An important week of activities and events in the district got off to a historic start on Monday morning as the Survivor’s Flag was raised at the Fort Frances Civic Centre.
The orange Survivor’s Flag is an expression of remembrance meant to honour residential school survivors, according to the website for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and its raising at the civic centre was meant to mark the beginning of a week of observance for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, which will be held on Saturday, September 30, 2023. Monday’s flag raising marks the first time the flag has been flown in Fort Frances, and is a symbolic step forward on the path of reconciliation, even as work remains to be done.
To mark the occasion, Fort Frances mayor Andrew Hallikas was joined by several town councillors, elder Tommy Councillor, members of the local Truth and Reconciliation organizing committee, drummers from Weechi-It-Te-Win Family Services, and dozens of members of the public for a ceremonial opening and the flag raising itself, which was raised up the pole by Albert Cochrane and Henry Willy, two survivors of the residential school system.
“This is a very special occasion, a very spiritual occasion, a very historical occasion,” Hallikas noted.
“It’s the first time that we’ve flown a Truth and Reconciliation flag at the civic centre. And this is no ordinary flag. This is the Survivor’s Flag, which is the same flag that flies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.”
Following a blessing and payer offered by Councillor, and drumming from the Weechi-It-Te-Win drummers, Hallikas invited Bill Morrison, who works for Weechi-It-Te-Win Family services and is a member of the organizing committee, to speak on behalf of those members. Made up of representatives from 17 different participating organizations from across the Rainy River District and Treaty #3 lands, Morrison noted the committee has been busy over the past few months putting together different activities and events to help spread knowledge and understanding around First Nations’ traditions and the ongoing impact of the residential school system.
“This multi-agency committee has been meeting for months to plan events we are hosting every day this week, beginning here raising up the Survivor’s Flag,” Morrison said.
“The cultural activities we are hosting this week will bring awareness and understanding for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30. The truth is the atrocities of Canada’s residential school system are real, and they need to be acknowledged by Canadians. Over 150,000 indigenous children aged four to 16 years old were taken from their communities to be assimilated into residential schools. Over 4,000 children did not make it home.”
Morrison shared that he and Hallikas visited the residential school display that stands at the Nanicost building, taking the time to read some of the names of children that went there, as well as some of the government letters from that time, which Morrison called “Repulsive and shameful.”
“It’s no wonder there’s been so much inter-generational trauma for the residential school system that is still being felt today in so many First Nation communities across Canada,” Morrison said.
“We’re beginning to see reconciliation as more Canadians learn and become aware of this dark period of Canadian history. This is where it starts, by working together in honour of the residential school survivors and the children who never made it home.”
Ozhaashko Bines, a parliamentary assistant to Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski, and perhaps better known to some locally by his former name, Mark Morrisseau, was also invited to speak at the flag raising. He noted, as a member of Couchiching First Nation, that even as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is fairly new to many Canadians, the movement it came from, and the damaging system that made it necessary, are much older and well known among Indigenous communities who still struggle with its impacts today.
“The federal government only created the day as a federal holiday in 2021,” Bines said.
“But its origins had started long before that, where it was known as orange shirt day. Orange Shirt Day was originally created to bring awareness to the tragedies of the residential school system in Canada. For far too long, many non Indigenous Canadians were simply unaware of the tragic realities of these institutions. Public schools did not teach them and many survivors did not speak of them. With the finding of 215 human remains at Kamloops Indian residential school, the Canadian public saw the truth, a truth that is truly unthinkable, a truth that lives in First Nations people to this day. I live with that truth every day of my life, whether I realize how it affects me or not.”
Speaking on the residential school’s purpose of assimilating First Nations people into the Canadian mainstream, Bines shared that it has left many bridges between people broken, and it now falls to others to do the work to repair.
“I have chosen a path that chooses to mend the bridge that was broken,” he said.
“It is through my work that I realized the lasting effects of the residential school policy; the gaps between Indigenous and non Indigenous people in education, in art, and music, and employment, in wealth and in health. In a recent report by Statistics Canada, 91 percent of non-Indigenous youth had completed high school, compared to the 63 percent of First Nations youth. The gap gets even greater when we account for post-secondary education, with 72 percent of non Indigenous Canadians completing or attending some form of post-secondary education, compared to the 37 percent of First Nations youth. This is quite a large gap considering that the promise of education was promised in Treaty three when it was signed 150 years ago.”
However, Bines noted that he is beginning to see changes, both at home and farther afield, as institutes like Seven Generations Education Institute are helping more Indigenous youth see the completion not only of high school, but achieving a post-secondary diploma or degree. There are new businesses and developments being planned and completed by First Nations members and communities, such as the planned development next to Canadian Tire in town. To that end, Bines said he has an optimistic view of the future.
“The treaties were signed and a nation to nation relationship,” he said.
“One that was for mutual benefit. A promise to share the land with both First Nations and the Crown’s interests in mind. By understanding that we have more that unites us than what divides us, we can all work together to reconcile relationships, because we are all treaty people.”
Hallikas concluded the event with the reading of a proclamation from the Town of Fort Frances recognizing the week of September 24 to September 30, 2023, to be National Truth and Reconciliation week in the Town of Fort Frances, and encouraging all citizens to “reflect and work together on equality, acceptance and inclusion for all people throughout the year,” as well as to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Every Child Matters Awareness Walk being planned for this Friday, September 29, 2023. The walk begins at the Sorting Gap Marina at 10:00 a.m. and will proceed along the waterfront to the Nanicost grounds.