Residential school survivor "hopeful" after final TRC report

Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to implement all of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations, beginning with the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Lillian Howard, residential school survivor
Mowachaht Elder Lillian Howard spent six years in West Coast area residential schools and acknowledged the TRC's final report as an important stepping stone in her personal healing process. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) ceremony had not yet begun, and already, Mowachaht Elder Lillian Howard was in tears.  

“It’s the end and a new beginning,” she said, letting them roll freely down her cheeks. 

Unable to attend Tuesday's ceremony in Ottawa, she watched the event live from Vancouver’s City Hall. She smudged herself with sweetgrass and refilled her tea cup. 

“As a residential school survivor, listening to people talk about their experiences or listening to their stories of impact at the rez sometimes can be very triggering,” she told me. “It’s been a long journey — all my life.”

Howard spent six years in West Coast area residential schools, where she was physically, sexually and emotionally abused. She testified about her experience during the TRC hearings in Vancouver, joining nearly 7,000 other survivors and their family members. 

On Dec. 15, the TRC presented its final report to the public, including 94 calls to action for improving the state of Indigenous affairs in Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau vowed unreservedly to implement all of them, and today begun his consultation with Indigenous leadership on how to do so. 

The commitment makes Howard optimistic that at last, Indigenous livelihood in Canada will take a turn for the better, and her people can begin healing from wounds of both the past and present. 

New hope for the future

“It’s the end of a really dark Canadian past,” she said, “particularly with this new prime minister who is going to help make a difference in Canadian society by making a personal commitment and by showing how he felt.” 

At the ceremony in Ottawa, Trudeau fought back his own tears as he described “the guilt” he felt when comparing his own privileged upbringing with that of many of Canada's Indigenous people.  

Justice Murray Sinclair, Justin Trudeau, Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau embrace at the TRC ceremony in Ottawa on Tues. Dec. 15, 2015. Photo by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 

“You could see that he was very emotional about it,” Howard illustrated. “He spoke from a very personal level, but also too, from a very political diplomatic level where he made that commitment.”

She remembered feeling hopeless when the previous government ignored the TRC's calls to action in June, which were outline in a summary. Before Tuesday's ceremony, she had worried that once again, the experience of Indigenous people “would be tabled.”

“I’m grateful that it has reached a point where they have volumes of testimony that’s there, we know, and we’re simply not going to let it sit on the shelves,” she said. “We owe that to our ancestors and to future generations to come.”

A long road to reconciliation

Still, Howard said that reconciliation won't be easy, and Indigenous communities should not rely on the federal government to pave the way forward on its own. She encouraged First Nations communities across the country to hold their local organizations, municipal, and provincial governments to account. 

The reconciliation process begins within,” she explained. “It begins with others, it begins with friends, colleagues, and society at large. In my case, it began with my offenders — the Catholic Church.”

Howard wells up in tears again, and a volunteer from the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre Society where she works, takes her hand. 

Across the table, the hands of Penny Kerrigan, a longtime friend of Howard's, are trembling. She too has tears in her eyes, but expressed hope that reconciliation may finally begin. 

“I believe that are a lot more individuals, organizations, and groups, that are non-Indigenous that are willing to work towards Canada becoming a better place for Aboriginal people,” she said. “My grandchildren are proud to be Haida. They stand up and tell everybody that they’re Haida. I think there’s a lot of hope for the future.”

Both agreed that the TRC's calls to action provide a good start for reconciliation across the country, but that the federal government must proceed with caution: Indigenous people (particularly women and girls) must be involved every step of the way. They also highlighted critical changes that must be made in British Columbia, beginning with a reversal in drastic cuts to the Aboriginal child welfare programs.

Lillian Howard, Penny Kerrigan, Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Longtime friends Lillian Howard and Penny Kerrigan watched the TRC ceremony from Vancouver City Hall together on Tues. Dec. 15, 2015. Photo by Elizabeth McSheffrey. 

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