The second major hearing in the federally funded Truth and Reconciliation commission opened on June 21 with survivors of abuse in residential schools turning out to tell their stories.

Tears flow as native people relive years of abuse

  • June 29, 2011

INUVIK, N.W.T - It was a day of tears in Inuvik as Inuit, Dene and Metis gathered to remember and count their losses from years spent in residential schools.

"For the life of me, I can't remember the years from five years old to ten years old," said John Banksland, a representative of the northern survivors committee.

The second major hearing in the Truth and Reconciliation process opened on June 21 with approximately 1,000 survivors of residential schools turning out to tell their stories or listen to others tell theirs.

The federally funded commission is crossing the country to document the abuse that was rampant in the Indian residential school system that ran in Canada for more than a century.

Banksland's hope for the four-day meeting of residential school survivors, church representatives and government officials was for a better future.

"We've had 130 years of this stuff," he said. "It's time to let it go."

Mackenzie diocese Bishop Murray Chatlain promised native people of the north the continued commitment of the church in friendship.

"Relationship and friendship are so important to maintain, but that takes courage," he said. "It takes courage to really hear what people have to say. That friendship we have is so important... Together we have a chance to have new life."

A focus on the next generation dominated much of the testimony from survivors speaking in the circle of reconciliation in the Sir Alexander Mackenzie School gym. Terri Brown asked the children of residential school survivors to stand so she could address them directly.

"I want to say, we love you," said Brown. "Whatever we did to you, we did it because we didn't know any better."

Survivor Earnie Bernhardt brought his three daughters forward to apologize directly to them for abuse he inflicted on their mother and his subsequent split from the family.

"Everybody talks about the loss of language and culture. Sure that's important. But what I missed was the love of my mother and my father. I didn't learn any of that from them. I had to learn for myself, the hard way," he said.

Bernhardt faced his three daughters and pleaded with them not to make the mistakes he had made.

"You can forgive me on your own time," he said.

Sr. Mary Jo Fox, a northern missionary of the Sisters of St. Joseph for 38 years, said Bernhardt's apology to his daughters was one of the most positive things said during the day.

"I felt when he was doing that there was nobody else in the room. I was touched," she said.

Despite the difficult history behind the stories, Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie of Keewatin Le Pas found the day a mostly positive experience.

"Just telling the stories does help," he said. "Before, I was doubting how much healing would take place. But it seems to be happening."

"The level of anger and pain and sheer suffering is getting less," said Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon.

Four convicted pedophiles worked at Grollier Hall, the Roman Catholic residential school in Inuvik.

"There's a history of shame. There's a lot of anger," said Chatlain.

Despite the history, native people in the North value their faith.

"When I go out visiting the communities, nobody is saying we don't want the church anymore," Chatlain toldThe Catholic Register. "It's 'Can we have a priest (in our community).'"

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