WHEN Raymond Mason started lobbying on behalf of residential school survivors nearly 30 years ago, even he didn't know the scope of the problem.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/6/2015 (2209 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHEN Raymond Mason started lobbying on behalf of residential school survivors nearly 30 years ago, even he didn't know the scope of the problem.

From his time in three Manitoba schools, he knew how the effects of residential schools trickled down through the generations. He understood how much of the dysfunction in First Nations communities, the violence and addictions, could be traced back to the schools and how they were used to cripple his culture and isolate his people.

Melvin Swan

Melvin Swan

Even he didn't know there were more than 130 similar schools across the country or that so many children, 150,000, had been students like him.

"When I started lobbying just for a handful of people in Manitoba, I didn't realize the enormousness of whole issue," he said. "A lot of people still don't believe this could be possible, what we experienced. They still think we're after free money."

Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is finishing its work, Mason said he finds comfort that so much of the truth has emerged. In addition to a public record of what happened, Mason said the TRC's legacy may best be seen in the next generation of Canadians, the ones who will soon learn about residential schools in class.

"The education, the history of our legacy will be learned and put in the public school curriculum across Canada, not just in aboriginal country," he said.

At six years old, Mason was taken from his parents on the Peguis First Nation and placed first at the Birtle Residential School, then at the one in Portage La Prairie and then in Dauphin's McKay school. During some of the dozen years he spent in residential schools he was abused by supervisors and older boys in his dormitory. As a young adult, he struggled with alcohol. It cost him his marriage, jobs and eventually landed him in front of a judge.

Years later, sober and an activist in his community, Mason was one of the first residential school survivors to go public and start lobbying for compensation and acknowledgement.

"It's kind of hard to imagine that this is it," he said of the TRC conclusion. "For the government, it's over for them. They want to wash their hands of it. The rest of the journey we are on our own... The business of healing, it's still not over,"

Melvin Swan

Like his feelings about his teenage years in Dauphin's residential school, Melvin Swan has mixed emotions about the end of Canada's truth and reconciliation process.

The veteran and former military policeman says the process helped uncover the truth about the schools, about the damage they did and the policies of assimilation that prompted them. But he said the process of healing among survivors will take a lot more time. And he is worried the issue has become too "compartmentalized," too detached from other injustices embedded in Canadian history, such as the 60s Scoop and the turmoil in the child-welfare system.

"I think the healing and the truth is nowhere near finished. To me, they've scratched the surface," Swan said. "It's going to take time for Canadians to understand the kind of genocide we faced in Canada, the many levels of taking the spirit away from us, the Indian."

Swan, 56, was sent to the Dauphin residential school when he was about 12 and spent three years in what he called a very harsh place. An Ojibwe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, he said bunking with Cree kids brought out all kinds of traditional rivalries.

"I learned to defend myself, to be extra careful," Swan said.

His time in Dauphin eroded his connection with his family, including a grandmother who spoiled him rotten and a father who would go on to become his band's well-respected chief.

"I think I did lose my connection to my family. It was a time of reckoning. I sort of broke ties," said Swan, who suffered a stroke three years ago.

Swan compared the TRC, which had events across Canada to take statements from survivors, to a travelling court that flies in, hears cases and then flies out. He's worried the TRC will produce recommendations that sit on a shelf, that it won't spark the kind of change that will see First Nations people rediscover the traditional teachings the schools tried to stamp out.

"I'm the type that doesn't hold grudges, I move on and try and heal," he said. "I have forgiven, but I don't forget, so it doesn't happen again."