Having spent 14 years at one, Willie Littlechild has always been familiar with Indian residential schools.
Despite that personal experience, the Ermineskin band member and honourary chief of the Maskwacis Cree was often left awestruck during his nearly five years listening to the stories of other former residential school attendees through the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
“Personally I couldn’t believe — I knew it was there — but the depth of abuse that went on across the country in the schools was really significant in my view. It shocks me in a way that it still stays with me. There are some awful, awful tragic stories about what went on to children in these schools,” said Littlechild on Wednesday.
He is one of three commissioners overseeing the TRC.
The commission started its work in 2009, and in the intervening five years it has crisscrossed the country, providing forums for residential school survivors to share their stories and documenting what is revealed.
The seventh and final national event took place in Edmonton last week, an event Littlechild simply labelled “fantastic.”
The commission has visited over 300 communities — including Red Deer last year — since the first event in Winnipeg in 2010, recording more than 6,000 statements made by former pupils. Over the next year, the commissioners will be tasked with compiling the recollections into a final report and making recommendations based on the hearings.
No matter where the commission was in Canada, Littlechild said there were common threads; abuse, be it sexual, physical, mental or spiritual went on in every region of the country.
The schools were tasked with “taking the Indian out of the child” and creating homogeny. During his own time at Ermineskin Indian Residential School, Littlechild recalls having to stay in at recess time to learn how to write right-handed.
“I was perceived as being possessed by the devil. I heard that story over and over again from many (former) students who were left-handed who were severely impacted by that categorization,” said Littlechild, who served as the member of Parliament for the Wetaskiwin riding from 1988 to 1993.
While the various hearings have focused on the telling of difficult truths from the past, the process of reconciliation, Littlechild says, must carry on long past the issuance of the commission’s final report next June.
“The work we’ve done I think sets us on a real good path towards reconciliation. So my hope is that we will be able to restore respectful relationships among each other, both among ourselves in our own community first of all, and then with the non-indigenous neighbours and indeed the rest of the country,” he said, also noting that relationships must be forged with new Canadians who may not be familiar with the history of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.
In many cases, he said, reconciliation efforts are already underway. At last week’s event, the City of Edmonton declared a Year of Reconciliation, and many other groups have made positive gestures. Wetaskiwin and Littlechild’s home community of Maskwacis embarked on a joint initiative last year in an effort to develop better relationships.
One of the mandates of the TRC is to educate the Canadian public, with Littlechild saying the hearings have increased awareness. A national research centre is to be set up in Winnipeg featuring records from the TRC, and the Alberta government announced last week that the teaching of residential school history and First Nations treaties will be mandatory in all grades from now on.
“It’ll contribute to better relations, even among children and youth on the playground,” said Littlechild, “They’re going to begin to understand for the first time each other, because the level of awareness in schools right now is just nowhere near where it needs to be.”
The commission has also discovered the names of over 4,000 children who died while attending residential schools, a process Littlechild said the Red Deer event set in motion. He added that the media has played a big role in ensuring the painful legacy of residential schools is widely shared and understood.
The $60-million TRC was established as part of a 2007 federal settlement with residential school survivors that included a national apology. According to federal government estimates, more than 150,000 aboriginal students were forced to attend any of the 139 federally funded schools between the 1870s and 1996.