THE BLOG

Residential School Survivors' Stories Are the Key to Reconciliation

10/01/2013 05:44 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Sainty Morris was play-wrestling with his best friend when they got caught. The residential school priests forced the two boys to beat each other bloody.

Another time, Morris helped a younger student hide a puppy. When they were caught -- again-- the priests made them drown the puppy in a sack.

And no matter how minor the infraction, the priests locked Morris in a dark room without food or water for as long as 15 hours. To this day he can't sleep with the lights out.

"I live in fear of the dark because of the residential school," says Morris, one of 4,000 people who packed the Pacific National Coliseum in Vancouver on September 19 to hear Justice Murray Sinclair open a new session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Sinclair, who is himself a member of Canada's First Nations and became Manitoba's first aboriginal judge, heads the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was launched in 2008. Since then, Sinclair says he has personally listened to more than 15,000 stories like Morris', and estimates the Commission will have gathered more than 30,000 stories by the time it concludes. After five years, the Commission is preparing to wind up. The final hearings will take place in Edmonton this spring. Before he headed to Vancouver, we asked Sinclair about this incredible archive he has compiled, and the next steps on the road to reconciliation.

Sinclair makes the point that the scars left behind by the residential schools are not just a problem for aboriginals -- they are a problem for Canada. Many of the challenges that aboriginal communities face today -- such as high rates of sexual abuse and poor education -- are a legacy of the schools.

Approximately 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in Canada's residential school system from the late 1800s until the last one closed in 1996. At least 3,000 children -- possibly many more -- never got out of those schools alive. Because of those schools, Canada's aboriginal peoples still harbour distrust for government in general and school systems in particular. It's one factor behind the estimated 45,000 aboriginal students not in school today.

Sinclair has heard too many school survivors tearfully admit they became abusive parents as a result of the abuse they had suffered. Studies show, in general, that 30 per cent of abused children will become abusers themselves. In Canada, the rates of sexual assault and abuse are higher in Canadian aboriginal communities than in the general Canadian populace. Research has found that anywhere from 25 to 50 per cent of aboriginal adults in a community will have experienced child sexual abuse.

Telling their stories to the Commission helps survivors begin to heal. However, in order for there to be reconciliation, to mend the distrust between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, Sinclair says all Canadians need to hear these stories. As part of the national events held across the country, the Commission brings together aboriginal and non-aboriginal school groups to meet each other, hear the stories of survivors, and discuss the idea of reconciliation.

We asked Sinclair what he sees as the way forward for reconciliation. He told us the key is education.

"Our public school system must contain content that allows aboriginal students to have self-respect, but also teaches non-aboriginal young people to be respectful."

As well, Sinclair said Canada's leaders -- both aboriginal and non -- must change the way they talk to and about each other, showing respect for one another and, by their example, encouraging Canadians to do the same.

He cautioned the path to reconciliation in Canada will not be a fast or easy one. "It is going to take us as long to heal as it took to inflict the damage. It will take many generations. We need to have a vision."

In just a few months, the Truth and Reconciliation process will come to an end. Now is the time for Canada to start the discussion: what next? We cannot take the tens of thousands of stories Sinclair has gathered and consign them to a dusty archive as a part of our history best forgotten.

Understanding the impact the residential schools had then is critical to understanding and addressing the challenges our aboriginal peoples struggle with now.

We believe there should be a national campaign to make Canadians aware and invite them to read the stories of survivors. As well, there should be a national strategy for incorporating these stories into our school curricula.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

Idle No More: In Photos