BY BRENT WITTMEIER, EDMONTON JOURNAL
EDMONTON - Willie Littlechild has heard the dark stories, exposed to light after a half century of secrecy.
In the past five years, the former Conservative MP has listened to thousands of horror stories while travelling to 600 Canadian communities as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
He’s also seen the relief and healing that can follow.
Between March 27-30, Edmonton will host the seventh and final national event for the commission, established in 2008 as part of a settlement between aboriginal students, churches and the federal government. Up to 4,000 people are expected to attend the Shaw Conference Centre each day to learn about the history of the schools, rife with abuse and home aboriginal children removed from their families.
Health Canada will have 350 support workers on-site to help people who react to what they hear.
Littlechild, a 69-year-old lawyer and one of the three commissioners, initially hesitated to apply for the job. But the experience of listening to thousands of aboriginal Canadians talk about their experience has been more a blessing than a challenge, he said.
“My own story was being told in front of me,” said Littlechild, who attended three schools himself as a child. “It was very emotionally challenging for me to listen to a person tell us about their life and experience when it happened to me.”
Alberta had about 25 residential schools, more than any other province, operated in Canada from the 1870s to 1996. Fifteen were administered by Roman Catholic dioceses or religious congregations. About 12,000 survivors live in the province, the largest proportion of those in Edmonton.
Mayor Don Iveson said collective efforts are needed to repair the damage cause by the schools. It’s especially true in Edmonton, which Iveson said will surpass Winnipeg in size of largest urban population of aboriginals within the next two years.
The city will contribute $100,000 in cash and another $150,000 in potential services toward the event’s $2-million budget.
“It’s important for Edmontonians to hear those stories,” Iveson said. “And that is the turning point then in our journey to understanding and then reconciliation.”
At the Tuesday new conference at City Hall, Wetaskiwin Mayor Bill Elliot was named an honorary witness for the Edmonton hearings. The former teacher has set his sights on improving relations between his community with nearby Maskwacis, formerly Hobbema. Wetaskiwin has Cree syllabics on welcome signs and business cards and is strengthening ties to band councils.
When the commission meetings came to Maskwacis last summer, Elliot said he wasn’t prepared. Friends and colleagues he had known for years were residential school survivors, he discovered. One named dozens of classmates who had killed themselves by suicide or overdose.
“The whole thing was just so intense,” Elliot said. “And being a retired educator, to know that educators would treat somebody that way blew me away. You wouldn’t do that to a puppy, let alone a five-year-old child.”