Editor’s note: The story below may trigger difficult or traumatic thoughts and memories. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s 24-hour crisis line is available at 1-866-925-4419.
“Hollow words are not enough.”
Those were the words from the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations RoseAnne Archibald at a Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc event marking the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The day is a direct response to a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc sparked a movement across Canada when they revealed that they had found the unmarked graves of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential school in May. At the start of August, Ottawa moved to make Sept. 30 – previously marked as Orange Shirt Day in B.C. – the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Although the day is a statutory holiday for federally regulated employees, the emphasis from many First Nations people has been for non–Indigenous Canadians to make the day by listening and learning about the impact of the residential school system.
In Kamloops, Archibald continued, calling residential schools “institutions of assimilation and genocide.
“I attended many schools across Ontario and none of them had graveyards,” she added.
The facilities operated from the 1800s until 1996. There were more than 140 of them, including 18 in B.C. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, where they died from a variety of causes including both physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition, diseases and neglect.
Tk’emlúps Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir addressed a recent apology from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Casimir said that their apology, issued last week, was too similar to that given during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which issued its report six years ago.
Of the 94 calls to action from the commission, No. 56–61 call on the Pope to apologize for the Catholic church’s role in running residential schools, as well as to make funding and records available. The commission’s calls to action No. 71–76 call for the federal government to work with Indigenous Peoples to release records and assist in finding and commemorating missing children.
The commission said in 2015 that least 3,200 children died at residential schools, although recent discoveries show that the number of deaths is likely to be much higher. Families were not typically informed of what happened to their children.
Tk’emlúps legal counsel Don Worme said that the First Nation is willing to work with the government and the church, those organizations must fully cooperate.
“We need disclosure of all relevant records… (but) we don’t need a document dump. We need them in a fashion that is useful to the survivors,” Worme said.
But for today, and all days going forward, Archibald said, Indigenous Peoples must be the focus.
“One hundred per cent of First Nations people suffer from intergeneration trauma,” she said. “This is a day to honour the survivors, the intergenerational survivors, of the institutions.”
Elsewhere across the country communities and cities recognized the day with events and ceremonies. On the Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, where children attended the Marieval Indian Residential School up until the mid-90s, Chief Cadmus Delorme told a crowd that the day is about healing.
Cowessess is another First Nation that reported the discovery of unmarked graves or burial sites at a former school using ground-penetrating radar. In June, it said 751 graves were believed to have been found.
“We don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We want to heal. We want to get stronger,” Delorme said.
“The truth is going to be really tough. Even for Indigenous people, the truth is hard to acknowledge because of the pain. But we can’t have reconciliation without truth. Today is a day for people to come together.”
On Parliament Hill, there was a sea of orange, as several thousand people gathered on the lawn in front of the Peace Tower for a morning ceremony under a bright blue sky.
Event organizer Jenny Sutherland said the day was to be about peace, not a day for protest.
“The nation is finally awakening to our story,” Sutherland told the crowd, which continued to grow over two hours of speeches, songs and prayers.
Algonquin Anishinabe Elder Claudette Commanda said it was a day to reflect and honour those who never came home.
“Two-hundred and fifteen little voices woke the country,” she said. “From the moment those little ones went into the ground, they were speaking in spirit. They knew there would come a day that we would all hear their voices. And let us hold those children in our heart forevermore.”
— With files from Mickey Djuric at Cowessess First Nation and Mia Rabson in Ottawa, The Canadian Press
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