Boxes of precautionary Kleenex were placed along the boards of the ice-less Pacific Coliseum and among the hundreds of attentive spectators. Scores of green-vested health support workers roamed the aisles and corridors, looking for people in distress. It was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first session in Vancouver, giving survivors of native residential schools a chance to tell their harrowing stories in public. Testimony was expected to be dark.
“If you are feeling any kind of emotion or something inside you, please don’t hesitate to contact a health support worker,” TRC chairman Justice Murray Sinclair advised the crowd. “They are here for you. They have your best interests at heart.”
And indeed, there were plenty of tears as survivors came forward to courageously recount their long-ago experiences as children, wrested from their families and thrust behind the terrifying doors of church-run residential schools, far from home.
The first to testify was Margaret Commodore, who has returned to her Sto:lo roots, after many years as a member of the Yukon legislature. Here is some of what she said of her seven years at the residential school in Port Alberni and the deep pain she suffered later in life, when the nightmares came flooding back.
“We were taken out of our safe home to a place where everything was regimented. It had a horrible impact on me. A lot of us were abused sexually….(tears)….We reported the individual. We thought things would get better. They didn’t. That was it. The abuse got worse…
“You keep it hidden for so long. You don’t deal with it. Residential school does not teach you how to be a parent (tears from her daughter) ….It made me really, really angry. Because I was taken away, no one had ever taught me to be a parent (tears)….
“For a long time, it didn’t appear to affect me…Then one day, I was in a gallery, looking at some Jim Logan paintings, and every one reminded me of residential school. My reaction was totally unexpected…(tears)…All of a sudden, I felt something I never felt before. I went back to the office, turned my chair to the wall and I started crying. The tears flowed for a very long time. That’s when I realized what had happened to me was not normal, that I had been in denial….
“I remembered things I had never thought about. They were so vivid, as if they had happened the day before….That’s when I began to feel the nausea that affected me for the next few years. The hurt made you want to scream and throw up. You are trying to get rid of something that was there for a long time. I went into a sweat lodge and I screamed, trying to get rid of that horrible man….
“Healing is something you have to go through to get rid of the pain that has been there so long. My healing journey goes on and will last the rest of my life….”
Ms. Commodore’s final words were overwhelming.
“I have been able to forgive just about everyone in my life. I have not been able to forgive my abuser. I can’t do it. I was such a little girl when I went there, and he took so much away from me.”
She recalled a discussion with another victim who has forgiven his abuser. “I wonder how he did it. He’s a bigger person than me. But one day, I will have to forgive [my abuser, too]….”
She concluded: “I won’t apologize for my tears, because I deserve them.”
Those listening reacted with whoops and prolonged applause, as Ms. Commodore slowly left the stage, assisted by her two, teary-eyed daughters.
The TRC also heard equally moving testimony from Leonard Alexcee, who recounted his repeated sexual abuse from an employee at the same Port Alberni school, and Sainty Morris, who wetted many eyes with his sad tale of being forced by a priest to drown a puppy his young cousin had brought to the school.
These are only three stories. There are thousands and thousands of others. A national shame is on display. Yet the over-rding message for all, including survivors, has been to learn and go forward. “We need to stop walking into our future backwards,” observed Justice Sinclair.
Sharing sessions continue Thursday and Friday at the PNE. Recommended.