Voices of support for victims of residential schools
After hearing of the 215 Indigenous children found in a mass grave at a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Reverend Susan Lewis hung an orange shirt on the door of the St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Shawville.
She did this in recognition of Indigenous children that were forced to attend any of the 139 residential schools across Canada – those who survived and those who lost their lives.
With some help from Caitlin Foy, a community outreach coordinator at the Connexions Resource Centre, the shirt was soon joined by an array of red dresses and water jugs.
The dresses represent hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. “[It’s about] remembering the Indigenous girls and their families who are still waiting for answers,” said Lewis.
Having taught in Northern Ontario communities that don’t have access to clean water, Foy wanted the display to address the lack of clean water in some Indigenous communities. According to the Council of Canadians, 73 per cent of First Nations’ water systems are at high or medium risk of contamination.
“It’s been pushed aside and forgotten about,” said Foy. “It’s not really talked about.”
Now, the display sits outside the church in the hopes of bringing attention to issues faced by Indigenous peoples and to show empathy for those affected.
“These [issues] are not in any way unknown,” said Lewis. “Unfortunately, it is an untaught history. It’s important we learn the history that isn’t taught in schools.”
According to Lewis, the Anglican Parish of West Quebec has been working on a weekly initiative to recognize Indigenous history. At Sunday sermons, they have speakers and guests who lead discussions on Indigenous issues and history.
“This is something to learn about and understand,” said Lewis. “We’ve had people say they’ve learned from what we’ve done, say they’ve been touched by these stories.”
But it’s not just Lewis and Foy. Other displays have been set up at locations across the Pontiac, including St-Jacques-Le-Majeur Roman Catholic Church in Portage-du-Fort and outside houses in the region.
Shawville residents Tom McCann and Cheryl Stanley set up a display outside their home. At first, it depicted an upside down flag and the number 215 on a sign above it.
“Any sign being inverted is an international recognition that something is wrong,” said McCann, who feels the country is in a time of crisis.
The couple has since updated the sign to show the increasing number of bodies found at residential schools. Attached to the flag is a sign that reads, “we must do better.”
According to Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi reserve, Indigenous children who attended residential schools were taken from their families and discouraged from using the names or languages of their peoples. Instead, they were given European names and forced to speak English or French.
“You were forced to speak English,” said Whiteduck. “We lost a lot of that language because it was physically and mentally beaten out of us.”
According to Whiteduck, these experiences damaged the culture of many communities and survivors were left with traumatic memories. He added that many survivors turned to alcohol and much of this trauma gets passed on through generations.
After learning about residential schools, McCann felt shocked and disturbed.
“It broke my heart,” said McCann. “When I was an altar boy growing up… other kids my age were being taken from their homes. That’s hard to reconcile in my view of Canada.”
Canadian Residential schools first officially opened in 1883, with the last school closing in 1997. Over the years, an estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children were forced to attend residential schools.
McCann, a father of three, explained that his children were of age with some of the Indigenous children who attended residential schools. He says he couldn’t imagine what it would have been like had his children been taken from him.
“If one or two got taken away, I don’t know how I’d even exist afterwards,” he said. “That’s hardly the Canada I grew up in. For the first time in my life, I was ashamed to be Canadian. We sent soldiers
to war to fight the kinds of atrocities that happened here.”
Lewis encourages people to “open their hearts” and to get informed about issues faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. She also encourages Canadians to hold politicians to their promises related to Indigenous issues.
“Now, it’s our responsibility to make sure our elected officials make right what happened,” said McCann. “And that they do it in a way that isn’t just a photo op.”
As part of the 2015 Liberal platform, Justin Trudeau pledged to end drinking water advisories in 126 First Nations by March 2021. There are still advisories in 33 First Nations communities, which the federal government says they will not be able to end until 2023-2024.
Whiteduck says that people can show support by posting on social media, talking to local politicians and wearing orange shirts or hanging orange ribbons outside houses.
“These small gestures mean a lot,” said Whiteduck. “When the average Canadian starts to speak up, the government listens.”
Since May, over 1,000 Indigenous children have been found in mass graves at residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada says that to date, it has found information on over 4,100 who died of disease or accident while attending residential schools.
“This is a point in our history that is going to have to be honest,” said McCann. “How we respond to this will say as much about us as the incident itself.”
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