Marjorie Natrall seems to remember it like it was yesterday.
It was 1936. She was eight years old, a young Squamish girl living with her family in a small house on Marine Drive in West Vancouver. One day a Catholic priest visited her home and saw young Marjorie standing behind her mother. “Who’s that?” the priest asked. “That’s Marji, my daughter,” her mother responded.
“How come she’s not in school?”
Marjorie’s mother told the priest that her daughter was very sick and would be better served by staying at home. He was unmoved, telling her that both she and her daughter would go to jail if Marjorie didn’t go to school.
Her mother relented when she learned that her daughter wouldn’t be too far off at St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver, just a city away.
For Marjorie, however, that was no consolation.
“They brought me there, this big school there with a bunch of kids,” she says. “(The) first day I was so scared, you know, I’d never been away from my mother.”
Over the next five years, Marjorie became one of over 80,000 aboriginal kids that history would come to know as “stolen children” — kids taken from their families by churches and government and placed in residential schools where they would be assimilated into Canadian society.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
To date, the history of residential schools has been rough at best, but Marjorie will soon have a chance along with thousands of others to enter her story into Canadian history as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — the first of its kind in Canada. It comes as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which, with individual payouts to survivors that have reached $30,000, is the biggest class action settlement in Canadian history.
The commission is a five-year, $60-million project that began its work on June 1 and ultimately hopes to hold events in seven Canadian cities. Overseen by a panel of three commissioners, it has a number of objectives — chief among them is to give former students and anyone else affected by residential schools a chance to share their experiences either through truth sharing or statement-taking.
It is open to hearing from numerous parties, including First Nations, Inuit or Métis former students, as well as their families and communities. It also welcomes testimony from church representatives and former school employees.
The commission’s work will coincide with an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to be made in the House of Commons on June 11.