Opening Ceremony of Education Day, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Alberta National Event
Edmonton, Thursday, March 27, 2014
Thank you for welcoming me to this important gathering. It is an honour and a privilege to be here.
Allow me to acknowledge that this gathering is taking place within traditional Treaty 6 Plains Cree territory.
It is difficult to know where to begin my remarks to you this morning.
The existence of residential schools will forever be among the great wrongs of Canadian history—an example of the profound harm we are capable of when inequality, paternalism and racism prevail over our sense of common humanity.
As someone who has dedicated most of his working life to education, I am also deeply disturbed by the residential school system’s betrayal of the most fundamental principles of learning.
Education should never be about the narrow exclusion of cultures or worldviews. Rather, learning should be about growth and inclusiveness, discovery of the self, of others, and of the world around us. The approach should be one of diversity and respect.
Instead, residential schools tried to dispossess generations of Aboriginal people of their languages, their cultures and their dignity. Children were taken from their families and relocated, sometimes to distant schools. Profound damage was done to many thousands of individuals, as well as to their families, their communities and the entire country.
Today, we are gathered to hear the testimony of survivors and of those who knew them—friends and family members, as well as those who worked in the schools. We are gathered to hear the truth from those who experienced residential schools first-hand.
It is so important that we do so. With the consent of those to whom the stories belong, statements made to this commission will become part of the permanent record of what took place in residential schools, helping to inform all Canadians of this awful chapter in our history.
And the truths we hear will become part of the effort to foster healing and reconciliation within Canada.
I know the work of this commission is far from over, but the significance of the storytelling that is taking place here in Edmonton and at previous events across the country should not be underestimated.
As Thomas King has written:
“Most of us think that history is in the past. It’s not. History is the stories we tell about the past. That’s all it is. Stories.”
Because of this, it is vitally important that our stories reflect the diversity of our experiences—even when those experiences are painful and full of sorrow and anger.
Those who step forward to tell their stories today, and those who have done so at events like this across Canada, deserve our utmost respect and appreciation. It cannot be an easy thing to do.
Let me share a story with you—one that gives me some hope for our common future.
A few years ago, my wife, Sharon, and I visited Resolute, Nunavut. One of my activities there was to fire the starter pistol and take part in the Terry Fox Run. I had just given the signal and was about to join the race when a young Inuit boy came up to me and asked, “Who are you, anyway?”
I said I was the governor general.
He then asked, “What’s your name, anyway?”
I said my name is David.
Then he asked me, “How old are you, anyway?”
I smiled and told him I was 70.
He then said, “I didn’t think there was anybody that old, anyway!”
I share this story because that curious and energetic little boy with the great sense of humour would likely have ended up in a residential school, in a different time and place. Happily, that is not the case today, but it’s a fact that should make us all pause.
The wrongs of the past can never be righted, but we can work together to do better for the children of this generation and of those that follow.
We can, and we must.
That is why reconciliation is so important. And as everyone in this room understands, there can be no reconciliation without a full accounting of what happened and why.
To know our story is to know more of ourselves, and to have a better chance at avoiding a repeat of the terrible wrongs of the past in new forms today.
Thank you once again for inviting me to witness these proceedings. I will do my very best to honour and to do justice to the testimony I hear today.