TORONTO – The bitter history of Canada's attempt to wipe out aboriginal culture through a system of Church-run schools has come to Canada's largest and most invisible native community – and its biggest city.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is meeting with 600 delegates, including about 100 residential school survivors, in downtown Toronto at a May 31 to June 2 community-organized event called The Meeting Place, a name that freely translates the Mohawk word ktaronto, which eventually became the name of the city.
About 80,000 aboriginal Canadians – Metis, Indian and Inuit – live in Toronto.
The TRC's visit to Toronto is a matter of life and death for native culture said event organizer Darlene Ritchie.
"Our people are on the edge. Our people are facing extinction," said Ritchie, president of Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre.
As native languages, spirituality and customs disappear under economic and cultural pressure it's essential for the first of Canada's three founding nations to tell its story of survival to the rest of the country, said Ritchie.
Coming to the heart of Canada's media, financial and cultural industries to present the oral history of residential schools is a matter of claiming equal status in Canada, she said.
The Toronto event is an attempt to engage the majority of Canadians, said TRC commissioner Marie Wilson.
While 75 per cent of aboriginal Canadians live north and west of Winnipeg, 75 per cent of Canadians live in the cities and towns east of Winnipeg. Trying to bring these separate worlds together is a first step toward reconciliation, she said.
"How do we engage the other 35 million people in this country who are not indigenous, who think this has nothing to do with them?" Wilson asked.
The commission's aim is to introduce the majority to Canada's real history as a colonizing nation, Wilson said.
In particular, the message has to get out to the new Canadians, said Wilson.
"It's important for newcomers and all Canadians to acknowledge what this land is," said Ritchie.
Part of Canada's history that most Canadians still don't know is the role Chief Tecumseh played in ensuring Canada survived the War of 1812, Ritchie said. Without Tecumseh's Confederacy, the British could not have won the war.
"We won the War of 1812," said an emotional Ritchie. "And what did we get as thanks? As acknowledgment? We got the Indian Act of 1829."
As the event opened, Lt.-Gov. David Onley brought greetings from the crown.
Canadians take pride in their historic role opposing apartheid in South Africa but don't know their own history in relation to the original people of their country, Onley said.
Getting things right between native people and the Canadian majority is not a matter of rebuilding a broken relationship but of building a new relationship built on trust, said Ontario Aboriginal Affairs Minister Kathleen Wynne.
"It's not that we can go back to something. It's that we must build something going forward," said Wynne.
About 150,000 aboriginal children were placed in residential schools run by Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches between 1870 and 1990.