Rows of little shoes, lined by a sea of orange shirts, marked a path up Parliament Hill to the spot where four Indigenous drummers stood Thursday to mark the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Hundreds of people of all ages attended “Remember Me: A National Day of Remembrance,” including Indigenous people, residential school survivors and non-Indigenous allies, many wearing orange shirts emblazoned with the words “Every Child Matters.”
The day-long event, which began on Parliament Hill and included a march to Confederation Park in downtown Ottawa, was organized by the Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada to encourage Canadians to consider the meaning of the new annual day in remembrance of the Indian Residential Schools system.
“I want [Canadians] to ensure that every September 30 of every year is a national day for remembrance and that they think of our children like they think of veterans on Remembrance Day,” Jenny Sawanohk (Red Stone Snake Woman) Sutherland said. Sutherland is the executive director for the Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada, who work to protect and use Indigenous art forms and culture to enrich lives.
The Canadian government introduced Bill C-5 last year to make Sept. 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, an official statutory holiday, to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, released in 2015. After the finding of the mass grave of 215 Indigenous children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, the government fast-tracked the passing of the bill. The day coincides with Orange Shirt Day, which began in 2013, to honour the story of Phyllis Webstad, whose orange shirt was taken away from her upon entrance to residential school.
Commemoration is essential to reconciliation for Sutherland. She said all Canadians need to be aware of the “Indian war” that took place on these lands and that Indigenous children “were forced to be soldiers far too young, lost their innocence and in too many cases lost their lives.”
She urged Canadians to do the work to understand the unjust and racial practices that happened and continue to happen to Indigenous people, to become allies and to learn what reconciliation really means.
For Sutherland, the true power of the day came in the words shared by the matriarchs and the survivors.
“I’d seen the crowd each time a woman took the stage, that they received her powerful words and felt it and took it to heart … I almost fainted right there because there was an energetic shift that just happened there and that’s what we’ve been waiting for,” Sutherland said.
One of the survivors in attendance was Doug (Kanentiio) George. He was sent as a child to The Mohawk Institute Residential School in Branford, Ont. For Kanentiio, his experiences at residential school defined his adult life as one of resistance and defiance, and this resilience is a message he wants to share with Canadians.
“We don’t want to be seen as victims, eternal victims,” Kanentiio said. “We want to be seen as partners and to be included in any idea that arrives at this special place called healing, and I think the Canadian people are ready for that. I think the Trudeau administration are ready for that now.”
Kanentiio said events such as “Remember Me” give him hope for true reconciliation in Canada.
“There’s something going on here that’s truly wonderful in Canada. I think this can happen. The first time in my adult life I have that belief,” he said.
“Every march, every speech, every school presentation – begins to make a difference and that difference is very positive.”