what is called the "stolen generations" — a situation that he said is almost identical to Canada's residential school experience.

"Probably the difference in Australia is that people weren't taken to schools; they were taken to large institutions, and their parents didn't necessarily know that they had been taken, so they were literally stolen from communities," Dommett told CBC News.

"For us, it's really important to be here to hear how healing is done in other countries, particularly in Canada, where the situation was so similar."

Dommett said he also plans to see how Canadian aboriginals deal with language preservation and school curriculums. He says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is something Australians can aspire to.

Forced assimilation

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 government-funded, church-run 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.

"As much as we went through it … they can't break our hearts, they can't break us in any way," said Gladys Koe, a former residential school student who is in Inuvik for this week's event.

But other students, like Charlie Furlong of Aklavik, N.W.T., said their experiences were not entirely negative.

"We were taught how to work, you know, and how to take responsibility for our actions. That kind of discipline is missing today," said Furlong, who is president of the Ehdiitah Gwich'in Council in Aklavik.

Public and private hearings

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

Support services

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is offering support services, including cultural and emotional support, to anyone who needs it while they are in Inuvik, N.W.T.

Health Canada has a team of 120 counsellors providing psychological support to survivors during the hearings.

As well, some local groups are hosting events such as square dances and community feasts to help lighten the mood.

"A lot of people are going to be still affected by some of the stories they are going to be hearing," said Victor Stuart, who works with the local Gwich'in council in Inuvik.

"There's going to be a lot of sadness and a lot of anger, maybe."

Former residential school students can also call a 24-hour national crisis hotline if they in distress: 1-866-925-4419.

The commission's first event took place in June 2010 in Winnipeg. Similar gatherings will take place in Atlantic Canada, British Columbia, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan over the next four years.

A large part of the commission's mandate involves gathering statements from former students, through a combination of public hearings and private sessions.

Many who have appeared before the commission shared emotional, often painful stories about how they were removed from their families and placed in church-run boarding schools where they could not speak their own language.

Former students often spoke about how the residential school experience not only affected their own lives, but also the lives of their children and other loved ones.

Banksland, who works with the commission's survivors' committee, said it is time for former students to speak out about what they went through, so they can begin the process of healing.

"I'm sort of looking forward to seeing so many survivors out there that [can] let go of a lot of garbage that they've been carrying around … for so many years," he said.

"Hopefully they look at life in a different light."

With files from The Canadian Press