Twelve-year-old Theland Kicknosway, from the Walpole Island First Nation, led the procession into the hall at the Ottawa Convention Center, playing his ceremonial drum. The procession took place at the opening ceremony on December 15 for the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian residential schools, work that was six and a half years in the making.
Tears were shed by audience members and speakers alike, including a visibly moved Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who promised to “ensure that never again in the future of Canada will students be told that this is not an integral part of everything we are as a country and everything we are as Canadians,” referring to aboriginal history and culture as he spoke to a standing ovation.
"Our goal, as we move forward together, is clear: It is to lift this burden from your shoulders, from those of your families and communities,” the Prime Minister said. “It is to accept fully our responsibilities and our failings, as a government and as a country."
Murray Sinclair, Manitoba’s first aboriginal judge, headed up the Commission. His parents and grandparents all attended residential schools. In his remarks, he gave a brief description of the full report: six volumes, 2,300,000 words in English, and an equally sized French version. He said that the reconciliation process would be a long one.
"Change, of course, will not be immediate,” said Sinclair. “It will take years, perhaps generations, but it is important for Canadians to start somewhere and ultimately to create those tools of reconciliation that will live beyond today."
Pupils came from among Canadian Indians, Métis, and Inuit, and Sinclair pointed out that the legacy of residential schools still casts a shadow over aboriginal life to this day. Because children were taken from their families and never experienced normal family life, many had difficulty parenting their own children. Many residential schoolchildren went through their childhood never having been told that they were loved, and never hugged.
Other commissioners were Wilton Littlechild, a member of the Ermineskin Cree Nation and a former Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament, and Marie Wilson, a journalist and educator. Littlechild said that indigenous peoples have inherent rights to survival as a people, to their languages, and to their spirituality. He noted that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples supports this position. Wilson called on everyone to remember the ruptured childhoods of the residential school students and of those who did not survive.
Canada made a settlement with residential school survivors that included a financial settlement, to compensate for wrongs done to them. They were punished for speaking their native tongue. Some were brutalized, malnourished, made to feel inferior, and even sexually abused. Thousands died from disease and inadequate medical attention, and some died in cold weather when trying to run away. As many as 6,000 children may have died during the years the schools were in operation, the commission revealed when it released a summary of the report in June.
Sinclair also drew attention to survivors who were left out of the compensation package. Day school students have not received any compensation, nor have Métis, a cultural group of mixed Canadian Indian and Caucasian blood. Then there are the First Nations survivors from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The province did not become part of Canada till 1949, having been governed as a British dominion. Hence, Canada did not see compensation in this case as its responsibility.
There was a committee of survivors who served to advise the commission. One member, Eugene Arcand, a Plains Cree, declared that with this report there is now no excuse for Canadian ignorance about what had happened in the residential schools. He pointed out that the Commission did not make recommendations, but rather that “they are calls to action,” 94 in number. He pointed to his cap, with raven’s feathers tucked into it.
“This is my call to action,” he said, in a demonstration of aboriginal pride.
Residential schools were run by four churches: Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican (Episcopalian) and Methodist, which became the United Church and incorporated some former Presbyterian congregations as well. Representatives from all four appeared at the session to express sorrow about their role in the schools and to express support for the path set out by the commission. Murray noted that Pope Francis had apologized to Latin America for his church’s role in the Spanish conquest. He hoped that the pope would now apologize for his church’s role in the residential schools.
While there were some pointed comments made about the behavior of the previous Conservative government, Trudeau took the high road, noting that his predecessor Stephen Harper had issued a formal apology for the residential schools during his time in office.
While at the podium, Trudeau was clearly deeply moved, at times being near tears. He promised to implement all of the calls for action, presumably all that fall under federal jurisdiction. He reiterated a previous commitment that under his term of office Canada would engage with First Nations “on a nation-to-nation basis.” His declaration that the government would institute an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women brought the house down.