As nearly 10,000 walkers thronged through the streets of Ottawa on May 31 to recognize the suffering of residential school students, it was acknowledged that the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which received testimony from hundreds of former students who survived sometimes brutal treatment, was just the beginning.
Rather, it paved the way for dialogue going forward. The commission will release its final report on Tuesday June 2.
Left unanswered is the central question of how many children died at the schools during the 150 years of their operation, commission head Justice Murray Sinclair told the Canadian Press. In 1920 or so, the chief medical officer at the Indian Affairs department was fired after flagging an alarming rate of deaths at the schools, the Canadian Press said. An earlier draft of the report put the number at 4,000. There were over the course of 150 years about 150,000 students all told.
“The government stopped recording deaths of children in residential schools, we think, probably because the rates were so high,” Sinclair said, adding that up to 6,000 children may have died. “We think this is a situation that needs further study.”
There are 80,000 survivors from among the 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children who the Canadian government took from their families and sent to residential schools between the late 1800s and the 1990s. The TRC was created after residential school survivors sued the Canadian government for the trauma and abuse they had suffered, and won. Over the past five years its members have heard testimony from 7,000 survivors in hundreds of communities, the Canadian Press said.
The ceremonies unfolding from May 31 through June 2 include Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt, as well as other dignitaries and indigenous leaders. The proceedings are being livestreamed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"It's a dark chapter in Canada's history, no question. It was cultural genocide," said Bellegarde to CBC News as he took part in the walk on May 31. "There's a lot of young ones that didn't come home to their families, communities. There's a lot of death there. We've got to remember and honor those [deaths], that we learn from that and honor their spirits."
Indeed, the commission’s investigative and witnessing work may be over, but the conversation has just begun, advocates said.
Eighteen foundations, charities and philanthropic organizations signed a declaration promising to fund programs that would help close the gap between Indigenous Peoples and non-indigenous.
“Now it’s our time to play our role in the reconciliation,” said Andrea Nemtin, who runs the Inspirit Foundation, to The Star. “Moving forward, we need to all be there to form a new relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.”
See footage below from the Reconciliation Walk from ICTMN's contributor on the ground, Mary Annette Pember.