They came by the thousands on a sunny June day four years ago to the first Truth and Reconciliation event in Winnipeg, pouring onto a riverbank site their ancestors had occupied for millennia. And there, at a sacred ceremony in the heart of the city, the First Nations people lit a fire.
There was hope in that gathering, pain and promise. It was a glimpse of Canada's past, and its future.
The four-day event was unprecedented in size, and in the depth of emotion it unleashed - sorrow, guilt, shame, rage - all stemming from Canada's woeful Indian residential school system.
The ashes from that sacred fire would be carried over the next four years to other gatherings - each drawing more and more survivors and witnesses - until they arrived in Edmonton for the final event.
In Edmonton, too, there was hope, pain and great promise. Not so much in the apologies from church leaders and politicians, or the profoundly moving testimony of survivors, but in the sheer critical mass of the First Nations people, nodding as wrongs were acknowledged, weeping as stories were shared, listening to promises from mayors to governors general to archbishops.
The gathering itself represented a public reclamation of aboriginal pride. Between the 1870s and 1996, more than 150,000 children were placed in federally funded, churchrun schools as part of a forced assimilation policy. Alberta had more than two dozen schools, designed to take the Indian out of the child.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to document their history, to educate all Canadians on its tragic legacy, and ultimately, according to chair Justice Murray Sinclair, "to lay the groundwork that will help us to close the divide between aboriginal people and the rest of Canadian. "We have to give them something more than anger," he said. "We need to give them something more than frustration. We need to give them a pathway to self-respect."
For survivor Marlene Piche of Cold Lake, Alta., a highlight was the presence of Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson. "He made promises to the people," she said.
"He acknowledged the native people and that this is native land and then he welcomed us to Edmonton."
Iveson went even further, declaring a "year of reconciliation" in Edmonton, promising to create an urban aboriginal youth leadership initiative; to educate city staff on the history of residential schools and reconciliation in the workplace; to create a place to promote the "spiritual and cultural practices of all indigenous communities."
These promises must be kept.
And they are just the beginning as we seek to close the divide.
The mayor knows Edmonton will soon have the nation's largest urban aboriginal population. He knows we coexist on Treaty 6 land, and must honour that treaty. He knows we must show Canada the way. It starts with respect, the kind Edmontonians shared daily at the TRC.
As this massive event closed the darkest chapter in the country's history, as the sacred fire was extinguished and the people marched to the legislature, we were yet again given a glimpse of Canada's past and future.
The truth has emerged; let reconciliation begin. We have miles to go, and promises to keep.
This is an edited version of an editorial that first appeared in the Edmonton Journal.