Truth and Reconciliation: Initial Reaction

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Here in Canada, there’s something they don’t often include in the history books that we hand out to sixth-graders when they first start learning about the way the country was colonized: residential schools. I’m not a scholar on the subject, nor have I spent a significant amount of time learning about it, but the event I attended today brought some things to light that seem almost impossible.

Some quick background: residential schools were used to “educate” Native American children so that they could escape their “savage pagan” lives. The way that this happened was, as you can imagine, not very pleasant. Children were refused access to their parents, had their hair cut, were mercilessly beaten when they tried to speak in their native languages (the only languages they knew at the time they were admitted). Again, I’m not a scholar on this so I can’t really speak to how accurate these statements are or how universal the treatment was at these schools, but the people I heard speak today were not lying; I could see it in their faces.

The news articles that I’ve found on the event haven’t been able to–or maybe they’re unwilling to?–really communicate the stories that were being told or how they were being told. One man choked through a story about being locked in a basement because he couldn’t stop crying for his mother. Once the door was locked and all light was cut out, he was raped by three boys/men. After apologizing for having to take a pause in his story because he was swallowing tears, he claims that he passed out from the pain, woke up, and was beaten by the nuns when he reported what happened to him.

This is only one of the stories we heard. When I saw “we,” I mean the hundreds of people that were constantly going in and out of the hall that the event was hosted in. This was perhaps the oddest part about the entire thing: while lots of people in the audience were holding back tears at stories of abusive horrors and unbelievable shame and anger, people who had almost no investment in the current story (having only just walked in) just strolled by, looking for seats, smiling and waving at friends or family they recognize in the crowd. In a strange, surreal way, it was as if the audience was also being “witnessed” in a way.

What made me feel watched even more was the ushers. All the ushers, and there were many, were walking around with boxes of tissues and brown paper lunch bags that they were using as disposable garbage cans for the used tissues. These used tissues were usually collected when an usher noticed that someone was crying, walked up to that person and held out the box of clean tissues while motioning for the person, who was sometimes literally weeping, to toss out their balled-up tissues into the paper bags. I’m not entirely sure what I make of this yet, but it definitely made the experience of listening to these survivors talk a little less intimate a lot more…fabricated, I suppose is the word I’m looking for.

Red vests were worn by ushers/volunteers, many of whom could be seen joining in on the day's events.

Red vests were worn by ushers/volunteers, many of whom could be seen joining in on the day’s events.


I’m not saying the whole thing was a trick or a ploy for sympathy. I completely believe and feel for the people who confessed to ignoring their sons or sexually assaulting their sisters because the patterns they witnessed growing up left no room for anything else. What I find unsettling is the assumption that this will make the audience need tissues. Which it did. Which is why me feeling this way is so confusing. I still need to work this out a bit more, I think.

Here is the link to Truth and Reconcilation: Commission of Canada. Please take the time to go through some of the video and audio they have on there. Some of the things hit very close to home with me, not because I relate to being in a residential school, but because I believe that we often forget how, in the end, we’re all just humans trying to survive.

Related articles:

CBC – Truth and Reconciliation: nearly 4 years of hearings wrap

CBC – Missing indigenous women key to reconciliation, says Champagne

CBC – Tears and forgiveness as TRC event continues in Edmonton

Edmonton Journal – Truth and reconciliation lessons won’t be lost, commissioner says as final event ends

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