A TRADITIONAL whale-oil lamp is solemnly lit by an Inuit elder. After being brushed with cedar and smudged with sage, three commissioners take their seats. A survivor begins his testimony, haltingly narrating painful memories from 60 years ago. Soon tears begin to flow, and a support person carefully collects the tear-soaked tissues into a basket, to be added to the sacred fire that burns outside the hall. In this space, so filled with sorrow and rage, every ritual communicates respect, empathy, and determination, turning public halls into sanctuaries of healing.
For seven generations Indigenous Canadian children were taken from their homes and sent, most often by force, to Indian Residential Schools. Churches began operating these schools in the early 1860s, and by the 1890s the federal government had begun to make attendance mandatory as part of a policy of assimilation into Canadian society. In these schools children were forbidden to speak their native languages, forced to conform to European ways of life, and often abused emotionally, physically, and sexually. Though most residential schools were closed by the mid-1970s , the last was not shuttered until 1996.
As part of a 2007 legal settlement with survivors, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created, with a five-year mandate to document the testimony of survivors, families, and communities affected by the residential school experience and to inform all Canadians about this tragic history. Launched in Winnipeg in June 2010, the TRC will include seven national and a number of regional hearings throughout the country. The hope is to “guide and inspire Aboriginal peoples and Canadians in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect.”