Residential schools: Promises of reconciliation saved in bentwood box

More than 1,300 items presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Indian Residential Schools are being archived, with that hope that the objects carefully placed into a bentwood box will eventually travel the country to inspire other Canadians.

Canadians offered hundreds of items to commission at events over 6 years

TRC commissioners join United Church officials to place an expression of reconciliation in the bentwood box. (Truth and Reconciliation Commision)

A broken brick from a demolished residential school. A hockey jersey. Star blankets. A leather-bound book of pledges. DVDs. A miniature birch bark canoe.

These are just a few of more than 1,300 items presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Indian Residential Schools (TRC) in the past six years.

The objects were all placed gently in the bentwood box carved specially to house them, representing commitments to work toward reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

"What's actually in there are deep and sincere promises to make this country a better place and address past wrongs," says Ry Moran, director of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. 

Saskatoon police offered a police hat to the Bentwood Box, to mark improvements in the relationship between police and the aboriginal community. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission)
The idea behind the TRC's bentwood box was to create a sacred space at each national TRC event, where participants were encouraged to make concrete commitments to improve relationships with indigenous peoples.

These "Expressions of Reconciliation" — usually represented by a physical object and an oral statement in front of an audience — were made by everyone from residential school survivors to church representatives and government officials.

"It was more than just words on paper or a handshake in front of cameras," says Moran. "The materials placed in there are a springboard to move this country to a brighter future for all peoples."

The bentwood box objects are being archived at the National Research Centre at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Moran is determined to make sure the items don't "end up on shelf collecting dust and withering," but travel the country to inspire other Canadians.

"We hope people will understand, 'Yes, there is something I can do: in myself or my organization, to meaningfully address past harms and try to move this country to a better place.'"

Here are five things you'll find in the bentwood box:

1. Suitcase

Many suitcases parents packed for the children were taken away as soon as their sons and daughters got through the front door of their residential schools. (Wawmeesh Hamilton)
In 2013, at the Montreal TRC event, residential school survivor Marcel Petiquay placed the small brown suitcase his mother had lovingly packed for him before sending him off to Amos Indian Residential School. It contained clothes, his favourite toys and a pair of moccasins. The suitcase was taken away and returned empty when he left school, 12 years later.

"This represents the many suitcases packed by parents of the children, with ceremonial clothes, dried meats, beaded moccasins," says Moran. "Most of the suitcases were immediately removed when the child got through the front door."

Petiquay inscribed the suitcase with a poem he wrote and packed it with aboriginal medicines before placing it in the Bentwood Box. The suitcase represents his commitment to healing, sobriety and caring for his family.

2. Ballet slippers

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet offered a promise to create a ballet based on residential school experiences, Going Home Star. (Wawmeesh Hamilton)
In 2014, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet offered a shadow box containing a pair of ballet slippers entwined with tiny beaded moccasins, along with a promise to create a ballet based on residential school experiences. That promise was fulfilled with the production of Going Home Star last year.

"What was important for me was this whole production would be a process between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people," says Andre Lewis, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. "I always felt reconciliation shouldn't be just about indigenous people, or just about non-indigenous people, but us working together."

Anishinaabe author Joseph Boyden wrote the ballet and the Winnipeg production featured an indigenous installation artist and indigenous singers. Going Home Star will go on national tour in 2016.

3. Blue Rodeo song lyrics

Blue Rodeo offered a handwritten copy of the lyrics of Fools Like You to the bentwood box. (Wawmeesh Hamilton)
Canadian country rock band Blue Rodeo offered a handwritten copy of the lyrics of Fools Like You to the Bentwood Box, after performing at the first TRC event in Winnipeg.

Greg Keelor wrote the song in 1990 to decry the Canadian government's neglect of First Nations. "What you preach for others/Why don't you practise that first-hand?" Keelor asks in one verse. He feels the song could apply to the government's relationship with the TRC today.

"The government pays [the TRC] lip service, but then they do all these things that seem to be against it," says Keelor. "That's the dance native people and our government have been doing since Day 1. Every treaty is broken. It's just such a horrible thing."

4. Broken chalice

The United Church presented pottery shaped as a cracked chalice, promising to repair the church’s broken relationship with aboriginal people. (Wawmeesh Hamilton)
In 2011, officials from the United Church presented a piece of pottery shaped as a cracked chalice, along with a promise to work toward repairing the church's broken relationship with aboriginal peoples.

"The concept of brokenness is a useful starting place," says Moran of the chalice. "If, in fact, the relationship is this broken, it will take a long time to repair all the pieces."

In another a gesture of reconciliation, United Church councils in British Columbia hired a "mobile counsellor" — a full-time person to provide psychotherapeutic services for survivors and their families — who met with more than 300 families over three years.

As an aside, Moran adds an amusing story about finding the broken chalice while unpacking the box at the end of the Atlantic event.

He thought it had shattered in transit. "Oh my god, I'm dead," he thought and was frantic to find the broken pieces — until someone explained it was meant to be that way.

5. Saskatoon police hat

Saskatoon police pledged to create a memorial to missing and murdered indigenous women, which is expected to be finished this autumn. (Wawmeesh Hamilton)
In 2012, Saskatoon's police chief placed a police hat in the Bentwood Box to mark efforts toward improving the relationship between police and the aboriginal community.

The Stonechild Inquiry in 2004 had lambasted police for the common practice of "starlight tours," where police would drop off perceived troublemakers on the outskirts of town on deathly cold winter nights, leaving them to make their way back home on their own. Some, like Neil Stonechild, froze to death.

"Saskatoon went through a rough time at the beginning of the century with a few inquiries," says Chief Clive Weighill. "I thought it was important for us to come forward to say we've worked very hard with the aboriginal community and list some of what we accomplished."

Key changes include hiring more aboriginal members and compulsory diversity training. Weighill also highlighted annual meetings he now holds with aboriginal elders, which led to him participating in his first sweat lodge. "It really is a very moving spiritual event."

Weighill also committed at the TRC to creating a memorial to missing and murdered indigenous women. That's expected to be finished this autumn and erected in front of police headquarters in Saskatoon.


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.