Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck:
Honourable senators, I was invited to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings in Vancouver in September, and I'm glad I did. The City of Vancouver had declared Reconciliation Week from September 16 to September 22. Both the opening and the closing ceremonies were exceptional.
Reconciliation Week and the TRC events started with thousands of supporters and residential school survivors lining the shores of False Creek, greeting the all-nations canoe gathering — a large flotilla of indigenous paddlers. This was followed by the lighting of the sacred fires ceremony. The sacred fire was kept burning all week in the centre of the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, where the events were held. At the end of the week, support for the event was evident by the thousands of people who joined the reconciliation march through Vancouver.
Honourable senators, listening to the stories of the survivors of Indian residential schools was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. As children, they were treated in a despicable manner. They were deliberately starved, punished severely with a strap, sexually assaulted and raped. This was done by the sisters and priests who were entrusted with their care and who were supposed to care for them. One particular story especially captured my attention. A survivor told how she was sexually abused by a priest, but when she reported him to one of the nuns, the nun wouldn't believe her and made her apologize to the priest. Honourable senators, can you imagine how humiliated, frustrated and powerless that young girl must have felt?
Yet, there was also a common theme of resilience and resistance amongst these children. To counteract starvation, they learned how to steal food; to counteract the violence directed at them, they learned how to protect the younger students, for instance, by advising them to cry loudly when being strapped. This strategy was meant to end the strapping as soon as possible. Another survival strategy was to steal the sacramental wine and get high to drown out the hurt and sorrows of life in an uncaring, unnatural environment. In other words, residential schools taught the students that to survive they had to steal and lie and get drunk to numb the pain.
Decades later, their hearts and souls are still wounded. The survivors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have gone through counselling and healing ceremonies and have recovered, but others are still caught in self-destructive lifestyles.
It is sad to say that some members of the public do not comprehend the depth of the hurt and pain that the survivors face; and such people mistakenly believe that all survivors can simply let the past go and get on with their lives without any problems. One of the underlying themes that I heard from the survivors was about having to face constant disbelief and denial of their experiences in residential schools. Nevertheless, they found the courage to share their personal stories in a public forum, so that other Canadians would learn what happened to them in residential schools, so that such abusive activities would never happen again and so that reconciliation can occur.
Honourable senators, I would like to thank the federal government for extending the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for another year to June 30, 2015. As I witnessed in Vancouver, the commission is doing the important and necessary work to build a path towards reconciliation and healing.