Let us not fail . . .

The writer of this week’s blog is Pam Peters-Pries, Associate Director of Program for MCC Canada.

From 1984-1986, I attended Rosthern Junior College (RJC), a private Mennonite residential school in Rosthern, SK. I’ve often referred to my experience there as “two years of summer camp.” Grades 11 and 12 were filled with teachers and classes I loved, faith exploration, sports, music, great friends and much fun.

From 1994-1996, Shaun attended St. Michael’s Residential School, a Catholic-run Indian residential school in Duck Lake, SK – just 21 kilometers north of Rosthern. He shared devastatingly about the chaotic and abusive household in which he grew up with parents who were both residential school survivors. They died young and tragically, leaving Shaun a ward of the province, bouncing between foster homes until he landed at St. Michael’s.

Shaun graduated from St. Michael’s in 1996 – the year it closed. Of all the stories I heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) National Gathering in Edmonton last week, his story left me the most shaken. While I was having the time of my life at RJC, the tragedy that is Indian residential schools was continuing just up the road. How could this be? How could I not have known – about St. Michael’s specifically, or about the history and impact of residential schools more generally? How could all of my public and private school teachers, good people whom I trusted and respected, fail to have taught me about this? What should I do with this realization of my own privilege, my lack of knowledge about and engagement with the reality and legacy of Indian residential schools, a devastating legacy that Indigenous people in this country have had no choice but to endure or to confront?

Mennonites Tim Dyck (fourth from L) and Hildebrand (5th from L) present a quilt to Commissioners and Survivor Representatives at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Edmonton National Event, March 2014.
Anabaptist leaders Tim Dyck (fourth from L) and Hilda Hildebrand (5th from L) present a quilt and a statement of reconciliation to Commissioners and Survivor Representatives at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Edmonton National Event, March 2014. Photo credit Eileen Klassen Hamm

While Shaun said his own experience at residential school was generally positive, he also named himself an inter-generational survivor. The unresolved trauma suffered by former residential schools students – taken from their families and culture for the expressed purpose of “killing the Indian in the child,” and often subjected to multiple forms of abuse – has been passed on from generation to generation. It is this legacy that the TRC was created to address. Through truth-telling, residential school survivors may begin or continue their journeys of healing. By bearing witness to their truth, the myths we settlers have constructed about what counts as history, how we “earned” our privilege, and why Indigenous people suffer the marginalization they do, can be deconstructed. And then we may join the long journey of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and between all of us and this tragic past.

This will not be easy. As Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the TRC, said, “If you think truth is hard, just wait until we try reconciliation!” But this legacy must be addressed. We all must choose to bring its truth to light, to learn its hard, hard lessons, and to walk together toward reconciliation. I am deeply grateful to the courageous residential school survivors, the Commissioners of the TRC, and the many others who are calling us relentlessly to this important work. As the formal work of the TRC comes to a close in the next year, let us not fail to continue on the path to truth and reconciliation.

To read a statement of reconciliation by Anabaptist church leaders to the Edmonton National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, click here.

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