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Reunited friends prepare for impact of sharing painful past

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Only minutes after arriving on the first buses bound for the opening day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first national event, two survivors found each other.

One, wearing a jaunty orange shirt, has been resting on a rock, talking to a writer about energy. There was great energy at The Forks today, he said, loaded with all the weight of the residential school experience. It crackles between people, he says. "Be open to it," he urges. "Please allow room in your normal journalistic methodology for this." His name is Edward Andy, and he is 64 years old.

As a little boy, growing up on the Big Grassy First Nation on the south shore of Lake of the Woods, he would "cry uncontrollably" for his big sister and big brother. "I wanted to be with them," he recalls.

He didn't know being with them would mean shipping off to St. Mary's Roman Catholic School in Kenora, where he spent three years before transferring to a Presbyterian residential school.

"It hangs like an umbrella over me," he says. "It's a lifetime journey for me, but they didn't know what they were imposing."

There are stories inside that experience -- the "truth" in Truth and Reconciliation -- and Edward knows he'll have to tell the commission... sooner or later. "That part will come in good time," he says.

But first, he wants the writer to meet his friend, who is also from Kenora. "This wasn't planned," Edward says, grasping the woman's hand and smiling. They murmur in Ojibwa.

Nancy Morrison is part of the grandmothers-and-grandfathers group. She's been advocating for truth on residential schools for longer than she can remember; at 81 years old, that's a long time, indeed. "This kind of happening is very essential because we learn from each other," Morrison says. "It's that saying, forgive and forget."

Or at least, forgive. Morrison saw some "horrific" things in residential schools, she says. Talking about it now is like breaking an old wound open. Maybe it can't be fully cleaned. "The thing is, I'm searching for a way to forget," she says quietly. "Which I know is going to be quite impossible to do."

It won't stop her from trying, or from supporting others of the thousands of survivors who stroll The Forks this week, searching for the same thing.

And there are more than just survivors. There is the listening tent, staffed by representatives from the churches, where survivors can say what they never could at school. At the Wednesday-afternoon sharing circle, a Lutheran bishop and an Anglican priest sit quietly on the grass, listening to dignitaries call survivors to healing. Edward hasn't forgotten the schools. But he knows those clergy who now stand on The Forks Market stage and make their apologies to aboriginal people were, mostly, too young to really know.

"They weren't there when the schools were operating. They grew into it, and grew aware," he says, noting he's interested in the interfaith tent. "I'll walk into that with an open mind. They're entitled to forgiveness. Let's do this negotiation together. No one of us has control over how things are going to finish."

Now, we are walking to the registration tent. Due to a mistake on the map, the registration we find isn't the general tent, but the one where survivors register to make their statement before the federal commission.

A volunteer in a blue smock with a big name tag reading "Marjory" leads Edward into the Inn at The Forks, where he will sit in a room and give his part of the truth, the story of his years in those Kenora schools that, he promised me, would come "in good time."

As the doors slide shut behind him, Edward turns around and grins. "We're going to talk later," he calls out, with a smile as wide as the river.

And then he's gone, and where he was standing, a confetti of translucent dandelion fluff dances in the smouldering wind.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 17, 2010 A6

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