I have been to innumerable media briefings over the years, but never one quite like that by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Monday.
Ahead of personal testimony later this week by survivors/victims of the country’s native residential schools, journalists were given a stark warning that the harrowing nature of what they hear could be traumatic.
“You are heading into a war zone…an emotional war zone…[and we] don’t want you to step on any land mines,” Commissioner Marie Wilson told reporters.
“Some of the stories will surprise and be jarring for you, in terms of your humanity,” said the former CBC journalist. “We never know what we’re going to hear, and what will touch us deeply. Our responsibility is to make sure we do no harm.”
To that end, she said a Health Canada support team to assist those who testify will also be available to others, including “toughened journalists”.
“We don’t take this lightly. They are here for all of us. Do not hesitate to call on someone, so that everyone goes home safe and sound,” Ms. Wilson said. For once, reporters were silent.
Chief Bobby Joseph, ambassador for Reconciliation Canada that aims to learn from the tragedies of the past and go forward, had a different, albeit equally sobering, message for the media.
He urged them to be part of the solution. “This is a social human problem that Canada needs to address. If you report these stories in the same old way, that inspires no one, we will get nowhere,” said Chief Joseph, with a benign smile.
“This is sacred work. We want a Canada where every child who is born is valued. So I ask you to be empathetic, be compassionate and show you care.”
Further, Chief Joseph asked reporters to be respectful of those who testify. “Remember they have gone through a long history of brokenness and survival. In your reporting, create a safe place for them to tell their story.”
The TRC was part of the package that settled the largest class action suit in Canadian history, a settlement that also provided a full apology by the federal government and nearly two billion dollars in compensation to residential school survivors.
The TRC is charged with compiling a history of the residential schools, in large measure by hearing from those who experienced them. Ms.Wilson said some respond to the challenge by speaking from the heart, without notes. Others start weeping before they utter a word.
Few of us, if any, can imagine the pain, loneliness and outright abuse native children suffered in the schools forced on them for more than half a century. They lost their culture, their language, their sense of identity and the crucial comfort of family surroundings.
Though the schools eventually disappeared, the emotional scars left behind are very much with ‘us’ still, in the shattered spirit, alcoholism and dysfunctional parenting that have plagued native communities ever since. There have been many shameful government policies in the past, but surely, this is one of the worst.
This week, it is Vancouver’s turn to host the TRC. Hearings begin Wednesday at the PNE. Many powerful side functions are also scheduled. This is shaping up as an event unlike anything this city has experienced.
Full TRC schedule here: http://www.trc.ca/websites/vancouver/File/TRC-073.06%20BCNE%20program-web.pdf