There was little cause for Canada Day celebrations or patriotic flag waving among the more than 300 people that gathered on the stairs and street below the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate Thursday afternoon.
Some made calls to never celebrate Canada Day again and even challenged the legitimacy of Canada as a nation.
The Cancel Canada Day: Solidarity with Indigenous People event was one of many protest rallies held in cities across the country in response to the growing number of unmarked graves being unearthed at the sites of former residential schools.
“It started off with 215 and the numbers are getting bigger,” said indigenous elder Maani Anne Cheesequay. “The places are being acknowledged slowly but surely.”
The boarding schools in the residential schools’ system, that started in 1880, were typically operated by religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, in coordination with the Canadian Government.
The stated goal was “to kill the Indian in the child” and assimilate them into the white, European, culture of colonial settlers. The children were often forcibly removed and taken long distances from their families and communities to limit contact with Indigenous influences.
That experience alone was traumatizing to the child, but many were physically, sexually and emotionally abused. The neglect and abuse contributed to unusually high levels of illness and death that were documented by the Department of Indian Affairs as early as 1907.
Nevertheless, the schools remained open for another 90 years, in some cases.
“Aboriginal people’s children, three years old, were being stolen, kidnapped from their parents,” said Cheesequak. “We are collectively mourning but we are also collectively acting. Empowering ourselves to rise up together. Support one another shoulder to shoulder.”
Indigenous leaders such as Cheesequak and guest speaker, Skyler Williams from Six Nations, consider the discovery of the unmarked graves a vindication of what residential school survivors have been claiming for years.
They are hopeful that the revelations will help mobilize the public to put pressure on the government to follow through with the 94 calls to action, agreed upon as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as settle in good faith many ongoing land claims and other First Nations’ disputes.
“I expect from all of you, now that the wool has come off of your eyes, you can see exactly the trauma, our nations have been dealing with now for 200 years,” said Williams. “This isn’t something that is an historical trauma that we talk about like it happened when the Mayflower got here. This is something that my parents, that my grandparents and now I am dealing with on a daily basis.”
Many at the rally and march wore orange shirts in solidarity with Indigenous people and communities across the country. They wrote messages in chalk on the street below the basilica and drew outlines around the hands and bodies of children to signify the more than 1,500 Indigenous children located in the unmarked graves so far.
The last residential school closed in 1997 but the long-term impact on Indigenous communities has yet to be fully appreciated.
“I have worked very closely with the Woodland Cultural Centre,” said Indigenous entrepreneur and activist, Layla Black. “I have helped with their, Save the Evidence, campaign to preserve the building and turn it into a site of conscience where people can go and learn and hear the stories.”
The Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford is on the site of a former residential school that was bought by Six Nations and converted into a museum: https://woodlandculturalcentre.ca
“I’ve had the chance to speak to many survivors and there is one story that always sticks out for me,” said Black. “It was from a survivor named Geronimo Henry who went to the school when he was five years old, and he didn’t leave until he was 16.”
Henry’s story illustrates the emotional impact of being isolated from family and community.
“He said to me, ‘Layla, in those 11 years I never once heard the words, I love you’”, said Black. “Just sit with that for a moment. As a generational survivor, I can tell you, that affects how you parent your children. That affects how you show love to your children and now as this next generation we are processing this. We are finally understanding it and we are strong enough to heal from it.”
Henry was denied his right to his culture and his language and Black felt compelled to symbolically right that wrong.
“One of the words I would like to teach everyone today in honour of all those children, that never heard the words I love you, is a Mohawk word,” she said. “Repeat after me, it can be a little tricky, konoronhkwa.”
The crowd repeated the word, konoronhkwa, a few times with Black.
“Konoronhkwa, means I love you,” she said. “We love you. We are here for you. We’re here today, not to bash Canada as easy as it is to get really angry. We’re here today because we are ready to walk. We’re ready to walk together, not just take a step. We are ready to walk side by side down this road, down this river of life.”