SASKATOON — While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was releasing a list of recommendations in Ottawa, aimed at healing the ongoing damage caused by Indian residential schools, a community celebration was being held in Saskatoon to commemorate the work of the TRC.
Beginning with prayer and a pipe ceremony, the June 2 event in Victoria Park included speakers, messages from dignitaries, reflections by Indian residential school survivors, music and dance. A highlight of the program was the release of helium-filled balloons into the prairie sky, with each balloon bearing the word “truth.”
Hosts Howard Walker and Ruth Cameron reflected on the importance of the TRC process in revealing the truth about the residential school system, which removed children from their families and communities in a program of assimilation that Walker described as cultural genocide. Many of the 150,000 who attended the church-run schools suffered abuse or neglect, and the TRC has estimated that some 6,000 children died at the schools, which operated across Canada from the 1840s to the 1990s.
The TRC event held in Saskatoon in June 2012 was an important step for many residential school survivors, said Ruth Cameron. “When we are allowed to share our story, it really feels like you are opening up your wings; you are opening up like a flower, letting the air come in,” she said, describing a journey of self-understanding that revealed the source of so much pain and dysfunction.
Howard Walker stressed the importance of spirituality, and of asking the Creator for direction in this journey of reconciliation. He quoted the words of the elders: “to forget, you only heal the scar, to forgive, you heal the wound.”
He recalled the harsh commands and regimentation that greeted children at the schools, contrasting that experience with the loving words left behind at home, which he shared in Cree phrases such as “Good morning my child,” “Come and eat,” and “Today we will thank the Creator for allowing us to have this day together.”
“We had our customs, our traditions, our values, our beliefs, yet we were (called) pagans. When I sat with my grandfather in the sweat lodge . . . and talked about love, talked about sharing, talked about forgiveness, talked about honour, I thought to myself, oh it was so beautiful to be a pagan. It was not until (later) I went to another place where they left my parents behind and took me to try and get the Indian out of me,” Walker said.
“They tried to make us go away — who we are inside — to try and place something in there that did not fit,” he said. “We will try our best, from here on in, to understand together that none of us are going to leave this land. It is through reconciliation — truth and reconciliation — that we need to know how to live together. If we believe there is only one Creator, there are no pagans, only people that need to do some accepting so that we can build a brighter future for our children.”
Walker added, “We must put together our experiences, so that we can create a non-threatening place for future generations to learn, to grow. I say this to all nations that we share this land with.”
Guest speakers at the Saskatoon event included Mayor Don Atchison, Saskatoon Tribal Chief Felix Thomas, Central Urban Métis Federation President Shirley Isbister, and Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) interim Chief Kimberly Jonathan.
“When we talk about reconciliation, I think the first thing we need to talk about is education,” said Thomas, noting that reconciliation involves attitudes and respect. “It is about love, honour, humility, courage — all those things that are part of the teachings of First Nations.”
Speaking on behalf of 74 First Nations in the province, Jonathan called for the implementation of the TRC recommendations.
The Saskatoon program included the singing of O Canada in the Dakota language by children from Whitecap School, the Métis anthem by children from Westmount School in Saskatoon, and a First Nations honour song by the Young Thunder Drum group.
Leaving the stage, children greeted elders Walter and Maria Linklater of Saskatoon, who then spoke about the impact of residential schools on their lives and families.
Walter Linklater attended two residential schools — one in Ontario and another in Lebret, Sask. His healing journey took years, as he battled alcoholism. He found healing through the teachings of the elders, reclaiming First Nations spirituality and traditions.
“One of the first things that the elder told me to do was to forgive them for they know not what they do.” That was a phrase he had heard before, at the residential schools: these were the words of Jesus Christ upon the cross. “Many many years later I was sitting in the sweat lodge and the elder told me those same words — almost those same words he told me to ‘forgive them, they didn’t know what they were doing.’ ”
Forgiving the residential school system for all the things done to him and to his people was not easy, Walter said. “It took a long time. When I told the elder, ‘I will never forgive them, never,’ he told me, ‘Walter, you will never ever live in peace if you don’t forgive them.’ ”
Eventually, Walter did forgive. He returned to the school site in Fort Frances Couchiching First Nation and the next year to Lebret, to put tobacco down as a gesture of forgiveness. “It was one of the hardest things I had to do, but the old people told me I had to do it. And I did it. And today I live in peace,” he said.
Maria Linklater expressed gratitude for being alive as well as for the day of celebration. “I have mixed emotions about the residential schools. In my family, my mother, my grandmother and my eight sisters — together we have 154 years of residential school. That’s a long time.”
Maria said she came out of residential school with a Grade 2 education. “What I did there was work, and I got some real good lickings. When I learned how to fight back, that’s when the lickings stopped.”
Maria urged parents to work on their recovery and to “take back your power — don’t let another person raise your children.” She added that many in our penitentiary and prisons are there because of what the residential school did to their parents and grandparents. “The people that are suffering in the street — it is not their fault. Don’t judge anybody. We are the way we are for a darn good reason. We didn’t choose to be this way.”
She concluded with a call to continue the fight for justice, to refrain from judging, and to forgive — including forgiving one’s self.