It was a historic day that started off quietly -- the smell of smoke from the sacred fire wafting throughout The Forks, as residential school survivors read aloud painful memories, only to be capped off with a night of dance and jubilation from the top aboriginal musicians in the country.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, introduced as "Canada's favourite daughter," addressed a large crowd about the long road still ahead for aboriginals.
"We're here to celebrate the good hearts of people who've been through terrible times," Sainte-Marie said to a crowd of about 6,000. "We have a long way to go."
"These are fun songs, but serious issues," she continued, before dimming the mood with a sombre rendition of Relocation Blues by Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a song about residential schools.
"You put me in your boarding school, filled me with your white man's rules, be a fool, ay hey hey hey heya," Sainte-Marie hummed into the microphone.
On the first day of the national event, 20,000 people gathered at The Forks throughout the day, organizers said.
The day began at sunrise with the lighting of a sacred fire that will burn at The Forks throughout the four-day event, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first of seven national gatherings meant to create a record of residential schools and foster reconciliation.
About 150,000 aboriginal children attended residential schools over 120 years, and many were abused, barred from speaking their language or practising their culture and left with fractured families and generations of dysfunction.
Already, 1,000 residential school survivors have either given an account of their history to the TRC's statement-takers or have registered to do so later this week.
"I hope someday we will look back at this day and say it was an important day in our history," Justice Murray Sinclair told a crowd of about 400 people during the opening ceremonies in The Forks' plaza.
Dozens of elders, native leaders, church officials and politicians spoke throughout the morning ceremony on a hot and blindingly sunny day that saw Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl and NDP MP Pat Martin gratefully shuck their suit jackets the moment Sinclair did.
Following a traditional pipe ceremony, Strahl announced the Harper government would ask Parliament to repeal eight sections of the Indian Act that created the residential schools, forced all aboriginal students to attend and allowed truant officers to forceably remove children from their homes. Those sections haven't been enforced for decades, but the symbolic gesture of reconciliation won a round of applause from the crowd.
While eating a brown-bag lunch provided to survivors, Jack Beardy said it's time Canadians, especially those who believe the schools weren't so bad, hear the truth. For nine years, Beardy attended two schools in Saskatchewan, which were the worst, and two in Manitoba. There, he was frequently strapped for speaking his Cree language, the only one he knew, and fondled by staff while they pretended to bath him.
Once, Beardy and a friend got caught sneaking into the kitchen to steal bread and were made to stand in the centre of a packed dining hall, stripped of their pants and strapped. Then, staff forced the two to sit at a table and eat until they were sick.
Beardy, now 65, is hoping to tell his story in public, likely in a special sharing circle with the three TRC commissioners that runs every day.
"I got brave enough, but it took a long time," said the Split Lake man. "A lot of people, my brothers, still can't tell their story. Too much shame."
The commissioners' sharing circle kicked off Wednesday afternoon. It was easily the heaviest part of the day, with survivors and the children of survivors sharing their stories of abuse and dislocation. But it started with a laugh -- one survivor joked that former students ought to get mileage payments for all the times they ran away from residential schools.
Sinclair acknowledged many Canadians feel the national apology two years ago ought to be the end of the matter. But he said a divide still exists between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, and the real history of the schools has yet to be told because many survivors are still too ashamed to come forward.
"Survivors will show immeasurable courage and tell us things they have never told anyone before," Sinclair said. "The truth, eventually, will heal us all."
After listening to more than two hours of anguish and heartbreak, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl was overcome by emotion when it was his turn to speak Wednesday.
Strahl, who has headed the portfolio for three years, had been sitting in a sharing circle of 20 people at the opening day of the TRC national event in Winnipeg. Around the circle with him were the three commissioners, led by Justice Murray Sinclair, and more than a dozen residential school survivors, family members and other witnesses.
Each was asked to tell how Indian residential schools affected their life.
Strahl, who was invited into the circle as Indian affairs minister, was one of the last to speak. He had heard stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, of missing family members, of the extreme pain that led people to alcoholism and drug addiction and the perpetuation of violence and abuse.
Clearly, affected by the harrowing stories, Strahl said they were a call "to any of us that have any influence" to ensure that "the record is complete" and that "you can have some peace."
He then was forced to pause more than 20 seconds before he regained sufficient composure to continue. As he did so, a couple of residential school survivors who were part of the sharing circle patted his shoulder, offering him comfort.
Strahl told the sharing circle at one time he was involved in a logging business in British Columbia, at which half the people he worked with were aboriginal people. But he knew little at the time about residential schools.
He said for many Canadians, including himself, he did not "personalize" the matter until Prime Minister Stephen Harper's apology to residential school survivors two years ago.
Strahl admitted successive Canadian governments ignored the issue. "You shouldered it alone and we did not help and we were not there," he said.
"So we have our own burden to bear. Those of us who weren't in residential schools can only look on with wonder at the strength that you have, your willingness to share and realizing that reconciliation can only happen because of your candidness. And we don't deserve your ability to share those facts with us and your emotions and the impacts," he said.
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