Turning a Page, Adding a Page in Canada's History Book

Article excerpt

WHEN YOU THINK about it, the numbers are rather daunting. Anyone who has followed the issues surrounding the old Indian boarding school system--and especially members of the churches that staffed the schools--is familiar with some of the statistics.

Eighty thousand living former students. More than 130 schools across Canada. A $2-billion federal compensation program. A $515-million federal aboriginal healing program. Nearly $16 million dollars paid by the Anglican Church of Canada to limit its liability and compensate former students. Hundreds of former staff, a few in jail as proven abusers, many more conflicted or defensive about their roles in the schools.

Behind the numbers, though, are people--individual human beings affected in different, profound ways by their involvement with the schools. "There are many, many truths" about the schools experience, suggested Bob Watts, an aboriginal man from the Mohawk and Ojibway First Nations, who is interim executive director of a new federal government initiative called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

He spoke on March 5 at Vancouver's Museum of Anthropology in a great hall ringed with totem poles that seemed to be bearing silent witness. Mr. Watts, along with leaders of the Presbyterian, United, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, aboriginal chiefs and former students, had walked to the museum from the Vancouver School of Theology, led by chanting drummers.

The procession, although unfortunately scheduled after dark, was an impressive component of a four-city tour (see related story, p.1) by church, aboriginal and government leaders to call attention to and support the commission's work.

One could argue that the tour's dates were a bit premature, since the three commissioners were not yet named by early March. Public information so far indicates that the panel's work "will be an open process," that former students will be able to share their experiences "in a safe and culturally-appropriate manner through statement taking or truth-sharing." There will be "seven national events" and proceedings in native communities, but details are not yet available.

Taking a page from such commissions in Sierra Leone, Peru and South Africa, the Canadian version will be open to the full range of stories about the residential school experience. …