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Rose Hart, a residential school survivor and community engagement officer for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, leafs through books in the library of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg on Dec. 21, 2015. (LYLE STAFFORD/GLOBE AND MAIL)
Rose Hart, a residential school survivor and community engagement officer for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, leafs through books in the library of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg on Dec. 21, 2015. (LYLE STAFFORD/GLOBE AND MAIL)

Truth and reconciliation

The painful journey to the heart of residential school history Add to ...

You have to be strong to be able to listen to former residential-school students tell their stories of the difficult, sometimes harrowing experience of being separated from their families and sent to attend the institutions that defined aboriginal education for 100 years.

Rose Hart, who worked as a statement-gatherer for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was a residential-school student herself in the 1960s. “They instilled a lot of fear in me, that was their main objective,” she said. “When you instill fear in somebody, that is a way of controlling them.”

But she had to overcome that anxiety when she gathered stories for the commission. “Sometimes I’d shed tears with them, so I’d be wiping my tears with them – but I had to be focused all the time. I can’t start bawling my head off. I have to be well in my body, my mind and my spirit and my emotions,” she said.

Listening was at the heart of the TRC, which held private and public meetings from 2010 to 2014. More than 6,500 people came to talk.

And millions of documents – ranging from enrolment information to photographs to building plans and grant details – were also submitted.

The personal testimony and the documents have now been collected in six volumes released by the TRC this month. Hundreds of people did that work, but their names only appear in an appendix that stretches over eight pages and includes historians, spiritual advisers, researchers and lawyers, native and non-native.

Ry Moran, director of statement-gathering for the TRC, said society can learn from listening to the painful stories of those affected. “There’s a couple of different ways you can achieve transformation in society: You can kind of beat it into people by saying you’re going to be punished into changing. Or you can speak to the heart. … When you put yourself in the shoes of that mother or that father, or the child who was taken away, you can’t help but feel something,”

The first step was taking statements. To ensure testimony was recorded consistently, researchers drew up manuals. Prompts for the interviews were minimal. A room in a community centre or band office would be booked and those who wanted to speak made appointments. There were no limits on how long they could talk.

Some women wanted to talk to other women, or men to men. But several statement-gatherers said many of the people who testified wanted to speak to someone different than themselves, seeing their words as a way to educate.

“When we were in the statement-gathering room, it was sacred,” Ms. Hart explained. “We’d offer them a tobacco tie and we’d offer them a grandfather rock, just to let them know that we cared about their story. And we’d let them know, ‘OK, here is some Kleenex, if you shed some tears, we want you to know that we consider your tears very sacred, we’re not going to throw your tears in the garbage. We’re going to gather them, and we’re going to keep them for when we go to a national event, and we have the sacred fire and we are going to burn them.’”

After they were done talking, everyone received a copy of their testimony on CD or video. With every story, history was being wrestled back from authorities.

“All the documents were written from the point of view of government, of the churches, sometimes the Mounties. But they were not written from the point of view of the people who were there, either the parents or the children. That’s what the survivor testimony provides,” said Marianne McLean, a historian and professional archivist who worked for the TRC in 2009 and 2010.

Working in the field alongside the statement-gatherers, archivists uploaded and coded the testimony, according to the school the person attended, the years they did so, who they were and the level of anonymity they had requested.

While voices told personal stories, the commission needed paper records to retrace how and why the system grew to some 139 schools across the country.

Several times, the TRC went to court to obtain federal government archives.

The result was that thousands of documents arrived every day, said Mr. Moran, who is now director of the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NRCTR). Records were sorted in batches (known as fonds in archival terms) – for example, whether they had been created by a church, a government agency or a survivor. All the material is now at the NRCTR. Some can be seen on an interactive map of schools and their locations.

Ms. McLean, the historian, cautions that the history that has been reconstructed is still fragmentary.

“You’re dealing with just remnants, you never have the whole story. And you have to draw conclusions based on what you can find,” she said.

Around 2009, for example, she talked to a religious order in Winnipeg. Nuns had kept a chronology of their lives running a residential school.

“As a historian, those sorts of things can be clues to what were people thinking, what were they doing,” she said. “I’ve seen it written in some documents, ‘Sister sat up all night with a very sick child.’ You could say that was covering their arses, or you could say the person was very concerned about the child.”

But Ms. McLean says she was not successful in persuading the order to send its archives to the TRC.

“What they wanted to do was go through and take quotes about anything about the children and put them in a separate document, but not give the original.”

In 2014, when the hearings ended, the writers took over, producing three million words.

By the summer, the TRC was looking for a publisher and Commission Chair Murray Sinclair came knocking at the door of Philip Cercone, the executive director of McGill-Queen’s University Press.

“My staff said, ‘You did what?’” Mr. Cercone recounted. He had agreed to publish and translate the work in five months.

Ten translators working seven days a week were quickly hired. (The French version is 2.5-million words.)

Mr. Cercone hopes to persuade Indigo CEO Heather Reisman to stock the volumes at the national bookstore chain. Electronic copies are also available free online.

For those who worked on the TRC and the report, the end is a beginning.

“My hope is because we worked so hard at developing a successful method [of investigation], that the inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls will be able to use this method to recover some of those stories,” said Terry Reilly, who was in charge of archival work for more than two years. “To give people a chance to tell their stories when they’ve been silenced.”

For Ms. Hart, she reconnected with her culture after leaving the residential-school system.

“When I came out of residential school, my sister helped me go back to our way of life, she made my first outfit to dance powwow. That’s how I started to learn about my ancestral ways,” she said.

By 1974, she had joined the Native People’s Caravan, a landmark protest on Parliament Hill that demanded recognition for aboriginal people and ended in a clash with the RCMP. And 25 years later, she began working with residential-school survivors to help them access healing programs and counselling.

Still, listening to statements from former students took a daily toll. Ms. Hart meditated, smudged (making a smoke bath from sacred herbs) and went to 12 counselling sessions.

Her goal was simply to listen and record the experiences of residential-school survivors. By resurrecting the aboriginal voices the residential-school system silenced, her hope – and that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – is to begin a reconciliation.

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