Mardi Tindal, the leader of the United Church of Canada, was finishing a quick sandwich and squinting from the glare off the Red River, when an aboriginal woman at the next picnic table started recounting her residential-school experience.
Like most of these stories, it involved loss of family, loss of dignity and, eventually, loss of self-worth.
"It just tears me up to hear that," said Ms. Tindal, whose church administered 13 residential schools across Canada. "May I pray for you?"
The woman consented. Some do not.
The dozens of church representatives who have flocked to The Forks in Winnipeg for the first large event put on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have a curious role here: to simultaneously promote a message of virtue and atone for a history of vice. The commission has invited them to tell their side of the residential school story - the sinner's tale - and they're doing so with great trepidation.
"I treat it like going into confessional," said Rev. Deacon Conrad Plante. "We are very tense going in and we hope to come out with a degree of comfort."
The tension lay just beneath the surface on Wednesday during the kickoff of the four-day event. One denomination advised its clergy to doff their clerical garb. During opening speeches, two women scoffed and noisily exited a tent when a clergy member stood to speak.
Few feel that conflict more profoundly than Rev. Stan McKay. A Cree man from Fisher River, Man., he attended residential school 480 kilometres from home - "five years of incarceration," he calls it - and later returned to a residential school as a teacher.
"I know now that children were being abused while I was there," said Mr. McKay, a former moderator of the United Church. "Becoming aware of those issues, it's difficult to know where to stand on some issues. … For years, people have come up to me and asked how, as a survivor, I can still be affiliated with the church. Well, I see myself on the periphery of the church these days."
As much as church members want to hear stories of former students, they are also eager to tell their own stories.
Church tables in the commission's "learning tent" garnered a large, young crowd all day as people pored over photos and documents from church archives, searching for depictions of the places they know only from the sad stories of relatives.
"Hopefully, through this, those who were hurt will also hear our truth," said Archbishop Albert LeGatt of Saint-Boniface, Man. "On the whole, those who worked in the schools wished to do good. But they were caught. They were part of a system that was profoundly unjust, that took children from families. There was abuse, physical and sexual. We don't deny that. But part of our truth is the story of many good people caught up in a destructive system."
One Catholic priest told the story of a friend who worked tirelessly to clothe and feed his residential school students because the federal government did not provide enough money.
"In the summer he would roam Winnipeg begging factories for clothing donations," said Brother Thomas Novak. "And now he is heartbroken because he is blamed. He knows they didn't do the job they would have loved to do, and we're hoping he can tell more of his story."
Throughout the fledgling course of the commission - a body that will record residential school stories for five years and hold dozens of statement-taking events across the country - critics have grumbled that it will do nothing to indict abusers, essentially pardoning their sins. Not surprisingly, the churches see it differently.
"I don't think this exonerates at all," said Archbishop Fred Hiltz of the Anglican Church of Canada, leaning against a brick wall in the shadow of cranes erecting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights next to The Forks. "This moves us beyond litigation, beyond court proceedings to actually hearing the truth. Everyone has realized that cash doesn't restore souls, that it doesn't provide genuine healing. Someone listening to their stories - that has a much greater potential."