OTTAWA — It was when Paul Voudrach began to cry that they started passing out Kleenex by the box.
Up until that point, volunteers with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been discreetly moving through the densely packed hotel ballroom, offering a tissue here, a tissue there, as Justice Murray Sinclair sketched out the broad, ugly strokes of Canada’s residential-school past and its barely unspoken policy of “cultural genocide.”
“Removed from their families and home communities, seven generations of aboriginal children were denied their identity,” Sinclair said in his even, from-the-bench baritone.
The children of residential schools, said Sinclair, became unable to answer simple questions: “Where do I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? And who am I?”
Videos of testimony from some of the 6,750-plus school survivors who gave statements to the commission over its six-year course played on two giant screens during breaks between each of the live addresses Tuesday.
The first gut-wallop came after Sinclair’s opening speech.
Children shivering under a single thin blanket, girls forced to eat their own vomit, beatings, rapes — the unvarnished horror of their experiences reeled out on the giant screens interspersed with vintage, black-and-white photos of moon-faced, unsmiling children.
But it was Voudrach who broke the dam.
“I used to look at the stars and I used to think my Mom and Dad are seeing the same stars I’m looking at,” said the sobbing, grey-templed man, sounding every bit the terrified little boy of his youth.
“I really, really was alone. Lonely. Scared.”
By the time Marie Wilson, the second of three commissioners delivering Tuesday’s report, stepped up to the lectern, even the press corps was clearing its throat.
Amid the 94 report recommendations, the political recriminations, charges of colonialism, House of Commons debates and questions over who does what next for whom, one unavoidable reality emerged from the commission’s historic summary report.
“Let us not forget we are talking about children,” Wilson, with just a hint of anger, told the coughing, sniffling, transfixed crowd.
She detailed the 3,200 students for whom records exist showing they never returned home from residential schools. For almost a third of those kids, no name was logged. A quarter of the dead were not identified even by gender, and for almost half no cause of death was recorded.
Poor or destroyed records lead the commission to believe in all more than 6,000 children — roughly one in 25 — died in residential schools, and most of the bodies were not returned to their parents and communities.
“Instead they were buried at the schools — sometimes in schools that had no playgrounds, but did have cemeteries,” said Wilson, causing a murmur of dismay to ripple through the room.
“Consider what it means, what we’re talking about today, the enormity of it.”
The steely, teary resolve in Wilson’s voice was the closest the day came to anger, other than one moment late in the proceedings.
Bernard Valcourt, the federal aboriginal affairs minister, delivered the government of Canada’s official response to the commission report, even managing to garner a polite smattering of applause when he said the burden of reconciliation “is properly ours as a government and a country.”
As he sat down, a woman in the crowd began screaming an inchoate rant about dead native children in Alberta, children’s services and organ harvesting. “They’re ending up dead in the Red River!” she concluded to a smattering of applause.
The officials on stage politely heard her out. No one appeared to escort her from the room.
The mood was better characterized by the many speakers who talked of opening hearts and minds.
One videotaped school survivor drew the biggest laugh of the day, whoops of delight and long sustained applause when she spoke of her happiness in helping other survivors.
“My happiness is my revenge,” she said, lighting up the room.
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Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press