Some of the information and content in this blog post may be difficult and/or triggering.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing difficulty related to this topic or the information in this article, help is available 24 hours a day through the Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Line, 1-866-925-4419.
For the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the Winnipeg Art Gallery (“WAG”) in collaboration with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, hosted various programming throughout the day honouring, reflecting upon, and listening to survivor stories. As a daughter and granddaughter of Indian Residential School survivors, I showed up in my ribbon skirt and orange t-shirt ready to learn, remember and honour my family members.
Programming began with a survivor’s circle which featured a series of short episodes from Indian Residential School survivors. The series began with a story from John Thomas of Halalt First Nation in British Columbia and a moving story of John’s late uncle, Richard Thomas, who attended and had died at Kuper Island Indian Residential School. John talked about his life living on Halalt First Nation, and his childhood living with the intergenerational impacts of residential schooling. During the course of the interview, the interviewer shared with John that he had discovered a few stories written by Richard Thomas at the Vancouver Library. One of Richard’s stories was about Halalt First Nation origins and how the Halalt First Nation was named after a powerful matriarch. John never knew about this story and to experience this archival finding for the first time was emotional and beautiful. John said, “a piece of Richard was found.” On June 2, 1966, Richard, 16, was found dead, hanging in the school’s gymnasium, just days before his Grade 8 graduation. Richard’s stories recount instances of abuse. While the official explanation stated that Richard died by suicide, Richard’s family and friends felt this couldn’t be true.
Following this series of episodes, the WAG hosted NCTR’s live video Remembering the Children in Ottawa, Canada. This event was attended by Justice Murray Sinclair, Her Excellency Governor General of Canada Mary Simon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and others. Justice Murray Sinclair spoke about the importance this day brings for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike. It is because of the courage and strength of Indian Residential School survivors that there is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sinclair states “For the non-Indigenous people, the way you have been educated has had an influence on who you are and who we are (as Indigenous peoples).”
Beatrice Deer, an Inuk singer from Nunavik performed a moving song for the mothers whose children were stolen to these schools. While singing she wore traditional Inuit parka amauti which beautifully carried and allowed her baby to rest behind her.
A speech by Stephanie Scott from the National Truth and Reconciliation Centre reiterated the importance of understanding the truths from these schools. “For too long, the truth was hidden and denied. Children were taught to keep it hidden.” This day marks the importance of bringing Canada together to acknowledge the on-going impacts of the Indian Residential School System.
As emotions continued, a drum group performed an honour song while the National Students Memorial Register, a 50-metre red cloth had been carried through the crowd that contained all the names of the children that had been stolen to these schools. There were so many names. Everyone stood in silence and disbelief. Something so visual put into perspective all the lives lost, all the generations lost.
Dennis Saddleman shared his poem “Monster: A Residential School Experience”, a poem that allowed the audience into the perspective of an Indian Residential School survivor. Monster was a powerful poem filled with sadness and triumph. Saddleman’s poem shared his hate for residential schools, while eventually coming to peace and forgiveness.
This was just a short perspective of the programming that took place on September 30th at the WAG. The WAG’s display of Indigenous art and artists, highlighting the importance of Indigenous traditions, culture and history made this event a success in so many ways.
As an Indigenous woman, this day was more than wearing an orange t-shirt, it’s my reality. It’s the life I was born into, and through all the difficulties and trauma, it will always be the life I am proud of. However, Indigenous peoples need allies, we need people to support us and learn these truths. As Stephanie Scott said, “Indigenous peoples cannot walk alone.”