Thousands of people braved the wind and rain last week to honour the survivors of Canada’s residential schools. The events being held by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “mark a turning point” for all Canadians, said Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He urged British Columbians to participate in this week’s events and join with them on last Sunday’s walk.
“This is the start of a massive resurgence of our culture. The residential school era was a time when education was used as a tool to try to assimilate; now education can be a tool to reconnect,” Atleo said Tuesday.
Last week, the commission welcomed about 5,000 students from across the province to participate in educational activities dealing with residential schools.
Across Canada, only the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have made it mandatory for schools to teach schoolchildren about Indian residential schools. Atleo said he would like to see the provinces also make teaching this history mandatory in schools.
The four-kilometre walk through downtown Vancouver came at the end of a week of hearings by the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a fact-finding commission set up as part of the settlement between the Canadian government, victims and various churches who operated residential schools — the last of which closed its doors in 1996.
Locally, there is an estimated 100 survivors in the Nuxalk Nation, but many have found it too painful to share their stories publicly.
The two main schools that housed Nuxalk children were St. Michael’s, located in Alert Bay, and the Port Alberni Residential School. Nuxalk children were also sent out to Williams Lake, and Coqualeetza in Chilliwack. Many Nuxalk survivors attended school in St. Michael’s or Port Alberni, or both.
The gathering in Vancouver is the sixth of seven gatherings across the country, and will culminate in a final event in Edmonton next year, and a final report by the commission.
The walk — the first of its kind in Canada — and several other events were organized by Reconciliation Canada, an independent collaboration between the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and Tides Canada Initiatives Society to engage all Canadians in the reconciliation process.
Anticipated guest Dr. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of American civil-rights hero Martin Luther King Jr., closed the event with a moving speech Sunday evening. King urged all Canadians to move forward and heal and told the crowd not to give up on the process of progress.
“This requires leadership action on all fronts in Canada, from political and government, corporate, faith, educational and community leadership, because, as I said, we are all in this together,” said King. “We are tied in an inescapable network of mutuality, caught in a single garment of destiny and what affects one person here in Canada — no matter their background — directly affects all indirectly.”