A sea of orange flooded the lawn outside the halls of power on Parliament Hill as a huge crowd assembled to mark the country’s newest holiday, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, on Thursday.
More than a thousand people gathered around the Centennial Flame in Ottawa where a memorial of stuffed teddy bears and little kids’ shoes has grown steadily over the last four months.
The crowd watched as residential school survivors received an eagle feather each beneath the morning sun. Language, songs and culture filled the air during two hours of speeches that followed.
Algonquin Elder Claudette Commanda welcomed everyone to her people’s unceded territory. She said the discovery of 215 probable unmarked graves at a former residential school site near Kamloops, B.C., woke not just the country to the horrors of the residential school system — but the world as well.
“From the moment those little ones went into the ground, they were speaking in spirit, and they knew there would come a day when we would hear their voices,” Commanda said.
“Let us hold those children in our heart forevermore, and hold all the children that will continue to be found.”
The discovery in Kamloops was followed by a discovery of more than 700 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, though not all belonged to former pupils.
The news spurred grief and sent shockwaves across the country. Searches using ground-penetrating radar are underway at other former school locations.
The mood was somber on Thursday.
It was a day to remember those kids whose voices were silenced. People donned regalia in honour of those barred from practicing their culture. They sang for those who never learned their traditional songs. It was also a day to demand justice for those who never had any.
Among the speakers was Doug George-Kanentiio, a well-known journalist and author from Akwesasne who survived the Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont.
George-Kanentiio urged those with power to hold the perpetrators of abuses at residential schools responsible. Ministers Marc Miller and Carolyn Bennett watched from the lawn as he spoke.
“Every residential school site — all 130 of them — has to be declared a criminal site, a place were the most grievous crimes were brought to bear upon those children. Every site has to be protected,” George-Kanentiio said as the crowd cheered in agreement.
“Anyone who took part in the abuse of those children has to be held liable under the criminal laws of Canada,” he continued. “Age is not an excuse. Age is not a defence. Age is not a cover.”
Following the speeches, the crowd, now grown several thousand strong, marched its way reflectively past the Prime Minister’s Office building before concluding at Confederation Park.
Meanwhile, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon taped an address to the nation. As the daughter of a white father and Inuk mother, Simon said that she was not allowed to attend a residential school.
She stayed behind and was home-schooled while other children were ripped away from their homes, separated from their families and sent to residential schools where they were not allowed to speak an Indigenous language or honour their culture.
The Canadian government estimates more than 150,000 were forced to attend the government-funded and church-run institutions between 1831 and 1996.
It’s estimated that 6,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis kids died. The true number may never be known with any certainty, however, due to the destruction of relevant records.
Simon’s address was partly done in her first language: Inuktitut.
“Honour those indigenous children who experienced or witnessed cruel injustices,” she urged.
“Many emerged traumatized, many still suffer pain.”
On Wednesday evening, at a ceremony hosted by the government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a speech behind the same collection of empty shoes and bears. Behind him, the Peace Tower glowed with bright orange light in the darkness.
It’s easy, said Trudeau, to talk about the good things the country has done. But, “It’s harder to reflect on the truth of the mistakes — of the evil that we did in the past, but that’s what this day, this day of truth and reconciliation, must be,” he added.
“This country in its past was responsible for terrible injustices.”
With files from the Canadian Press