Strength in Tears

Moderator Rev. Dr. John Vissers (centre) presents the video Why Reconciliation Matters to Me to Eugene Arcand (left) and Madeleine Basile (right), members of the TRC Indian Residential School Survivor Committee.

I began each day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event by visiting the sacred fire.

I’d sit on a dew-covered bleacher, fingers wrapped tightly around my first cup of coffee, watching the fire and the young men tasked with keeping it burning 24 hours a day for four days straight.

Each morning the elders arrived to visit the fire keepers, pass around trays from Tim Hortons and share a few laughs. Then the elders would enter their teepee and a quietness would fall over those of us present.

On the first day, after the sacred fire was lit and the elders had emerged from their teepee, we were invited to come forward and offer our prayers. One by one we approached the fire with a pinch of sacred tobacco in our hands. One by one we scattered it over the flames and prayed, each in our own way, then circled the pit clockwise and returned to our seats.

As I moved near the fire, I placed one hand over the other, guarding the dry tobacco flakes from the morning wind. As I bent over the fire the words of my prayer still hadn’t fully formed in my mind. I watched the fire pop as it inhaled my offering. All I could think to say was, “Lord, help me listen.”

And so began my time at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s national event in Saskatoon in June.

The TRC was formed in 2008 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the culmination of a lawsuit filed against the federal government and churches involved in running residential schools.
Since the lawsuit was settled out of court, survivors were denied the chance to testify. As Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, explained, the TRC provides survivors with an “opportunity to come forward in a public and private way if they choose, to tell their experiences, to share their stories with each other, with the public and with their families about what occurred to them in the schools.”

Pierre Papatie was the first survivor who shared his experience with me. We sat together the morning the sacred fire was lit. An elderly man from Quebec, he works to bring First Nations spiritual practices to prison inmates, promoting participation in sweat lodges, smudging and pipe ceremonies. The smoke of sacred medicine—sweetgrass, cedar, tobacco, or sage—is used to cleanse participants and prepare them for healing and sharing. During smudging, smoke is waved over parts of the body; during a pipe ceremony, a sacred pipe is passed in a circle, uniting participants in a time of prayer and preparing them to listen respectfully to what is shared. Papatie’s deep respect for the traditional ways is evident as he speaks about his work and the healing it brings. He has a quiet and assuring presence, his solid frame unmoving. His words are carefully selected.

“I have learned to accept. Reconciliation? I don’t know what that is. I accept what happened. I accept the people who did those things to us. That is the healing I know.”

The Presbyterian Church operated two residential schools, one in Kenora, Ont., and another in Birtle, Man. The PCC, as one of the defendants, signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

“The Presbyterian Church in Canada is striving to acknowledge our role and our responsibility in running residential schools,” said General Assembly Moderator Rev. Dr. John Vissers in the Circle of Reconciliation, which included representatives of the Anglican, Catholic, and United churches.

The moderator referenced the PCC’s official apology, given in 1994: “[We have] confessed to God our denomination’s complicity with the Government of Canada’s assimilation policy; and confessed the cultural arrogance that underscored the terrible legacy of the Indian Residential School system.”

To more intimately acknowledge and honour the stories of survivors, St. Andrew’s, Saskatoon, hosted a luncheon and sharing circle. Local and national representatives of the church shared a meal with survivors, a number of whom went to the Presbyterian-run school in Birtle. After lunch we moved the tables aside and created a large circle of chairs. We sat in the circle for three hours, listening to each other’s stories and reflections.

“I was taken away to residential school when I was just six years old,” said Helen Isbister, an elderly Cree woman from Mistawasis, Sask.

“We were taken in a one-ton farmer’s truck. We were in the back of the truck. They loaded us up. We were so innocent; we thought we were just going for a ride. We got in this truck with just the clothes we had on our backs. No luggage, no nothing, not realizing we would be driving in this truck for many miles.” They drove from Mistawasis to Birtle, the nearest Presbyterian school.

“I asked my little sisters one time, ‘What did they do when we wanted to go to the bathroom and we knocked on the window? When we were needing to go real bad?’ I can’t remember.

“We have all those memories and they’re locked in this big book and it’s so hard to open it. We want to forget them, but the book is starting to open. For me opening that book will help us in our healing journey.

“In the residential schools we had a minister. I couldn’t understand how this minister could preach to us all day Sunday and talk about how Jesus loves you. And then when Monday came around we got the strap. I couldn’t understand how he could beat me up so much and then say he loved me on Sunday. I couldn’t get over that. I hated that. I hated that minister.

“It reminded me of being in jail. We always stood in a line. We always marched. They always carried a stick or a ruler or something. They built fear in your system. The fear stayed there. It’s hard to get rid of that fear.

“I was in residential school for 12 years. I only got to see my parents for two months of only one of those years. You can lose your childhood overnight when they take you to residential schools.

“Healing is a nice magic word. But to do it from your heart—from your spirit—it’s not so magic and it’s not so easy.”

As painful as it was to listen to Isbister’s story, acknowledging the truth of her experience opened our hearts to her and each other.

“Reconciliation is not possible without knowing the truth,” said Commissioner Sinclair on the first day. “Truth will lead to a greater opportunity to come to terms with the facts.”

“I have always been a head person,” said Vissers at the luncheon. “But my experience here has challenged me to know with my heart.”

“What does truth and reconciliation really mean?” asked Delores Werchola, an outreach worker for the church, a survivor and one of the facilitators of the circle.

“The way I look at it, it’s building relationships. Being truthful. Sharing the truth. Not only for us First Nations people, but for non-First Nations people as well. I believe we need to all open our hearts and share with one another and take time to understand each other and forgive.”

“We are all treaty people,” said Rev. Sandy Scott, minister at St. Paul’s, Prince Albert, Sask. We are all affected by Canada’s colonial history; by the agreements our government signed with First Nations peoples, he said.

Like Isbister’s memories, our collective history is written in a book that is difficult to open. Hearing our history read to us brings tears to our eyes.

But we were reminded throughout the TRC that tears bring strength and healing. Tears are precious. There was always a TRC volunteer around to carefully give and gather tissues to a person who was crying.

“We want your tears,” they would say.

Every day the tear-soaked tissues were burned in the sacred fire as a prayer offering to the Creator and a memorial to survivors who had passed away before they could tell their stories.

After Isbister finished telling her story she handed her tissues to a volunteer.

“Thank you for honouring us survivors. Our tears are not wasted here.”


About Seth Veenstra

Seth Veenstra is the Record's staff writer.