In 2013 I had the privilege to participate in a Truth & Reconciliation weekend gathering, Mending the Sacred Hoop, which invited us to better understand the legacy of the Indian Residential School System. The weekend provided a chance to be part of Listening Circles while survivors of residential schools shared their stories.
As the official Apology from Canada to Residential School Survivors states in its opening line, it’s a sad chapter in Canada’s history. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were taken from their families — often by force — to attend government residential schools in order to assimilate them into the dominant colonizer’s culture, “to kill the Indian in the child”, according to findings by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission heard testimony from roughly 7,000 survivors, including graphic details of rampant sexual and physical abuse at the schools, and found at least 6,000 Indigenous children died from malnutrition, disease and widespread abuse. On this Mending the Sacred Hoop weekend I listened to the heartbreaking stories from four survivors. I can’t begin to describe how my heart ached for them. So, I won’t.
We broke out into small groups of four to listen on an even more personal level, and then I had an opportunity to listen to one man’s personal experience. It was much more than just his experience at the school, it was the impact it had on the rest of his life that helped me understand how horrible residential schools were. He was taken from his family as a six-year-old boy. He couldn’t speak English. He was raised without his family, without tenderness or care. He was no longer part of the larger caring community he could have been part of. When he eventually left the school, he was fourteen. He had no intimate knowledge of what it felt like to be loved and supported by a family.
He didn’t know how it felt to have parents who cared for him and looked out for him.
Within a few years he had his own children. His ability to provide them with the love and protection they needed was dramatically influenced by his own isolated and abusive time at the residential school. His parental life was filled with years of anguish. Relationships broken by an inability to cope with loving his own children—his words.
I listened to him share his stories. I tried my best to show I was an empathetic ear. He opened up to me more than I suspected he might, especially given his past. It turns out we were the same age. Yet, he looked older. Perhaps, a result of the hardships in his life.
We spent close to two hours talking, just the two of us. At the end I asked him if I could extend an apology to him on the behalf of my own ancestry. I’m French Canadian. We’ve traced our ancestors in Canada, on both sides of my parents’ families, back to the late 17th century. My family has been Roman Catholic for centuries. As a privileged white person in Canada with some sense of accountability for those who came before me, I felt the need to apologize on behalf of myself, my fellow Catholics, and my fellow Canadians. Thankfully, he gave me permission to apologize.
I looked into his eyes as I apologized. My eyes watered. My voice crackled. My heart ached. He could see into my soul. I could feel it. I could see him. We connected.
We gave each other a long hug. We cried. It felt deep. For both of us. I’ll never forget that moment.
The peace we both felt. For us this is what truth and reconciliation is about. It’s about providing an opportunity for survivors to be heard. Acknowledging their pain and experience. Our country’s horrid actions. And committing to being part of a longer and deeper reconciliation.
We can’t change the past. We all know that. But together, we can move forward in more loving and caring ways. We can all do our part to heal the brokenness we’ve created as colonizers.