Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Whitehorse today to reflect on the legacy of residential schools, as well as the thousands of children who never made it home.
“The hurt many of us have been living for a lifetime was brought back to surface this year,” said residential school survivor and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) councillor Jessie Dawson.
“It’s important to mark this day, and make space for feelings, for coming together, to remember, to mourn, and to reflect.”
A handful of events were organized for people in Whitehorse to mark the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, which just recently became a federal holiday in the territory.
One event included a drum procession of 60 people led by members of the Warrior Walkers for Healing Nations.
The group made national headlines this summer for walking over 2,000 km from the Yukon to Kamloops, B.C., in honour of the 215 probable graves that were discovered at the former Kamloops residential school.
The walkers marched from Whitehorse’s Porter Creek neighborhood to a healing totem pole in the city’s downtown waterfront, at one point stopping traffic at a busy Whitehorse intersection where they drummed and sang.
Around 200 people gathered at the totem pole to welcome the procession.
A prayer was led by KDFN Elder Dianne Smith who noted the policies of residential schools greatly harmed First Nations peoples and culture in the Yukon.
“Today, Creator, the ones that are here today we give thanks for their parents and also the strength that they carry to endure the history of residential schools,” she said.
The walkers then performed a chief’s prayer song which was sung during their journey to Kamloops. The song was led by one of the song’s writers and composers, Kaaxnox, Dän nätthe äda Chief Steve Smith of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.
The crowd then walked to the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre where they gathered around a sacred fire and heard speeches from Dawson and Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston.
“Today is not only about educating the future, but telling about the past and from where we come, and we should not be ashamed anymore of who we are,” said Johnston.
Dawson spoke of how she’s seen a positive shift in people’s attitudes towards survivors.
“It used to be when we spoke our truth, people would turn away, turn a blind eye, to what we were saying. Now I see a change happening. I see it in the people here today, and in the people who ask me ‘what can I do?’” she said.
Dawson said Sept. 30 is a day to honour truth, and build a path forward towards reconciliation.
“Today our truth is finally being told across the country. It’s up to us as survivors to take control of our past and decide what we want for our future.
“Despite what we have endured, I see a bright future. I invite you all to see that bright future too.”