A cold, light rain fell Tuesday as the breath from witnesses to a historic day mingled with smoke from a sacred fire.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/11/2015 (2010 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A cold, light rain fell Tuesday as the breath from witnesses to a historic day mingled with smoke from a sacred fire.

And then elder Wally Swain looked up and saw an eagle soaring overhead.

'This, today, is just the beginning,” said Justice Murray Sinclair, who has presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for more than six years.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

'This, today, is just the beginning,” said Justice Murray Sinclair, who has presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for more than six years.

A sacred eagle, said Carl Stone, elder-in-residence at the University of Manitoba. "That’s a good sign for us — we’ll be well taken care of," said Stone.

This day was a long time coming.

The sacred fire was lit outside Chancellor Hall as the University of Manitoba officially became the home of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the repository of millions of documents containing the memories of shameful acts this country has committed, endorsed and ignored.

"When these fires are lit, they’re lit with sacred songs and sacred flints," said Stone.

And when the prayers and songs were done, people came forward, indigenous and non-indigenous, to drop handfuls of tobacco into the fire.

"This, today, is just the beginning," said Justice Murray Sinclair, who has presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for more than six years. "The intention always was for us to create a national memory," Sinclair told a gathering of hundreds of people in University Centre.

Sinclair remembered when thousands of people came together in Winnipeg to listen to residential school survivors tell their stories, many for the first time.

"They would thank us for doing nothing more than listen to them," Sinclair said.

People now understand why their relatives are the way they are, he said.

 A large group marched to the University Centre for the grand opening of the National Research Centre.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A large group marched to the University Centre for the grand opening of the National Research Centre.

"This centre is doing for Canada what parents do for their children. This country is growing up as well... changing its own sense of identity," Sinclair said. "We now know we are carrying the legacy of that memory with us."

Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Marie Wilson reminded the gathering it was the survivors who proposed a national centre to store their memories. "It’s not a centre at all, it’s a gathering place," Wilson said.

The centre was created to preserve the memory of Canada’s residential school system and its legacy — the centre is the permanent home for all statements, documents and other materials gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The U of M will build a permanent facility on the former golf course immediately north of the traditional Fort Garry campus as part of its $500-million Front and Centre capital fundraising campaign.

Residential school survivor and B.C. Grand Chief Edward John talked about how his residential school in British Columbia killed the language and quieted the drum. In the 1970s, survivors called for a national inquiry, John said: "No one listened to us. So we talked about it, and kept on talking about it.

"Keep on talking about it" John said, urging newly elected Winnipeg Centre MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette to make sure Parliament talks about it.

Creation of the national centre is "not building on the pain of our people," John said. "We stand up not in despair but in celebration."

Survivor Phil Fontaine — a former grand chief in Manitoba and national chief — received a standing ovation.

His friends, Edward John and Eugene Arcane, saluted Fontaine as a hero. Said Arcane: "Ninety per cent of us thought Canada’s darkest secret would never come out."

Arcane proposed Fontaine should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fontaine talked humbly and quietly about how many people had worked for decades to bring about the commission and the national centre.

"We continue to live in an environment of imposition and marginalization," elder Dave Courchene declared. "We can’t continue to treat the first peoples as secondary.

"(Young people) deserve to know the truth — are we prepared to give them the truth?" challenged Courchene.

Residential school survivor Gerry Shingoose, left, gets a long hug from close friend Corra Lambert, right at the grand opening of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Residential school survivor Gerry Shingoose, left, gets a long hug from close friend Corra Lambert, right at the grand opening of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

U of M president David Barnard said it was with deep humility that the university will house the centre. "Holding the archives in trust is a humbling responsibility. We will not be satisfied with holding them passively," said Barnard.

Four years ago, Barnard apologized before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the university’s role in residential schools.

In Halifax in 2011, Barnard told the commission he apologized for the university’s role in educating some of the clergy, teachers, social workers, civil servants and politicians who ran the residential schools system.

Barnard apologized in 2011 because the university failed to recognize and to challenge the forced assimilation of Manitoba’s aboriginal people "and the subsequent loss of their language, culture and traditions."

Today, more than 1,700 students from across Manitoba are gathering at the RBC Convention Centre for a day of workshops and panels focused on extensive plans to spread awareness about residential schools through school curricula, and make knowledge of that history and its effects part of a basic education.

The highlight will be the official unveiling of the commission’s online database later today.

Education Minister James Allum assured Tuesday’s ceremony residential schools and indigenous culture are now a part of Manitoba’s curriculum. "We are on the verge of a true renaissance of indigenous culture in this country," declared Allum.

But above all, the centre will store memories.

"It is our responsibility to make sure their voices are heard," elder Harry Bone said.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca