Thousands join Reconciliation Walk in Vancouver to heal wounds of residential schools

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The Canadian Press photo

Canada will never completely erase the stain left from decades of abuse of aboriginal people at government-funded, church-run residential schools.

But thousands of people walked through the streets of downtown Vancouver in a steady rain on Sunday to at least try to heal the deep wounds left by the system whose effects are still rippling through First Nations communities.

A CBC News photo gallery showed a sea of umbrellas as people listened to speakers before setting out on the Reconciliation Walk, four days of events.

Bernice King, daughter of U.S. civil rights icon Martin Luther King, was Sunday's keynote speaker, addressing a crowd estimated at 70,000 before the walk.

Reconciliation Week brought First Nations people together with other Canadians to share their experiences and talk about the impact of Canada's residential schools policy.

Whether you see the residential school policy's aim to assimilate aboriginal people into Canada's Eurocentric mainstream culture under the colonialist rubric of the "white man's burden" as well-intentioned but misbegotten, or blatantly racist (or both), the impact on First Nations was the same.

Over more than a century, 150,000 children were torn from their families and often sent out of their communities to attend the schools where the teachers worked to eradicate their aboriginal culture and language. Many were physically and sexually abused, leaving psychological scars they carried for life. Some 3,000 children died at the schools before the last one closed in the mid-1990s.

[ Related: Death count stamped on disgraced residential school system ]

A settlement in the massive class-action suit against Ottawa and churches involved in running the schools resulted in 2007 in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose mandate included hosting seven national events across Canada to foster awareness and promote healing.

This year's event in Vancouver, the sixth of seven organized by Reconciliation Canada, began with the lighting of a sacred fire of reconciliation and included a day of education with residential-school survivors recounting their stories.

Amy George, who endured nine years of abuse starting at age six at St. Paul's Residential School in North Vancouver, told a crowd of thousands at the event how she still remembers the nuns making her feel ashamed of being aboriginal and the painful strappings that made it impossible to hold a pen or the chains of a swing set.

“I was taught the worst thing in the world was to be an Indian,” George recalled, according to the Globe and Mail. “[They would say,] ‘You’re so hard to teach because you’re so dumb.’ And that stayed with me for the rest of my life.”

[ Related: Hungry aboriginal kids became unwitting lab rats in 1940s nutrition experiments ]

The program ended with Sunday's slow walk through downtown Vancouver. Many churches of cancelled services so parishioners could take part.

Bernice King, a Baptist minister like her father, injected a dose of reality before her speech, telling reporters Saturday that money for programs and apologies like the once delivered by church leaders and Prime Minister Stephen Harper can't erase the abuse and pain that takes generations to overcome, The Canadian Press reported.

“We still suffer in America, as an African-American community,” King said Saturday, referring to the lingering effects of slavery and oppression.

The key to justice is to ensure people have economic opportunity, she said.

“My father, if you study his life’s work, was in the midst of addressing economic injustice. In fact, he saw economic injustice as inseparable twins and so he spent the last three years of his life really raising the issue and talked about it during the poor people’s campaign that he was crusading for when he was assassinated in Memphis.”