The word “Survivor” was one that troubled me at the outset of the work of the TRC because it sounded like a word that referred to “just getting by”. I preferred to think of the many who were “thrivers” and engaged in several conversations with others about whether we should refrain from using the word altogether and refer to them as “students”. Because survivors themselves seemed to prefer to be called that, I deferred to their wishes, though reluctantly. I’ve since given the matter more thought and after five years of listening to their testimony, I’m now convinced that it is exactly the right word for them because it means much more than merely getting by. To survive a challenge is to persevere. To survive an attack is to prevail. When you persevere and prevail, you emerge victorious, and that’s what surviving the residential school experience means. Survivors have prevailed. They are still here because they persevered. They have not been defeated. They may have been bloodied in the process, but they have not been defeated.
But victory is not yet at hand for them. To complete the military metaphor, the enemy may have surrendered, but it has not yet retreated from the ground that has been taken. If reconciliation is about establishing a permanent peace, then reconciliation requires that what has been taken be returned, what has been hurt be healed, what has been damaged be repaired, and what has been destroyed be rebuilt. Some of that duty is for government, some is for the churches, some is for the survivors, and some is for all Aboriginal people. So now we must determine who must do what, and when and how. This will not be easy.