Voices at Vigil — Centering Indigenous peoples

Honouring the lives of the 215 children, and the hundreds more who have yet to be recovered

insideWaterloo attended the vigil earlier this week to join Indigenous community members in honouring the memory of the 215 children. Some Indigenous people who were interviewed at Monday’s vigil have expressed dismay that their nuanced, heartfelt interviews with local reporters were skewed and misrepresented in the resulting coverage. For our coverage, we have decided to preserve full quotes from our interviews and edit only for clarity.

(The 215 children’s memorial at the Healing of the Seven Generations. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

Donna Dubie, Executive Director of Healing of the Seven Generations

You know, I have my own stories that I’ve had to live with, all 64 years of my life every single day. So when something like this has been brought up in the community, it’s not for my awareness, it’s for mainstream communities’ awareness. I think this is an excellent time and opportunity for the government to step up. Talk time is over. Talk time is over. We’ve been sharing our stories all my life and probably all my father’s life and my grandparents’ life. Time for action. They need to respect our people, they need to comply with the things that are needed in our communities and on the reserves, and they need to stick with the treaties and the promises that were made to our community so that we can get over the legacy of the residential schools.

The last residential school closed in 1996. This discovery has shocked the world, but it doesn’t come as a surprise to Indigenous communities on Turtle Island, does it?

Our history and our stories have been shared year after year, for different events, different coming together of our community, and it just seems like now that they have proof, that there’s bones that they have found, that now it makes our stories truea month ago, they didn’t believe what we said, but now they have proof that shows that what we said was true.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada highlighted the need for investigations into residential schools across the country.

Things like this happen to our community regularly. If it’s not here this week, it’s there next week or the week after, somewhere else or daily things happen where women or children are abused. It still continues. People are mistreated in every single system: education, health care, justice, child welfare, all those systems are still being mistreated and looked down on.

Lee Anne Hundt, Executive Director of Native Housing

We’ve been mourning for hundreds of years. This isn’t the first burial ground that they’ve uncovered over the residential schools and it won’t be the last. There’s a call of action to have a look at some of these schools and on earth, some of the children still haven’t returned. This is a wake-up call for the churches and the government to take responsibility for their part in these children not being able to get home, and for the families who never knew what happened. This is all in the news already, do the research and look up how many bodies are actually found. 215 is a drop in the bucket. Do what has actually been located over the years, and there’s so many more to locate and they need to have a proper burial. And so this is just, this is building awareness and getting people to educate themselves. Now this fire is going to be going for four days and four nights and that’s what we are doing to bring awareness to this so I mean I think it’s a call for people to educate themselves.

(The Indigenous community at the vigil held at the Healing of the Seven Generations. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

Nina De Shane, Indigenous Elder at Wilmot Family Resource Centre, interviewed at a small ceremony in Baden

What’s the importance of observance today?

We are honoring them with our songs, with our memories, with our sacred medicines, we placed them on the earth, as close to the earth as we can get, which is our tradition, and people have generously donated baby moccasins as you can see, and hopefully this will grow as people know that it’s here and and available, and I think it would be really. We’re hoping that the children hear us and know that they’re loved, that they were always loved and that we’re so sorry that it’s taken all this time to find them. Because people told us for years and years and years that their children were missing, but we couldn’t find them. And the churches or whatever school it was always said the children ran away. And we can see that these 215 children did not run away. And I think we’re going to find, unfortunately, more mass graves at more residential schools on the grounds of more residential schools in the near future.

(Nina De Shane leads a small ceremony with her grandchildren at the former Sir John A. Macdonald statue plinth in Baden. Phi Doan/insideWaterloo)

We’ve heard calls from political parties, Indigenous groups, local community members, all saying that this sort of search of former residential schools needs to continue.

Yes it does. Absolutely. All of them need to be searched because we know these kinds of things. There were all kinds of abuses that were reported, when the investigations into residential schools went on. And so this is not new. This is not new information, but there was a proposal that they would look at the grounds of the schools for mass graves, and the government was always reluctant to do that. So I think that now we see the things that we’ve always been told by survivors and by the families of people who sent children to the schools who did not return home.

Imagine if you sent your children to school. And they didn’t come home how that would feel. And sometimes they’re far far away like hundreds of miles away that were picked up by Indian agents and taken to a residential school that was hundreds of miles from where you live. So you had no chance of getting there. And then summer comes and the children come back, and then your children don’t come back. And they begin asking questions the Indian agent knows nothing about. By the time letters go through and the children are going back to school again, nobody knows anything. ‘They ran away, they must have run away, we don’t know, we have no records of them.’

And the thing that is so chilling is that these were church-led schools, and they were schools that were governed by the churches with the support of the government, and these are the same churches who managed to keep meticulous records of births, deaths marriages in Europe for hundreds of years before they ever came to this country. How is it possible that hundreds and hundreds of children would just be misplaced or vanish, that nobody could tell anybody what happened to them. In the oral tradition, we know this from talking to people, but because it was by word-of-mouth, nobody was listening, because it wasn’t documented in the records. Well now we know. This is just the beginning.

Municipalities and government buildings across Canada have lowered their flags, as well as at Castle Kilbride, to half mast for 215 hours. One hour for every child. We’ve also seen conversations, locally, about the prospect of leaving those a half mast for the entire month of June. What’s your take on this?

I mean that’s really not my determination, it’s not up to me. It’s not my decision, and it’s not my purview to say things like [that]. My one concern is that that particular home was a Catholic home. It was run by the oblate fathers first and then taken over by the Roman Catholic Church. And I feel that by [governments] doing these very public kinds of things; it’s good in one way, because the public comes to notice that, but it also lets the churches off the hook, because the churches were the ones that are really officially, in my view, to blame for this. And, of course, the government is too. They were working hand in hand. That idea of maybe ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ was part of their ideology. I don’t know, but the thing is that the churches are just escaping. And I think some of these shoes need to land on the steps of the Catholic Church or the Presbyterian Church or the Anglican Church or the Mennonite Church, wherever the homes were that we find mass graves like this. I think that there’s something that needs to be said publicly, by the people who ran those churches for such a long period of time. It’s not just the government.

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