Residential school survivors event draws thousands in Edmonton

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada hosts its final national event in Edmonton this week. Thousands have gathered to witness survivors stories, take part in workshops and discuss the legacy of residential schools in Canada. For some, this is the first time they have shared their stories with anyone.

Final national event of Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins today

From left to right, Annie Aleequq, Minnie Freeman and Debbie Gordon-Ruben waiting to get into the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada event in Edmonton. (Evan Adams)

Peggy Richardson has been keeping a secret for 50 years.

"When I went to residential school, we were told not to tattle," said Richardson.

Her secret is something that happened to her while she was a student at a residential school in Inuvik.

"I didn't want my parents to know what I went through fearing that they may do something about it and I didn't want to burden them."
A long line of survivors register for the final national event for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in Edmonton. (Briar Stewart)

Today she will recount that experience for the first time as a participant at a sharing panel during the final national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Edmonton. 

Thousands are expected to gather at the Shaw Conference Centre for the four-day event that will include statement gathering, traditional ceremonies, sharing circles, performances, art displays and film screenings.

Commission's heard from thousands

The commission was established as a part of the Indian residential school settlement to document the history of residential schools and to create greater public awareness.

"I think it will be a long, slow process but I think it has begun," says Marie Wilson, one of the three commissioners.

Wilson and says she is optimistic by the number of students who come to these events to learn the history. 

"It is transformational. And for those people to be moved and shifted even a little bit allows them to think in a new way about how they talk to and about other people"

In the last four years, the commission has held events in Winnipeg , Vancouver, Halifax, Saskatoon, Inuvik and Montreal. 

Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says although they have been recording the truth, there are still many questions to be answered. 

"At this national event and throughout the dialogue forums we're going to be holding over the last year of our mandate, the question we're going to pose to all people will be, what do you think we should do about this? How should we fix this relationship?"
A drum group leads the grand entry at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Edmonton. (CBC)
It's estimated that around 80,000 former residential school students are still alive and during the past four years, thousands have given statements both publicly and privately to the commission.

The commission's goal of completing an accurate historical record of residential schools has been hampered by ongoing litigation with the government over the release of documents relating to abuse at the schools

"At first it was a very emotional trying experience." says Eric Large. He is a health worker, but also a survivor. He has attended nearly all of the events to offer support and encouragement. 

"If you are holding it, you are harming yourself personally. You need to deal with it because without realizing it, you are affecting your family and the people around you."

'I can feel their pain'

Irvin Beaver organized a trip for over 50 survivors from his community, Big Stone Cree Nation in northern Alberta. He hopes their experience here this week will help them heal. 

"I can feel their pain, feel their stories and what our people went through and how they managed to survive today with what they had when they came out of the residential school."

Adelarde Beaver is one of them. He was taken from his family at the age of five and attended residential school for over a decade. 

“The government wanted to take the Indian out of us ... and they never got the Indian out of me,” said Beaver.

Former residential school student Fred Sasakamoose told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he was raped when he was nine. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

Saskatchewan survivor Fred Sasakamoose, who was the first First Nation player in the NHL, will drop the puck at the Edmonton Oilers game on Sunday. Asani, an award-winning aboriginal trio, will perform the national anthem at the game. 

The commission's mandate was recently extended until June 30, 2015, when it will deliver a final report.

With files from Briar Stewart and Karen Pauls


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