TORONTO – The commission delving into the sordid legacy of Canada’s Indian residential schools was wrapping up nearly four years of public hearings Sunday, where thousands of victims recounted stories of cruelty and abuse at the hands of those entrusted with their care.
The heart-breaking accounts — almost all videotaped — will now form part of a lasting record of one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.
For many, being able to tell their stories was at once cathartic and a validation.
“Many times, I was hearing my own story being told in front of me and that became very emotionally challenging because I need to deal with that personally,” Chief Willie Littlechild, a commissioner and himself a residential school survivor, told The Canadian Press.
“At the same time, I think it helped on my own healing journey.”
Vicki Crowchild, 80, of the Tsuu T’ina Nation outside Calgary who attended a school as a child, agreed that the opportunity to talk of her past after her abuser told her no one would ever believe her was hugely beneficial.
Others, she said, felt the same way.
“A lot of people got healed just by telling their story,” Crowchild said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, under Justice Murray Sinclair, visited more than 300 communities after it began hearings in Winnipeg in June 2010.
Now, it would take more than two years to play back the more than 6,500 statements — they range in length from 10 minutes to five hours — survivors gave the commission.
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend the church-run schools over much of the last century. The last school, outside Regina, closed in 1996.
The children, the commission heard, were sent hundreds or thousands of kilometres from home. Many were kept largely isolated from their families, sometimes for years.
Siblings were separated and punished for showing any affection to one another. Survivors talked of constant hunger, of beatings and whippings, of sexual abuse. Many died of disease or unexplained causes. Some killed themselves.
The damage done to those who did survive was often lasting.
“When I came out of residential school, when they finally shut it down, I went back into a community that was 95 per cent alcoholics,” said Martha Marsden, who attended a school in Alberta.
“That is how our parents were dealing with children being taken out of their care, being ripped out of their arms.”
As part of a class-action lawsuit settlement reached in 2007, the federal government apologized for the schools and set up the $60-million commission. The mandate was to create as complete an historical record as possible of the system and its legacy.
The commission has frequently found itself at loggerheads with the federal government.
Some of the battles have ended up in court, with various judges castigating Ottawa for failing to turn over records.
Just this past week, Stan Loutit, grand chief of Mushkegowuk Council, urged Justice Minister Peter MacKay to fire government lawyers for fighting to withhold records related to the notorious St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, Ont.
Sinclair himself complained a few days ago that Ottawa would be cutting a program aimed at helping survivors of the system to heal.
Still, the end of the hearings — which wrapped up with a four-day event in Edmonton attended by thousands — marked another beginning, said Littlechild, a former member of Parliament.
“It’s really a start of reconciliation,” he said.
Calvin Bruneau, of the Papaschase First Nation in Alberta, said he, too, looked to some lasting goodwill emerging from the inquiry into the painful residential-school legacy.
“I am hoping it leads to better all-around relations between First Nations people and the government,” said Bruneau, whose grandmother was abused at a residential school.
The commission has been given until the end of June 2015 to report out.