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Truth commission marks history of Canadian residential schools

An all Nations Canoe Gathering at Science World in Vancouver September 17, 2013 where they were welcomed in a traditional ceremony to the Coast Salish lands. Canoe gathering marks the opening to the Week of Reconciliation to be held in Vancouver.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

For the sixth time in the past three years, the independent national commission formed to highlight the troubling history of residential schools in Canada is holding a national gathering amid hopes it will educate all Canadians on the subject.

The four-day event on the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition begins Wednesday. It will include opportunities for residential-school survivors to tell their stories as they have in previous hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, but there are other components of the proceedings that include panels, youth programs and cultural performances.

As part of the inclusive approach of the event – this time to be held in Vancouver – there was an All-Nations Canoe Gathering in False Creek on Tuesday.

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Participants, including B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad, paddled cedar, dugout canoes from Kits Point to Science World for a traditional welcoming ceremony of the Coast Salish Peoples.

B.C. has proclaimed Sept. 16 to 22 as Reconciliation Week.

The University of British Columbia has suspended most classes on its Vancouver campus on Thursday to allow and encourage the university community to participate in the national event. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is also to sit on a sharing panel at the national commission event proclaiming a Year of Reconciliation – the first such city to do so as part of a series of events including workshops, cultural and arts programs.

"The thing about the national events as separate and distinct from the community gatherings leading up to it are just the magnitude of it, the size and scope, the length being four days long," said Marie Wilson, one of three commissioners of the reconciliation commission.

"But the most significant thing is the sheer numbers of people including, very importantly the significant number of non-indigenous people who attend national events."

Ms. Wilson said it's important to note that the story propelling the work of the commission is not just about aboriginal history. "This story is about Canadian history. This story is about something that happened to little children in our country over many decades," she said."The history belongs to all of us whether we have known it or not before now."

The commission was established in 2007 as an independent body to inform all Canadians about what happened in the 150 years of residential schools in Canada. It has a five-year mandate and is expected to deliver a full report by 2014.

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Linc Kesler, a senior adviser on aboriginal affairs to the president of the University of British Columbia, says a solid turnout at the canoe gathering Tuesday points to a greater awareness in Vancouver of the whole process of reconciliation than in other communities across Canada.

"My real hope is more people go to the truth and reconciliation event and are able to take a few minutes out of their lives to listen to some of the survivors and hear a little bit of that personal history." In an interim report released in 2012, the $60-million commission said comprehensive awareness efforts are required to ensure Canada fully understands the pain of students who attended the schools with suggestions that every province and territory require public-school curriculum to assess what is being taught on the residential schools.

Mr. Rustad, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, said the commission has been educating all Canadians on what the aboriginal community went through.

"I look at this as a very important process of reaching out, acknowledging the challenges that were created around this and all of us as Canadians learning about and finding out how to build a strong and true reconciliation over time."

The seventh and final national event will be held in Edmonton next March.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More


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