Community invited to heal through sacred ceremonies

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

After a year of collaboration between numerous committees, the Fort Frances region is set to experience its largest full-day event commemorating National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. A Powwow, walk and other events will take place September 30, to honour the survivors of residential schools and recognize the ongoing impacts of residential schools in Indigenous communities throughout Canada.

Tanya Hughes, mental health services manager at Giishkaandago’Ikwe Health Services (formerly known as Fort Frances Tribal Area Health Services), says that even if attendees stay for a short while, she hopes that people will see the significance of the day.

“It’s that collaboration and the importance of not losing focus of what the day is really about,” Hughes said. “It’s starting to get really large, and with larger numbers, we may become more disconnected with what that day really means to us.”

She notes that the stories shared could trigger difficult emotions and that mental health support will be available throughout the event.

Despite the heaviness of the day, Hughes said it’s an important step to take and only the start of the work that is yet to come. “It’s the reality of one’s life and what has happened, and we can no longer hide the truth.”

“Working collaboratively is what we need to do to pave the road of truth and reconciliation,” Hughes said. “Building awareness and providing support is a huge focus of the day, along with the importance of listening to and honoring the survivors who are both directly and indirectly impacted by residential schools.”

The National Center for Truth and Reconciliation makes archival records available to the survivors, communities, and the public to cultivate understanding of the history of Canada and mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples.

One document reveals that a residential school located in Fort Frances was still running less than 50 years ago.

Fort Frances (St. Margaret’s) Indian Residential School was located on the Couchiching Reserve along the southwest shore of Rainy Lake.

It was in operation from April 1, 1906 to September 30, 1974 and accommodated 152 students at its highest level of enrollment. There were 89 students enrolled in its final year of operation.

Ward Churchill described in his book “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”, that residential schools were an act of cultural genocide. The schools prohibited the use of the students’ own languages, and the expression of their own religions or cultural practices. Many students were left permanently scarred, resulting alcoholism, suicide, and the transmission of trauma to their own children.

Today, health centers like Giishkaandago’Ikwe Health Services dedicate their efforts to supporting the individuals impacted. Services include holistic mental health counseling, substance abuse services, cultural and community support services, and countless others.

Many members on the center’s elders advisory council are residential school survivors, said cultural coordinator Mackenzie Archie.

“I had asked our elders committee, because a lot of them are residential school survivors, and that’s what the day is about. So I had said to them, ‘what do you want to see happen on this day? What would you like us to do to raise awareness on this day?’ And they told us that they wanted a Powwow,” she said.

It will take place from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. at the Nanicost Grounds.

“A Powwow is a very sacred ceremony, and when you go to a Powwow, you do a lot of healing there by hearing the drums, by offering your tobacco, by being in that sacred circle. Sometimes you don’t even realize the healing that is taking place there because you’re just so immersed in the culture,” Archie said.

Those attending for the first time may feel uncertain about what to do. Archie assures that an emcee will explain each part and why they are doing it. Some will be dressed in Indigenous regalia, such as a ribbon skirt, but those dressed in casual attire are free to enter the sacred circle and dance to the drumming however they like.

Archie stresses that the ceremony is inclusive to everyone

“You don’t even need to dance. You’re welcome to walk and just feel all that healing that’s happening in that sacred circle,” Archie said. “If it is your first time going to a Powwow, the best thing that you can do is just have an open mind and open heart. And you know, sit down and watch and don’t be scared to ask questions.”

Spiritual advisor Gilbert Smith will be present at the event to answer questions. The inquirer can offer tobacco to demonstrate respect when asking for assistance from the Indigenous elder. Archie said that a tobacco tie, where the tobacco is wrapped in colorful cloth, is not needed and loose tobacco is appropriate.

People are welcome to put tobacco into the sacred fire and say a prayer at the Powwow.

“They say that the smoke from your tobacco, when it goes into the fire and it floats up into the air, they say that smoke is your prayer going up to creator,” Archie said. “It’s just little things like that that you learn at the Powwow.”

The elders committee is also excited to spotlight a drum group called Broken Horn drum group. It consists of young boys aging from seven to fourteen. Archie said they paid for materials, built their drums, and learned the songs on their own.

“It’s just a really remarkable story about these boys. And our elders wanted to ensure that they were there because they are the future generation. So for them to see them learning this way of life and wanting to do it on your own. It’s beautiful,” she said.

Archie attended Powwows and many other ceremonies as a young girl growing up. “I’ve grown up traditionally, and in my culture,” she said.

When she started her role as cultural coordinator, she traveled to many Indigenous communities to build relationships with people and network for health programs. Part of her role includes making sure that the elders advisory council is taken care of.

“I’ve built really strong relationships with them, just by doing daily phone calls, check-ins with them, going to visit them in their communities, bringing them in to meet our staff. It’s really just come natural to me to build these relationships with the elders, but, you know, a lot of it has been done at Powwows and different ceremonies in different communities,” she said.

“There’s so much knowledge and teachings and traditions and things that you learn at a Powwow that you just want to learn more about. And once you learn more about it, you just want to share that knowledge like you never stop learning. You know, our elders tell us that all the time. Like, no matter what age you’re at, you’re always going to be learning something.”

You can learn more about National Day of Truth and Reconciliation here: