OTTAWA — More than 10,000 people from all walks of Canadian life walked side by side Sunday in a symbolic show of reconciliation for the atrocities committed in residential schools.
The Walk for Reconciliation kicked off four days of closing events for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was tasked by the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007 with laying bare the facts of what happened at the schools and setting in place the groundwork for resolving the aftermath of that dark period in Canadian history.
"Never forget this day," said TRC chairman and Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, to the crowd at the walk's conclusion on a plaza outside Ottawa City Hall. "This is the day we begin to change the history of this country."
The Walk for Reconciliation began in Gatineau, Que., crossed the Ottawa River, stopping briefly at Victoria Island before continuing on past Parliament Hill and ending at Ottawa City Hall.
As the walkers made their way past the Supreme Court of Canada — which made news last week when Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said the residential schools were a cultural genocide — the bells of a nearby church rang out.
Other churches across Canada rang their bells simultaneously in an effort to draw Canadians' attention to the matter.
That is to bring to a conclusion the six-year mandate of the TRC but more importantly to pay attention to what the survivors have told the TRC commissioners happened, and what needs to happen to resolve the relationship between Canada and its indigenous people.
"Reconciliation is not an aboriginal problem," said Sinclair. "It is a Canadian problem."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was the only premier to participate Sunday and she added her voice to those who refer to residential schools as a "cultural genocide."
Olympian Clara Hughes was selected as an honorary witness and called on Canadians to learn from the TRC and make a pledge that "the real dark history of our country, that most of us aren't taught in school, that we never forget it and we never ever let it happen to anybody on this soil ever again."
The atmosphere around the walk was generally one of optimism and warmth. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt was there and said the government was committed to "resolving the legacy of residential schools in Canada."
However, the government's actions since 2008, when it apologized for residential schools, have left many survivors and aboriginal leaders feeling the words were empty.
Sinclair told the Free Press last week he didn't expect much from the government on the TRC report.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their homes and forced to attend residential schools where they were forbidden from speaking their languages and taught that their culture was inferior. Thousands of students have told stories of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Their legacy has been blamed for many of the problems facing indigenous people in Canada today.