WINNIPEG - The mood was part wake and part wedding Wednesday as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission started its public work moving the damage done by Indian residential schools off the sidelines of history and in front of all Canadians.
Murray Sinclair, the head of the commission and Manitoba's first aboriginal judge, explained the purpose of the gathering: sharing tales of what residential schools did to survivors and their families.
It's about closing a book on a painful past but also about new beginnings and writing a new relationship founded on real understanding and respect, he said.
"To all those who wish to share their experience with us, I promise you this: if you have something to tell, we will hear you," Sinclair told about 300 people there for the morning speeches.
"You will not be asked to prove anything. You do not have to share anything that you do not wish to share."
More and more people arrived throughout the day and they mixed with tourists as they milled around The Forks in downtown Winnipeg. The collection of old railway buildings turned trendy mall offers plenty of green space and, as a historical meeting place for aboriginal peoples, it provided the perfect venue for the first of seven planned national events.
The tales of survivors were powerful when they finally came. They were told by those of who have achieved status in life and those who have not.
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were removed from their families and forced to attend the government and church-run schools over much of the last century. The last closed outside Regina in 1996. About 85,000 former students are still alive.
Robert Joseph, B.C. hereditary chief of the Kwagiulth nation on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, said his residential school experience left him ashamed of his own language and culture.
"I'm 70 now and it took almost all of that time to share some of these secrets — dark ugly painful, degrading, dehumanizing secrets" he said.
Sitting in a circle in a sweltering tent, he told a standing-room only crowd of the sexual abuse and the loss of culture that he was forced to endure. He said he left the school filled with anger and became an alcoholic.
"I didn't know how to raise my family. I was just so angry ... I don't want to pass my anger on any more."
Leanne Sleigh of southern Alberta said she went went to Crowfoot Indian Day School and both her parents were residential school survivors. Her school experience included sexual abuse from other students, who she said had probably suffered the same fate.
When she went home, things were not much better.
"I was physically abused by my parents on almost a daily basis because of what they went through in school."
She said it led to a life of alcoholism, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.
"I abused my body because I didn't care for myself because I was raised without respect, without love, without a hug."
Ironically, perhaps, considering most residential schools were run by churches, she said she turned her life around by becoming a born-again Roman Catholic.
Many church representatives were at the event and the displays included Christian and aboriginal elements.
Father Noel Boulanger of the Oblate order of Mary Magdelaine was in the crowd, greeting the friends he has made working in northern Manitoba for almost 40 years.
He was quick to acknowledge all the wrongs of the residential school system, but also noted the church has grown to better understand and accept aboriginal cultural traditions.
Earlier in the day, federal Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl told the crowd the government plans to repeal the section of the Indian Act that allowed aboriginal children to be removed from their homes and sent to residential schools in the first place.
A cheer arose from the crowd upon hearing Strahl's announcement.
He also said it's important to make sure that First Nations education is reformed and strengthened to improve aboriginal high school graduation rates. He was less emphatic later when asked about Ottawa's willingness to spend more on post-secondary education for First Nations residents.
"We're just trying to think of how to get the best bang for your buck," he said.
The $60-million commission, meant to expose and expiate the pain and suffering caused by residential schools, was part of a landmark deal reached with survivors who had filed a class-action lawsuit against Ottawa and the churches.
It has four years to complete its work and Sinclair said all Canadians must help if it is to accomplish its goals.
"Our goal is to lay the groundwork that will help us to close the divide between aboriginal people and the rest of Canadians. We will do that through the sharing of truths and understandings so there is a role for each of us. We all have a responsibility while this is occurring to make it happen.
"We are doing these things here today, and for the rest of this week, and for the term of the commission for one simple reason — the truth eventually will heal us all."