Justice Murray Sinclair reads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations in Ottawa on June 2
Seven years ago, I was in a packed ballroom at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Winnipeg, waiting to hear a short, straightforward apology from the Prime Minister of Canada. I stood at the back of the room with my CBC colleague and the big Beta SX camera he had set up on a tripod. All around us were hundreds of residential school survivors, their families, community leaders, and other supporters. They all had their fervent eyes transfixed on the big screen in front of them.
The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs arranged this public viewing of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for the tragedy of the residential school system on behalf of the federal government of Canada. So many people showed up, organizers had to rent additional overflow rooms and hastily set up more screens. There were at least a thousand people there to hear the government say sorry for what they endured.
There was a thick fog of tension in the room in the hour leading up to the live broadcast from the House of Commons in Ottawa. We asked survivors if they wanted to be interviewed ahead of time to talk about what they wanted to hear. Everyone declined. Instead, they sat silently and strongly, waiting for those few words.
The apology itself came and went in what seemed like a fleeting moment. But almost immediately, that thick, invisible synthesis of heavy emotions seemed to dissipate. Soon, survivors were literally lining up to talk to us on camera about what they had just experienced, and to begin opening up about the pain they had carried with them throughout their lives. Ultimately, so set the groundwork for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
I covered the apology in Winnipeg for CBC TV News. I also wrote about it a few days later for the Globe and Mail. It was a very profound experience; I knew then that I had the honour and privilege of documenting an important moment in the history of this land. Little did I realize then that the TRC would become a regular part of my career, and in essence, my life as an Indigenous person in Canada.
Despite some initial challenges, the TRC began travelling Canada to document the stories of survivors a year after the apology. As its crucial work commenced, I reported on these early efforts for CBC while still in Winnipeg. The commissioners set the framework for what was about to unfold in the coming years, and it was personally very interesting and a little exciting to cover the beginning.
I don’t have a direct family connection to residential schools. None of my immediate relatives, and few people from my home community of Wasauksing (relative to other communities), were forced to attend the government-mandated, church-run institutions. Still, some in my extended family had to go. I was well aware of the shameful saga while growing up in the 1980s. We all were. I suppose when children had been stolen away from other nearby Ontario communities for generations, it was a potentially devastating threat that all Anishinaabe people knew about, even if they didn’t live it first-hand.
The residential school experience affects most Indigenous people of this land in some way, whether they’re related to survivors or not. It brutally stripped culture from communities, and the harrowing shame that attached itself to Indigenous identity became resolutely contagious. For example, outside of basic words and sentences, I don’t speak my native language of Anishinaabemowin because even my predecessors who didn’t go to residential school were led to believe it was useless.
Covering some of the initial TRC public events, I heard first-hand just how brutal the abuse was that created the awful shame that lingered for generations. It was impossible not to become sorrowful. The people who bravely got up in front of strangers to share their gruelling testimony could have easily been my aunts and uncles. I admired them all. In most cases, as they started to talk, they were cautious, yet candid; reserved, yet resilient. Over the course of sharing their stories, they bared their souls to encourage others to join them on a path to healing. At each of these events, the initial tension that weighed down each room always disappeared by the end.
In the following years, my job took me from Winnipeg to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. Every few months, I found myself at a TRC event to cover for CBC. Each time, it was an immense experience. Most of the TV stories I did were about the public hearings, where survivors were invited to share their dreadful experiences for the commissioners to document. Other stories focused on community initiatives inspired by the TRC.
But the constant in each story were the survivors. After powerfully emotional testimony about the trauma of being taken from their families and then suffering physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, many would then allow me to ask them additional questions about being part of the whole process in front of a camera. Their courage and will to keep the conversation going always amazed me.
In those moments, survivors entrusted me with properly putting their experiences out into the mainstream media. Personally, there has been no greater position of privilege or honour in my line of work. I was a stranger to them, as were many of the people in those hearing rooms, but their dedication to the truth and to exposing the darkest chapter of Canada’s history transcended everything. I will always have the utmost respect for that.
Earlier this month, that part of the healing process came to an end, as the TRC released a summary of its key findings and recommendations at its closing event here in Ottawa. It was a historic event years in the making, and again, I had the privilege to be there as a journalist. Overall, I thought CBC’s coverage of the entire occasion was extensive, thorough, and respectful, and I was proud to be a part of it. I reported on the Walk for Reconciliation and the Education Day, and on the third day I was assigned to the release of the findings at the Delta Hotel.
The short three-block walk from the CBC building to the hotel was enough time for me to reflect on all the people I’d met covering the TRC and all the opportunities I had to learn. Soon, I found myself once again in a large ballroom packed with survivors, their family members, advocates, politicians, community leaders, and media. It was emotionally charged, like that ballroom in Winnipeg seven years earlier, but in a different way. There was understandably a strong undertone of sadness, but eager anticipation and even relief seemed to soar above it. The crowd had been waiting years – and even lifetimes – to hear what the commissioners had to say.
As TRC chair Murray Sinclair read aloud the recommendations, survivors and their supporters cheered. Sometimes they stood and applauded. Many wept in between, as memories of their experiences and loved ones no doubt remained strong in their hearts and minds. It all ended with drum songs, while the crowd rejoiced and embraced. While the apology felt like it opened a floodgate of emotion, the closing event felt like those torrential waters were finally easing thanks to the leadership and direction of the survivors themselves.
This is the end of that chapter. The TRC’s full report will be out later this year. It’s up to the federal government to implement its 94 recommendations. Since last week’s event, there’s been a lot of debate over some of those key findings, particularly the commissioners’ use of the term “cultural genocide” when referring to the deadly and violent tragedy of residential schools. There’s also contention around the term and concept of “reconciliation” itself, and whether it really is viable as it relates to Indigenous and non-Indigenous coexistence on this land.
These arguments lose sight of the original focus of this entire process, which was to hear from survivors themselves to teach other Canadians the truth about their country’s history. Most importantly, allowing them to speak their truth would lead them on that path to healing. Everything else should be secondary to this.
And in recent years, it’s been the survivors themselves who have provided their own leadership in guiding others to reconciliation. They led the march to kick off the TRC’s closing. In the days after, they were front and centre at all the public events in Ottawa. While there are still many survivors who weren’t present and others who rightfully disagree with the process because their pain is just too great, if the ones who took part believe in reconciliation, we need to respect that.
Although the TRC has come to a close, the story isn’t over. It’s important for those of us in the media to keep survivors’ stories in the headlines. There will be many new opportunities to do that in the coming years, as the younger generation gets a clearer picture of this country’s history and the importance of good relationships with each other. I vow to continue to champion those stories. It’s been an incredible honour so far.