More than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their home in between the age 4 and 16, their lives altered forever. Over 4000 children didn’t return to their communities.
Next week, for National Week of Truth and Reconciliation, agencies across the district will host teachings and activities from September 25 to 30 for all people to bear witness to the experience of being forced into residential schools.
The organizing committee began meeting in May this year. At the initial meetings, ideas are shared and wisdom sought out from elders on what they would like to see at the event, leading to this year’s focus on the healing power of reconciliation and the beauty of Indigenous culture.
Rather than jamming everything into a one-day event, the elders also advised holding teachings and activities across the span of a week.
“That’s kind of where all this started from,” said Samatha Korzinski, program manager at Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre and one of the key organizers this year, along with Bill Morrison, community relations at Weechi-it-te-win Family Services.
The committee has seen a lot of growth over the past three years since planning events for national truth and reconciliation week. The first year involved around 4 agencies, but now, Korzinski says around 20 agencies are working together to make the events happen.
Speaking upon the immense collaboration and positive change they have seen throughout the years, Dean Wilson, director of administration for Weechi-it-te-win Family Services, says both native and non-native agencies are now working together.
“It’s quite unique, all these different bodies and like-minded people are getting together to promote this event and bring awareness to what truth and reconciliation is about,” he said.
Wilson himself has had many close family members attend and suffer in residential schools.
He empathizes with those who have experienced deep grief and loss. Following in the footsteps of his father, a residential school survivor who later became a chief to his community and who created positive change, Wilson encourages people to face the reality of what has happened and take a step toward reconciliation.
“At the beginning, it was a handshake, and there was a treaty signed, and it was to share things. And now after 150 years, where are we at?” Wilson asks. “I think that’s where the reconciliation part comes in.”
“If you upset your spouse, what do you do? You apologize, you try to work together and you hug. And that’s what we have to do to reconcile,” he said. “The most important part is through education.”
Wilson says last year was very well attended and he is excited for this upcoming year’s events.
The planning committee alone is an indication that people have the same objective and vision for the future, Wilson says, noting that going from 2 to 20 agencies over a few years is a big reason to celebrate.
Korzinski agreed, saying she was grateful and surprised to see how many emails she had received from businesses, organizations, and even from random locals in town who wanted to give their support.
“It’s just really amazing to see,” she said. “I think the first year we did the [awareness] walk, we had maybe 200 people, and last year we had about 700 people or even more. I’m hoping we’re over 1500 this year.”
Wilson agreed that it was amazing to see how widely-attended the awareness walk has been.
“It’s an amazing sight,” he said. “For me, personally, I wear the orange for my dad. It’s an emotional time. For the ones that went through this, for the kids that dealt with it, for myself as a son. And, you know, I wish my dad could see it, but he’s passed on.”
Over time, the district has seen change happen in institutions too, he says. Seeing the importance of educating the public about Indigenous history, high schools have agreed to have students bussed to the truth and reconciliation events and municipalities pay recognition through flag raising.
Morrison added that one of the reasons the committee moved the awareness walk from September 30th to the 29th was for students to attend. In support of the initiative, agencies have covered the additional expenses to have bussing for children to attend the events.
Mental health counselors will be present to support people experiencing difficult emotions surrounding the stories that will be told at events. “We have people there to help them deal with these things, because there’s a lot of grief that’s happened,” Wilson said.
Although difficult, Wilson said it’s important to talk about the issues.
“Let’s talk about the history, let’s educate people—everybody— about what is going on,” he said. “I’ve heard, ‘It’s so long ago, why can’t people just get over it?’ Well, it’s part of my history, you know, as a son of a residential school member. He protected me from that, so now I protect my daughter from it, because of the effects that he faced. And so it has an effect on all of us.”
“Today, we’re dealing with the things that happened in the past. How do we do that? Working together is the best way to do it. And I think these kinds of events bring it to the forefront,” he said.
To give a brief summary of events, the opening flag raising takes place on Monday, September 25, at 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Fort Frances Town Hall (320 Portage Ave, Fort Frances).
Later that day, the traditional opening ceremony takes place from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Nanicost Grounds, and from 2 to 7 p.m. residents are invited to participate in orange t-shirt beading at the gym at Agency One First Nations.
A second flag raising ceremony will take place at the Nanicost Grounds at 1 p.m. for the Every Child Matters flag and the Survivors’ Flag.
Tobacco teachings and tobacco pouch making takes place on Tuesday, September 26, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Seven Generations Education Institute Maker’s Space.
Banner making for the awareness walk takes place on Wednesday, September 27, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the United Native Friendship Centre Outdoor Space (516 Portage Ave, Fort Frances).
Yet to be announced, a teaching and activity will take place on Thursday, September 28, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Nanicost Gym at Agency One First Nations.
The Every Child Matters Awareness Walk and lunch will take place on Friday, September 29, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., starting at the Sorting Gap Marina and ending at the Nanicost Grounds. Mental health supports, agency booths and displays will be onsite as well.
Lastly, a sunrise ceremony commemoration and breakfast will be held on Saturday, September 30, from 7 to 11 a.m. at the Residential School Monument at the Nanicost Grounds. This includes a ceremony, breakfast, songs, healing dances and commemoration.
Grounded in the belief that sharing culture is beautiful, Wilson says that the events are for all people of all ages and backgrounds to attend.