First Nations leaders, elders, and former residential school students were among those in attendance as flotillas of cedar dugout canoes paddled into False Creek today (September 17).
The All Nations Canoe Gathering marked the first major Reconciliation Week event, a series of activities being held in conjunction with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s national event in Vancouver this week.
TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair and Commissioner Marie Wilson were among the paddlers who made the journey in the traditional boats from Vanier Park to Science World. Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, joined members of the Musqueam First Nation, while additional indigenous leaders including Chief Bob Chamberlin and Grand Chief Edward John also arrived in the first group of canoes.
With dozens of other boats and the urban backdrop of the city behind him, Atleo faced elders, Coast Salish First Nations members, and other attendees, and addressed residential school survivors directly.
“Knowing the pain and the tears and the suffering that you’ve endured, this is your moment,” he said. “A moment for healing, for reconciliation and for truth-telling.”
More than 150,000 aboriginal children attended residential schools, where many experienced trauma including physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. According to the TRC, it's also estimated that more than 3,000 children died of disease or accidents while they were students at government-funded, church-run residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Chamberlin, the vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, recognized the importance of the attendance of former residential school students at today's gathering.
“We are gathering the survivors of the residential school experience, and we look for ways to raise them up, to support them, to show the love that was deprived of them through the residential school experience,” he said.
For paddler Adrienne Charlie, the canoe gathering was about healing. A member of the Squamish First Nation, she took part in the event with family members including her five-year-old daughter and three-year-old nephew.
Charlie said both her grandmother and her mother attended residential school.
“It was a little bit tough having a mother who was so disconnected, and having my grandmother who is fluent in the Squamish language and won’t speak the language in open,” she told the Straight in an interview next to False Creek. "So for me it’s healing and moving forward together, and I think it’s good for everybody to be out here and join together.”
She noted that her grandmother was forbidden to speak her own language as a residential school student.
“They were hit and whipped and made to eat soap,” she said. “Anything to help stop them.”
Charlie added that her mother has gone through “a lot of healing and counselling” to cope with her experience at a residential school.
“Growing up with a mum that was disconnected, there wasn’t a lot of love. There was no hugs and no ‘I love you’s,' but it’s changed and she’s growing and getting healthy, and she’s learning to show her love to us.”
The legacy of the residential school system is the focus of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s event being held at the PNE this Wednesday (September 18) to Saturday (September 21). The commission has been travelling the country hearing the testimonies of aboriginal people who were forced to attend the schools.
Today’s gathering, which included participation from both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, featured attendees from international locations including Australia and Guatemala. On Monday (September 16), a traditional fire-lighting ceremony was held at Ambleside Beach to mark Reconciliation Week.
The week-long series of events organized by Reconciliation Canada to raise awareness of the TRC’s work will conclude with the Walk for Reconciliation on Sunday (September 22). The 4-kilometre walk will begin at Queen Elizabeth Plaza on West Georgia and Hamilton streets, and will conclude at Science World.