'We are way past the blame game' Survivor who is now battling cancer plans to join thousands for four-kilometre Reconciliation Walk
- 'We are way past the blame game'
Survivor who is now battling cancer plans to join thousands for four-kilometre Reconciliation Walk
BY LORI CULBERT, VANCOUVER SUNSEPTEMBER 14, 2013
Alvin Dixon is a survivor of native residential schools. He and thousands of others will take part in a walk to raise awareness about residential school abuse, part of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission events this week.
Photograph by: Jason Payne, PNG, Vancouver SunBlame and anger will not be the emotions fuelling 76-year-old residential school survivor Alvin Dixon as he takes part in Truth and Reconciliation events in Vancouver next week.
He instead is seeking mutual respect from all Canadians, as a way to acknowledge past sins to First Nations children and commit to working together to build a better future. "Some people talk about drunken Indians without realizing the government has done this to us. ... But we are way past the blame game. That is why reconciliation is the aim now," said Dixon, who was sent to the Port Alberni residential school from age 10 to 17.
"This residential school history is not an aboriginal history. It is a Canadian history that everyone in our country should own and acknowledge and respect."
The sixth of seven national events by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins in Vancouver on Wednesday, where survivors can share stories about enduring physical and psychological abuse in English-speaking boarding schools after being ripped from their families and culture.
As a result of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the courts ordered the commission to gather evidence about residential schools and inspire renewed relationships between native and non-native Canadians.
That appears to be happening in Vancouver, which will host the largest of the national events so far.
Universities are encouraging students to get engaged. The University of B.C., for example, has suspended classes on Sept. 18 so students can attend the opening day of the hearings.
There will be a tribute to First Nations hockey at the Vancouver Giants' home-opener Sept. 20.
Schoolchildren have made 50,000 tiles with images and messages of reconciliation that will be given to commission participants.
Many churches have told parishioners they should skip Sunday services to participate in a Reconciliation Walk, to be held Sept. 22 when the hearings have ended.
More than 400 teams have signed up for the walk, representing such varied groups as political parties, government organizations, churches, schools, unions, lawyers, health workers, gay groups, Temple Sholom, and a Japanese association.
The walk was organized by the grassroots group Reconciliation Canada, formed by Chief Robert Joseph and his daughter Karen to revitalize the relationship between aboriginals and other Canadians.
They have planned a flotilla of native and non-native boats across False Creek on Tuesday, the day before the hearings begin.
The growing size and diversity of the event, which will end the week, has shocked organizers.
"It has been absolutely humbling and inspiring to know how many people really want to be involved in this in a deep, meaningful way," said Karen Joseph, who had a challenging childhood being raised by parents who were psychologically and physically harmed in residential schools.
"We understood the word heathen before we knew other words, because we knew that was what we were. ... That impacts your whole self-worth."
Multi-generational survivors of residential schools will share similar stories with the commission, but the focus of the walk is to end the week on a positive note: that many people from other ethnic backgrounds want to work with First Nations towards a more cohesive future.
The bishop of the local Anglican diocese has encouraged parishioners to face the truth about the church's role in this story, move beyond old attitudes, and walk with native people in partnership.
"The Anglican Church is one of the churches that ran residential schools so we are compelled to be part of this, we want to be part of this, it is our duty to be part of this," said Pat McSherry, of St. James Anglican Church in East Vancouver.
Kicking off the walk will be a speech by Bernice King, daughter of U.S. human rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., who inspired a racially divided nation 50 years ago when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to marchers in Washington.
The reconciliation events in Vancouver, including Bernice King's speech, could provide a similar watershed moment here, said Vancity vicepresident Linda Morris, whose credit union gave $500,000 to Reconciliation Canada.
"Walking together, talking together - I think reconciliation is bringing us to move beyond thinking about the politics of things and the religion of things," she said.
"There's social change, there's economic change, there's cultural change. The walk and the events are the tip of the iceberg."
Dixon is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer, but still hopes to walk all four kilometres of the winding route, starting at Georgia and Hamilton and ending at Concord Pacific Place at 88 Pacific Blvd.
Born in Bella Bella, Dixon was raised by a grandmother who didn't speak English and frequently pulled him out of public school to take him deep into nature to gather food, make herbal medicines and weave baskets.
Seven of Dixon's eight siblings were in residential school, and he was jealous because living off the land with his grandmother was hard work.
When his grandmother died, the then-10-year-old boy was excited when a government agent sent him away to school - a new adventure far away in Port Alberni.
That enthusiasm was short-lived. "Two hours after I got there, they beat it out of me," recalled Dixon, who had spoken only his native dialect with his grandmother.
"I got strapped within two hours for speaking Heiltsuk ... I had to give up the language and the culture."
There was too much corporal punishment and never enough food in school. And because his siblings were sent to different institutions, he still has a distant relationship with them today.
Despite all the odds against him, Dixon did well in school and went to university, one of only six First Nations students at UBC when he started in 1956. He completed a fouryear arts degree and trained to become a teacher, and for a time taught in Bella Bella.
He is a longtime member of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, and chaired a residential school committee for the United Church (which ran his school).
Dixon, who has four children and six grandchildren, said the healing must begin with his own people, who need to move beyond the past and embrace a better future.
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