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Honorary witnesses promise to spread the word [TRC Event]
Former Prime Minister Joe Clark has committed to tell the story of what he has heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s regional event in Saskatoon as part of his duties as an honorary witness. And he’s promising that he has access to some of the country’s most influential people, who he intends to speak with about the harm that was inflicted on Indian children within the residential school system.
“We should not be called honorary witnesses,” said Clark. “We should be called honoured witnesses, because we are truly honoured to be part of what you are doing.”
Clark was joined for the TRC regional event June 21 to June 24 by a number of well-known people who have accepted the role of honorary witness, including former Auditor General Sheila Fraser and actress and former Member of Parliament Tina Keeper. Sir Sidney Mead, a Maori anthropologist and historian who made an unexpected appearance, was also given the title of honorary witness.
“The truth … is that we need help to face up to the facts of the past and potential of that present and future,” said TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson, who spoke about the role of the honorary witness.
“We need prominent helpers who will not only live out their right to know the truth here, their responsibility to remember what they have learned here, but who will also commit to taking forward and teaching others and spreading the word,” Wilson said.
The honorary witnesses were chosen by the commission for not only wielding influence but for “demonstrat(ing) through their own lifetime of accomplishments a tremendous commitment to social justice and the welfare of all.”
Keeper is a former Manitoba Liberal MP who pushed Prime Minister Stephen Harper to allow Aboriginal leaders to speak from the floor of the House of Commons after he delivered Canada’s apology for residential schools in June 2008. After initially denying her suggestion, Aboriginal leaders were granted the opportunity to speak.
“Yesterday was an incredible opportunity for me personally to let the tears flow, and they flowed all day long,” Keeper said. “And I didn’t do that when I was in the House of Commons.”
She believed then that, as the face of Indigenous people, she needed to remain strong and feared that tears would be seen as weakness.
“I am deeply honoured to continue this journey of truth and reconciliation for you and all of your friends and families and for survivors who have passed on, for our children and grandchildren,” Keeper said.
The work of Sheila Fraser, who served as Canada’s auditor general for 10 years, has often been cited by Aboriginal leaders as ammunition for improving Aboriginal living conditions.
“During my time as auditor general I tried to bring the truth to the absolutely unacceptable conditions of First Nations on reserves to our Parliament and to Canadians in general. My only regret was that I wasn’t able to report more progress at the end of 10 years,” said Fraser.
She admitted to not knowing until recently about residential schools and their intergenerational impacts.
She expressed hope and conviction that the work undertaken by the TRC could reach those she could not and provide a better understanding and education of the Aboriginal situation.
“And I commit to you to do what I can to help to build that understanding,” she said.
Mead committed to telling the Maori people in his home country about what he had learned in Saskatoon.
“We acknowledge your bravery. We acknowledge the pain you’ve been through and also draw attention to what may be a miracle. That, after all, of those efforts to knock the Indian out of you, you are still Indian today,” said Mead to applause. “Well done.”
Mead sat on a tribunal which dealt with historical grievances and listened to how his own people suffered as their treaty was not honoured. He said what residential school survivors have experienced in Canada is similar to what his people have endured.
“And this is a kind of pain I’m sure you understand which is very close to your eyes, that it doesn’t take much to bring tears to those eyes because that experience, that information is right behind your eyeballs,” said Mead. “To hear of what you’ve been through – after listening to some of that – I realize how close your experiences were to my eyes.”
Photo caption: Commissioners and honourary witnesses (from left): Holocaust survivor Robbie Weisman; former federal minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Andy Scott; Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall; former federal auditor general Sheila Fraser; TRC commissioner Marie Wilson; former Prime Minister Joe Clark; TRC Chair Justice Murray Sinclair; CBC broadcaster Shelagh Rogers; and TRC commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild.
Photo: Courtesy of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
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