Sacred fire lit to honour 215 buried children in B.C.

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

On Monday about 100 individuals gathered at the site of the former residential school in Fort Frances to support their neighbours in B.C. after the remains of 215 children were discovered at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops.

The discovery was made on Thursday when Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said in a statement that with the help of ground penetrating radar specialist, the stark truth of the preliminary findings came to light. This was the confirmation of the remains of 215 children who were students at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Only a few days after the shocking news emerged from B.C., First Nations communities have rallied to acknowledge the struggles, provide support and help alleviate the grievance felt by residential school survivors and their families.

Elder Gilbert Smith of Naicatchewenin First Nation officiated the ceremony along with Brian Perrault, Chief of Couchiching First Nation.

Elder Gilbert Smith of Naicatchewenin First Nation officiated the ceremony. He said it is important to work the government and non-Native people who want to learn about their culture. [Photo © Merna Emara]

“Today is a very sad day for us,” Smith said as he pointed his sacred feather to the sky. “This scared fire is a way of showing our neighbours in the West that we’re not forgetting about them. We found a way to help them by using our tobacco.”

A sacred fire is a traditional wellness practice observed by Indigenous communities in North America. With the sacred fire, a spiritual realm is opened, where individuals can communicate with each other and their deceased ancestors.

“When a person dies, the spirit does not die,” Smith said. “The spirits of the children that were found are still alive. Those children are now spirits listening to us from all directions. Our neighbours in the west are struggling. They need help. We’re being heard now as we speak.”

Perrault’s attendance also made a positive statement, as all band members gathered to mourn, remember and support one another.

It seems like things were moving in a direction, Perrault said as he told the audience how Couchiching First Nation will take similar actions to that of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

“I got an email from one of our Couchiching Band members. She works with different projects that do DNA testing. She is now living in B.C.,” Perrault said.

Perrault said this band member had been talking to Couchiching First Nation historian Glenn Jourdain about history and family trees.

“One of the things that somebody had shared with her are stories about children also buried over here or other places,” Perrault said. “I have a feeling that what they found in British Columbia is not the only place where children never actually went home from residential schools.”

Therefore, Perrault said they are going to get a group of elders to help guide a project where they might be using the technology used in B.C. to do a search here.

“We’re going to be doing that,” Perrault added. “But we need the advice of the elders and those who attended residential schools. We are going to ask them to help guide during the work.”

Brian Perrault, Chief of Couchiching First Nation, addresses the crowd and said scanning local grounds with technology and elder guidance is a possibility. [Photo © Merna Emara]

Smith said this is an important step moving forward in order to make things better, while saying work has to be done with the government that allowed this to happen in that school.

“I know how to work side by side with the non-native people and people who want to learn about our culture,” Smith said. “We need to come together to find ways on how we’re going to move forward. This affects us all. I heard so many hurting unresolved stories in the past, which stems from the residential school.”

The event was mainly planned by Carrie Atatise-Norwegian, council member for Lac La Croix First Nation, after a flurry of online reactions from First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario surfaced days following the discovery.

Atatise-Norwegian said the intent of this ceremony is to both recognize those who did not make it home and to honour those who went to residential schools and are still with us.

“The intent of the sacred fire is to facilitate some kind of healing and support for all of us because all of us are impacted, no matter what, it’s been very heavy, because I’m heavy to begin with,” Atatise-Norwegian said. “The sacred fire has been lit with the intention that people will offer tobacco for themselves and family members that attended Indian Residential Schools and for those who are not here and could potentially be here.”

Orange t-shirts and ribbons were also given to attendees by Arlene Tucker, coordinator at the Tele-Mental Health Services and Bobby Atatise, administrative assistant at Tele-Mental Health Services.

Arlene Tucker and Bobby Atatise from Tele-Mental Health Services joined the ceremony to show their support by giving orange t-shirts and ribbons. [Photo © Merna Emara]

Atatise said this is a good time for non-Indigenous allies to show advocacy by joining similar events.

“Everybody is feeling a little on edge about the situation,” Atatise said. “People need to be aware of this. The more you can advocate the better.”

Tucker said Tele-Mental Health provides children with access to psychiatrists and video or telephone calls to mental health care.

“We need healing and reconciliation,” Tucker said. “The government has to make everybody aware that this is history. There is a black stain on our history. I really think this is the tip of the iceberg here.”

The fire has been lit since Monday and has continued to be looked after by fire-keepers. It is set to go out tomorrow, marking four days since Monday’s ceremony. Fort Frances Mayor June Caul has also ordered that the flags at Civic Centre in Fort Frances be lowered during the week, as the community grapples with the developing news.

Following the news, a national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set to support those affected. Those who need access to emotional and crisis referrals can call the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.