Participants from the shíshálh (Sechelt) Nation and the Sunshine Coast joined tens of thousands of Canadians last week for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) national gathering in Vancouver.
The week-long event focused on the painful legacy of the residential school system with traditional healing ceremonies, cultural demonstrations, testimonies from survivors and a four-km Walk for Reconciliation on Sept. 22 that drew an estimated 70,000 people to downtown Vancouver.
“Overall it was really quite spectacular,” shíshálh historian Candace Campo (xets’emíts’a) said.
“It was wonderful that even in the torrential rain people seemed determined to join the Walk for Reconciliation, so it was really inspiring to see.”
Campo said she felt “energized” after attending the event.
“I really believe that people want to work toward reconciliation,” she said.
Terry Aleck, a survivor of St. George’s Residential School in Lytton who has lived in Sechelt for the past decade, called the event “the most powerful gathering that I’ve ever been part of.”
Aleck, 57, was one of the first survivors to initiate a lawsuit in the 1980s.
“My court case helped break it open for everyone else, and to hear everyone else witness and share their stories, it was an honour — overwhelming and very healing,” he said.
A highlight for the shíshálh contingent was a speech delivered by Chief Garry Feschuk on Sept. 20 at the PNE Forum, calling for reconciliation with day scholars.
Feschuk’s speech “was very well received. He got a standing O,” said Sunshine Coast Regional District chair Garry Nohr, who slipped away from the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention to take in some of the TRC event.
Rev. Janice Young of St. John’s United Church in Davis Bay spent the whole week at the national gathering, starting with a sacred fire ceremony at Ambleside Beach on Sept. 16.
“It was amazing — the whole thing was amazing,” Young said.
Young was part of a team of 12 Coast residents, including two residential school survivors, who participated the next day in the All Nations Canoe Gathering at Kits Point.
She was also one of the organizers of an area on the PNE grounds dedicated to churches listening to survivors.
“What amazes me is the incredible resilience and the incredible grace that is shown by so many survivors,” Young said. “Even when they are very angry and hurt, they say, ‘I know it’s not you. It’s the system we got caught up in.’”
While many churches made “expressions of reconciliation” during the event, Young said one offered up by local couple John and Nancy Denham “was absolutely beautiful, because it was just two ordinary people.”
Calling the size of the turnout “absolutely delightful,” Young said she believes the event “made a big impact on folks who came.”
Campo said she too had the impression that some participants gained awareness about residential schools and were “shocked to realize the past.”
The sharing of personal stories by survivors was, from a First Nations point of view, “the ultimate sharing,” she said.
The shíshálh people attending the event included “a lot of our day scholars, who are still trying to be recognized,” said Campo, who helped raise funds to cover the day scholars’ travel expenses to Vancouver for the event.
“I feel the community really came together,” she added, “and younger people were there to support their elders and their parents who were survivors of residential school. It was quite fabulous to see.”
The national gathering was the sixth of seven TRC events that wrap up next year in Ottawa. Chaired by Justice Murray Sinclair, Manitoba’s first Aboriginal judge, the commission’s final report is expected in about two years.