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Aboriginal Peoples remember abuse at residential schools reconciliation event

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HALIFAX - When he was six years old, Barney Williams told his father he had been raped at the Christie Roman Catholic school near Tofino, B.C. But his father — a staff member at the native residential school — didn't believe him.

Tears well up in Williams's eyes as he recalls the moment more than 60 years later when his ailing father finally apologized for doubting what happened in the late 1940s.

"As I walked into the room, he said, 'I'm sorry for what I did to you,' " Williams said Wednesday, the first day of national hearings in Halifax for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

"That was my reconciliation. That was my moment of truth."

Now 72, Williams is a member of a committee helping other residential school survivors as they come forward to tell their stories to the three-member commission, which has already held two other national hearings — one in Winnipeg, the other in Inuvik, N.W.T. — since it started its work last year.

Williams, an elder with the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations in Meares Island, B.C., said his brother also attended the residential school, but he died before he could reach his own sense of reconciliation.

"He tried to protect me, but he was not much older than me," Williams said. "He was just a boy himself."

In all, Williams spent eight years at the school before he went home.

"There was that missing time, when you're a little boy," he said. "Canadians need to believe that this actually happened, and they really need to listen. ... Even at my age, I get emotional talking about it."

The commission has a five-year mandate to document the history of Canada's native residential schools, inspire reconciliation and produce a report by 2014. The federal government has set aside $60 million for the commission's work.

The first government-funded, church-run residential schools opened in the 1870s. The last one closed outside Regina in 1996.

The 130 schools became infamous for being places where many students suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

The schools were also known for overcrowding, poor sanitation, unhealthy food and menial labour. Harsh punishment was meted out for those students who spoke their native language or took part in traditional rituals.

The Atlantic region had one residential school, according to the commission. The Department of Indian Affairs built the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School north of Halifax in 1930.

Students were taken from all three Maritime provinces and the Restigouche Indian Reserve in Quebec. It was operated by the Archdiocese of Halifax until 1956.

In all, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended these schools. For those native families who resisted the system, children were forcibly taken away by the RCMP.

The churches that operated the schools started apologizing in 1986.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology for what had happened, saying the goal of the schools was "to kill the Indian in the child."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, was established as part of a landmark $4-billion agreement reached in 2007 with survivors who had filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government and the churches.

Hundreds of survivors and their relatives have gathered in Halifax to take part in the latest round of hearings, which wrap up on Saturday.

The commission opened its hearings with a sacred fire ceremony Wednesday at the Nova Scotia legislature.

The ceremony culminated with the arrival of Patrick Etherington, a residential school survivor who walked more than 2,200 kilometres from Cochrane, Ont., with his 28-year-old son, Patrick Jr., and his partner, Frances Whiskeychan.

Etherington Sr., a member of the Moose Cree First Nation originally from Fort Albany, Ont., attended a residential school between the ages of six and 11.

Like so many other native children, he suffered physical abuse at the school.

He said he started the walk back in late July to raise awareness about the impact of the residential school experience on several generations of aboriginals.

"It gave me the purpose of helping and creating more awareness toward everybody affected by the residential school issue," he said in an interview.

Etherington said he an his son forged a bond during the long walk that was absent before.

"It was hard work," he said.

Williams said the commission is revealing the truth about what happened at the schools, but true reconciliation will take a long time.

"Many of us are still at a point where we're not ready to do that," he said. "We're still in a place of pain, resentment and anger."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly stated that Williams had waited 50 years for his father's apology.

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