"As a nation, perhaps we haven't even started nation-building because a lot of people in this country haven't been included in the process," said Robert Watts, special advisor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools, in an address to the General Assembly on June 5. "There's a societal opportunity before all of us," he continued, to engage Aboriginal people in a way they haven't in the process of creating Canada.
The Commission was established on June 1 and is an effort resulting from the court-approved Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement that was negotiated between former students, churches, the Assembly of First Nations and other Aboriginal organizations. The Presbyterian Assembly was one of the first stops on a five-year journey of listening to both private and public stories of residential school survivors.
Claudette Dumont-Smith, a native health expert who was that week named one of three commissioners – along with Jane Morley and Justice Harry S. Laforme – told the Assembly, "We do know the church played a significant role in helping carry out work of residential schools, but what we don't know is the truth."
The Presbyterian Church was one of four denominations, along with Anglican and Roman Catholic, and after 1925 the United Church, that administered residential schools on behalf of the federal government. From the early 1900s to as late as 1996, more than150,000 students were forced to attend one of 130 government-run schools where they were restricted from seeing their families, speaking their language or practicing their culture, and were also physically and sexually abused.
"It's not fair to our nation's history to not include [these stories]," said Watts, a father of three and grandfather of four from Ontario's Six Nations Reserve. "When you consider the impact it's had on aboriginal people we have to ask 'Why hasn't it been part of our history?'"
On June 11 the Prime Minister Steven Harper offered an apology to the Aboriginal people for its role in the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools.
Moderator of the 134th General Assembly Rev. Cheol Soon Park said in an interview, "You can't just say 'I'm sorry' then turn around and forget about it; that's not reconciliation. The first step is to deliver the story, what we learned."