Witnessing truth that hurts and heals

Last November, in my role as interim Herald editor, I wrote an editorial urging Mennonite Brethren to participate in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The Commission was formed as a provision of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between government, church entities, and former students. Its mandate was to work at healing the personal damage and broken relationships caused by the residential school system.

Commissioners announced that every school survivor or family member who wanted to tell their story would be heard. And, in order to make this a truly national experience, seven public events would be held across the country.

I’d urged participation, so I had to heed my words. When the TRC’s first national event happened in Winnipeg, June 16–19, I attended to observe and “bear witness.”

But I did not expect to be so deeply affected.

The four-day event consisted of formal ceremonies such as speeches by church and government representatives; exhibits on Indian Residential School history; cultural exhibitions by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit groups; films, plays, art, and concerts; and presentations from the church groups who ran the residential schools.

The heart of it, though, was the stories. More than a thousand people gave private statements about the impact of residential schools in their life, and several dozens spoke of it in public sharing/healing circles.

One man, now 70, who was six when he was taken away to school, recalled, “I was so lonely. Under the covers, I cried. No one ever explained why I was there. I was punished for even waving at my siblings.”

It got worse. By the time he left school, he said, he had no sense of meaning or purpose, only “dark, ugly, painful, degrading, dehumanizing secrets.” He turned to alcohol to forget.

One after the other, similar stories of fear and abuse and denigration, of ongoing racism, were told – sometimes with weeping, sometimes with anger, sometimes with the quiet strength of a healing journey already begun.

Separation

It was the theme of family separation throughout the stories that touched me most. More than 150,000 children attended the residential schools for Aboriginal children between 1883 and the mid-1990s, often placed there against their parents’ wishes. My husband and I had just visited our son’s family in B.C., and as I listened, I couldn’t help referencing our four grandchildren and imagining how their young, beautiful spirits would be destroyed if such things happened to them. The thought of it was terrible and heartbreaking.

I was also struck by something else. The TRC event not only gave permission for stories to be told, but attended to them with great and tender consideration. The basket of listening and caring into which they fell, even while exposed to the media and a gallery of observers, felt spiritually strong and safe.

I don’t know when I’ve attended an event bathed in so much open prayer, such palpable awareness of need poured out before the Creator and Spirit, and so much sensitive support by other members of the community. Everything was offered to God, including tear-soaked tissues gathered on a cloth in the centre of each sharing circle.

“We have many tears to shed before we reconcile,” one survivor said.

“I expect we’ll see a lot of pain,” commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair had said at the opening, “but that’s part of healing.”

We need a society “with respect at the core,” Sinclair said. Eventually the truth “will heal us all.” From my observation, and the reports of others, the Winnipeg event marked positive steps towards this goal.

Once again, I urge my MB brothers and sisters to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work in whatever way possible. As disciples of Jesus called to peacemaking, we have an invitation and an opportunity here.

We might think of this task in terms of four statements made by commissioner Marie Wilson after one sharing circle: “I see you, I hear you, I believe you, I thank you.”

But now I add a warning as well. Such participation may change us.

Dora Dueck is a writer and a grandmother. Her second novel, This Hidden Thing was published by CMU Press in May.

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