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Truth and Reconciliation event opens wounds, exposes truths

A procession of residential school survivors during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, British Columbia National Event in Vancouver, Sept. 18, 2013. The four-day event is the sixth of seven mandated under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

More than 60 years later, Amy George still vividly remembers the snap of the long, black strap hitting her little hands, the pain, and the resulting welts that would render her incapable of gripping a pen, or the chains of a swing set.

But the abuse she endured at St. Paul's Indian Residential School in North Vancouver went far beyond the physical: For nine years, starting when she was six, she was taught by nuns to hate herself from the inside out, she says, to be ashamed of who she was.

"I was taught the worst thing in the world was to be an Indian," Ms. George told a crowd of thousands on the opening day of the national Truth and Reconciliation event in Vancouver on Wednesday. "[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."

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This week's four-day event, put on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, is the sixth of seven mandated under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between former residential school students, first nations groups and the government of Canada.

The commission, established in 2007 as an independent body to inform all Canadians about what happened in more than 120 years of residential schools in Canada, is expected to deliver a full report by 2014.

Each of the national events has been designated a theme under the first nations' seven sacred teachings; it was fitting for Ms. George, now a frank, 72-year-old Tsleil-Waututh elder, to speak at the one fashioned in the theme of honesty.

In an interview afterward, Ms. George said it is her hope that reopening these wounds and sharing such stories will help the public better understand the struggles of the first nations.

"A lot of our people suffer from addictions," said Ms. George, who herself has struggled with drugs and alcohol. "The general population has no idea. They just say we're a bunch of lazy, good for nothing people. We are a people coming out of oppression and genocide. Those schools were built so that we would die."

In a particularly candid moment, Ms. George revealed she suffered sexual abuse at the residential school since her first year there.

"The nun said to me, when I'd be playing and running around with all the kids, she'd come right close to my ear: 'You are a dirty, filthy, little girl,' " she said, tears welling in her eyes. "So I blamed myself, for my life, for being a dirty girl. I was only six."

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Other speakers at Wednesday's opening ceremony included Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, who told the crowd the path to reconciliation will be paved with the telling of truth.

"Our healing journey requires that we fully understand this history, the government policies and the actions that resulted, and that everyone understands that what happened to us was not our fault," he said. "From this understanding, we are breaking the cycle of historical abuse and violence."

Premier Christy Clark told the audience the B.C. government "deeply regrets the harm that was done to aboriginal children and their families and the lasting impact Indian residential schools have had on them.

"Whatever our ancestry, no matter when we or our ancestors came to this land, all Canadians share with aboriginal people a common sorrow at the cruelty and abuse that took place under the guise of education."

Thursday's events include sharing panels, a town hall on reconciliation, two film screenings and a free concert in the evening.

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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