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Canadians reflect about residential schools on Truth and Reconciliation Day

With drumming and singing, at powwows and public ceremonies, communities across the country marked the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Friday.
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AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald speaks at a Miyo-wiciwitowin Day event at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says today's National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is about the survivors who suffered in Canada's residential schools and the children who never made it home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Bell

With drumming and singing, at powwows and public ceremonies, communities across the country marked the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on Friday.

The federal statutory holiday, also known as Orange Shirt Day, was established last year to remember children who died while being forced to attend residential schools, as well as those who survived, and the families and communities still affected by  lasting trauma.

Grass dancer Nathan Rice, wearing a colourful beaded vest and a feather headdress, said he experienced a sense of hope when he looked out on the thousands of people wearing orange as he performed at a Songhees Nation powwow at Victoria's Royal Athletic Park.

"It's a good step in the right direction," said Rice, 29, who was thinking about his grandfather who attended residential school at Kuper Island, off southern Vancouver Island. 

"It's definitely a hard thought for sure, but it definitely gives me strength," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined representatives of various First Nations and dozens of people in orange for a sunrise ceremony in Niagara Falls, Ont. He stood silently as the ceremony took place and spoke with survivors afterwards.

Later in the morning, Trudeau addressed an event to mark the day.

"This is a day for Indigenous Peoples. Today to recognize that yes, you are still here, you are still strong, and you are an indissociable part of the present and the future we build every day as a country," he told the crowd.

"It is a day to remember, to grieve, to take another step along healing. But it is also a day for non-Indigenous peoples to recognize that you should not have to carry this burden alone."

The speeches and events occur even as the grim work that helped inspire the day continues. 

In Mission, B.C., where Orange Shirt Day finds its origins, work began in September to search for graves with ground-penetrating radar at the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. The City of Mission said in a statement the efforts would continue as long as dry weather allows.

It was at another Mission school, St. Joseph Mission Residential School, where student Phyllis Webstad had an orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, taken away when she attended the school in the 1970s.

Webstad's story led to the foundation of Orange Shirt Day, which would become the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. 

It was established as a federal statutory holiday last year following the discovery of suspected unmarked burial sites at former residential schools. 

Webstad was at the Niagara Falls event and said she had a realization while looking at a picture of her family in 2018.

"I realized that for the first time in five generations, children in my family, my grandchildren, are being raised by their mother and their father. (My) granny, (my) mum, me and my son didn't have that because of residential school," she said, surrounded by over a dozen members of her family and extended family.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said in an interview that the day was about residential school survivors and the children who never returned. 

"It's their day, especially those who suffered in those institutions and survived and then I also feel that it's for all the little ones who died in those institutions and didn't make it home," she said.

"It's also a time to reflect. It's a time to learn about Canada's true history."

Back in Victoria, a city hall official estimated up to 10,000 people attended the powwow. 

“To the survivors, we’re here to support you in any way we can,” said Songhees Nation Chief Ron Sam. “I raise my hands to each and every one of you for coming here.” 

B.C. Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin, holding a deer skin drum made by a residential school survivor, said his heart was full as he looked at how many people had gathered. 

“Thank you,” he said. “Be patient with us as we take this journey of reconciliation together.”

Earlier, at Centennial Square in Victoria, hundreds stood silently, some wiping tears, as residential school survivor Eddy Charlie said he needed to share awful truths. 

Charlie, from the Cowichan Valley about 45 kilometres north of Victoria, said he was barely five years old when he arrived at a residential school, and years away from his family turned him and others into “perfect hate machines.” 

The more he told his story of pain and trauma, the easier it became to heal, he said. 

“That is my hope for victory on Orange Shirt Day,” Charlie said.

In Winnipeg, thousands shouted “Every child matters" as they marched to the RBC Convention Centre.

Minegoziibe Anishinabe Chief Derek Nepinak told the crowd that there can’t be reconciliation without truth, and the sites of former schools and sanatoriums must be searched for graves.

“Canada has to make those investments to help us find our lost ones because there are so many of them out there. Once we can identify that, then we can start talking about the true history of what Canada’s built upon — the tears and heartbreak of our people,” he said.

Brandyn Nabess attended the Winnipeg event with his wife and son. His grandmother was forced to attend a residential school as a child, but he says she hid this from her children. He says he was glad to see this changing.  

“It’s awesome that they’re finally talking about it. With us, we didn’t acknowledge it, we didn’t talk about it in school whatsoever.”

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon — the first Indigenous person to hold the post — welcomed nearly 100 schoolchildren and staff to Rideau Hall in Ottawa, where she spoke to them about reconciliation.

Simon told the children she grew up speaking Inuktitut. "I still speak my language every day," she said, adding she doesn't want to forget it.

Simon, who is 75, said at her age she’s learning a new language, French, and told the kids it would be good if they could a learn an Indigenous word every day. She then went on to teach them an Inuktitut word that means to never give up.

In Toronto, a group drummed and sang Indigenous songs as a woman in traditional attire danced at a gathering at the city's downtown Nathan Phillips Square.

Kevin Myran, an organizer of the drummers' team, said his grandmother was a residential school survivor and told him horrific stories. 

Myran said one day isn’t enough to commemorate the historical losses suffered by Indigenous Peoples.

“It is something (that) needs to be spoken about every day. It is something that needs to be spoken about at schools, this is something that needs to be in history books, and talk about what happened,” he said.

Hundreds gathered in downtown Halifax to mark the day and hear from Acadia First Nation Chief Deborah Robinson and Mi’kmaw elder Alan Knockwood. 

Knockwood told the crowd at the city’s Grand Parade that as the community comes together to reflect on Canada’s legacy of colonialism, the children lost in the residential school system are "here in our hearts and they are with us here."

He led a prayer in English and in Mi’kmaw.

"My language is still alive but residential school survivors like myself have a difficult time speaking it because it was beaten out of me." 

Many of Nova Scotia’s planned events were postponed due to the damage from post-tropical storm Fiona.

Canada's residential school system, funded by the federal government and run by Catholic churches, was established in the 1800s. It removed roughly 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children from their families. The last school closed in 1997.

Many children were sexually, physically or psychologically abused in the system designed to get the "Indian" out of the child.

In Yellowknife, Shutoatine or Mountain Dene Elder Paul Andrew, a residential school survivor who was formerly chief of Tulita, N.W.T., spoke of late friends with whom he attended the residential school in Inuvik, and the experience of parents "who had their children taken away.“

"I also think about these little ones here,” he said, referring to Indigenous children in the crowd. 

“They deserve better. That’s what resiliency is all about. It is people singing their songs, talking about praying in the mornings, it is talking about our language, our culture, our history and teaching the young ones.”

The future of Indigenous children was also on the mind of Webstad at Niagara Falls. She said her children and grandchildren brought her hope and helped her believe that the future is bright.

"The other night I heard my eldest grandson sing for the first time. I almost cried when I heard that," said Webstad, suppressing emotion. 

"So, we are getting back our culture."

— With files from Jessica Smith in Niagara Falls, Ont., Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa, Lyndsay Armstrong in Halifax, Sharif Hassan in Toronto, Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg and Emily Blake in Yellowknife. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2022.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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