Karen Joseph’s face lit up with a smile as she crossed the Dunsmuir viaduct today and caught a glimpse of the crowd taking part in the Walk for Reconciliation.
The executive director of Reconciliation Canada said she thought the rain would affect the turnout for the 4-kilometre march marking the end of Reconciliation Week in Vancouver.
But numbers that were estimated in the tens of thousands showed up, filling West Georgia Street with colourful umbrellas as participants listened to speeches from guests including Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.
“There were so many thousands of people that both viaducts were filled from the beginning to the end, and there were still more people coming,” Joseph said in an interview following the walk.
“I was just feeling so blessed at that moment, that so many people came out in spite of the weather to show their commitment to reconciliation, and their commitment to creating a new society that embraces all of us as we move forward.”
First Nations groups sang, drummed and danced as they led the walk from Queen Elizabeth Plaza to Concord Place, passing by tents featuring multicultural drummers along the route.
The walk was the final event in a week of activities focused on reconciliation between indigenous people and all Canadians. For four days, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard testimonies from residential school survivors as part of the commission’s sixth national event across the country.
Justice Murray Sinclair, the chair of the TRC, thanked survivors for sharing their stories with the commission and with the public.
“I want you to know that we understand how brave it was for you to stand up before us, and before all the people who were there at the event this week, and talk about those stories, and talk about those pains, and share your tears,” he said in advance of the walk today (September 22).
“And at the same time, to share your laughter. To talk about the good things, to talk about your resilience. To talk about how it was that you came through this—and to declare to all of those who were listening that we are still here.”
Sinclair referred to the work of reconciliation as “a challenge to this country”.
“But the most important part of it is that Canada must understand that this is not an aboriginal problem,” he said. “This is a Canadian problem.”
During a passionate speech, King issued a challenge to all sectors to “step up to the plate” to take action on reconciliation.
“We must ensure that economic empowerment is a part of the way forward, and we must ensure that you do not give up on this process,” she said.
“This is no time for apathy or complacency—this is a time for vigorous and positive action. This requires leadership action on all fronts in Canada. From political and government, corporate, faith, educational, and community leadership. Because, as I said, we are all in this together.”
Like his daughter Karen Joseph, Chief Robert Joseph was also moved to see the large turnout at the walk today. The hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk Nation and ambassador for Reconciliation Canada originally envisioned the idea for a reconciliation walk to coincide with the TRC event.
“You can’t imagine how I feel when I see the sea of people and umbrellas,” he told the crowd. “This is such a powerful symbol of our desire together, as Canadians, aboriginals, and others, to look for a new way forward. Something different than the past that we have inherited.”
But he acknowledged that the path ahead “will not be easy”.
“Everyone here in this space today, this sacred space, has something to contribute to reconciliation,” he said.
“Let us not leave this time and this place without taking this idea with us, talking to our friends and our neighbours, and everyone that will listen to us. Let us create the critical mass that needs to be built, for not everyone believes in the things that we’re talking about today."
Other guests in attendance at today’s event included Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Mayor Gregor Robertson, TRC commissioner Marie Wilson, and B.C.’s minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation John Rustad.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established through the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, has a final national event scheduled in Alberta in March 2014.