• Truth and Reconciliation Commission comes to Montreal next week
Apr 22, 2013

Christopher Curtis, THE GAZETTE

Just like generations of aboriginal children before him, Dixon was forcefully taken away from his family and sent to a boarding school to be assimilated into white Canadian society.

During the eight years he spent at the Alberni residential school in coastal Vancouver Island in the 1950s, Dixon was made to feel ashamed of his aboriginal heritage and his native language, and he was subjected to unspeakable acts of abuse.

Even decades after his experience, Dixon couldn’t bring himself to talk about the time he spent in residential school. He found it easier to share his experiences by writing them down.

“In a way, talking about it was reliving the most terrible experience,” he told The Gazette. “I knew people who would talk about the abuse they suffered and then they would have to go on a drinking binge for days.”

Dixon’s painful struggle with how to communicate his experience is a familiar trait among the thousands who have testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which arrives in Montreal next Wednesday. The commission documents the psychological, physical and sexual abuse that First Nations children suffered at the hands of the church groups who ran Canada’s residential schools — a federally sponsored system that began in 1876 and only officially ended in 1996.

In all, there were 10 such schools in Quebec, mainly concentrated in the province’s remote northern territories. Located along the northeastern coast of James Bay, Fort George was the last residential school to shut its doors in Quebec in 1979.

Dixon and other members of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society will be in Montreal to provide mental-health resources to those who testify. Professionals from Health Canada will also be on site.

“The act of re-telling your story is an important part of the healing process, but it can be overwhelming,” Dixon said. “Even as adults, I think we’re afraid that we’ll be assigned blame like it was somehow our fault.”

The TRC was launched in 2009 after an apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the residential school survivors and their families. It has made stops in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories.

Both those who spoke to commissioners and the people tasked with listening have expressed feeling fragile and, in some cases, severely depressed following testimony. Psychiatrist Alain Brunet says survivors take a huge a risk by testifying at the TRC.

“They’re putting themselves out there, they’re doing something that will make them feel vulnerable that will re-traumatize them,” said Brunet, a therapist at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute. “They don’t want to do it, but a part of them feels they need to do it because it may begin a meaningful healing process. Typically people will only testify at this sort of thing if they feel their experience is recognized. People have to recognize that suffering, they have to acknowledge that the injuries these people suffered is unacceptable and when its recognized that there can be some sort of reparation made.”

Justice Murray Sinclair, who was appointed to oversee the commission, says the TRC goes to great lengths to ensure that survivors feel supported in their testimony.

“No one is cross-examined, no one is compelled to speak; the testimony can be vague, it doesn’t have to go into the details of the abuse,” he told The Gazette. “They can speak about how challenging it was to come back into their communities after residential school. They can talk about how difficult it was to raise children or about how inadequate their experience made them feel.”

Sinclair says the witnesses don’t even have to speak out. They can write about their time in residential school or express themselves through poetry, dance and other art forms.

But despite the amount of support they’re provided with, only between 12 and 20 per cent of the surviving victims of the boarding schools have stepped forward with testimony.

“These are deep scars and some people just don’t want to open those old wounds up again,” Sinclair said. “Testifying can leave a person feeling lonely, afraid and angry. Some of the survivors went their whole lives fearing the government would take their children away just as they were taken away. Imagine feeling like you’d never be able to protect your own child? Imagine what that does to a parent?”

An estimated 140,000 aboriginal children were subjected to the residential school system. The federal government has handed the TRC over one million documents that record the dark chapter in Canada’s history, but millions of records remain outstanding.

The TRC’s Montreal event is free, open to the public and will be held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. It begins next Wednesday and ends on Saturday, April 27.



Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Truth+Reconciliation+Commission+comes+Montreal+next+week/8263013/story.html#ixzz2RCz0OEc7