Former residential school students light birthday candles at a party held in their honour at the TRC National Northern Event in Inuvik. Photo: Marites N. Sison
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Inuvik—For a moment in time, at least, they were children once more as they each held up a cupcake with gooey vanilla-chocolate frosting and a tiny, flickering candle. And, as the lights were dimmed, those gathered around them sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” in English, French, Inuktitut, and other aboriginal languages.
Many birthdays were missed when seven generations of aboriginal children were taken away from their homes and sent to residential schools across Canada. At the last day of the National Northern event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission here on July 1, these lost birthdays were remembered.
The sight of former students—many of them now middle-aged or, in some instances, elderly—holding a cupcake, sometimes licking hands made sticky by the frosting, and making a wish before blowing out a candle, was a poignant moment at the event meant to capture their experiences of being taken away from their homes and sent to unfamiliar schools.
Roughly calculated, a total of 40,000 birthdays were lost among the 650 to 700 survivors gathered at the event, said Chief Winton Littlechild, a TRC Commissioner and former residential school student.
Another survivor, R. Whitehorse, told a film crew, “This represents the last birthday party I had. It was in 1955. The next birthday I had was in 1965.” A native of Bowen Island, he was sent to a Roman Catholic mission when he was only six. He knows his birthday well: Aug. 19, 1949. But at the residential schools, “It wasn’t a significant day in our lives,” he said.
TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson said inspiration for the birthday celebration came from residential school survivors who held a communal birthday party at a reunion in Kamloops, B.C. It proved to be a “powerful” moment, she said.
Wilson said she had mentioned this to Littlechild, who remarked that it had not occurred to him until then that his birthday had never been celebrated, acknowledged or recognized during the 14 years he spent at residential schools.
The TRC decided that “a birthday celebration would be a wonderful way of capturing the gesture, symbolically, as one of the many things that were lost from treasured childhood times because of residential schools,” said Wilson.
Presented with the idea, the Anglican Church of Canada—which was among the mainline churches that operated the government-funded schools—agreed to be in charge of making 800 cupcakes for the celebration.
It took a bit of brainstorming to figure out the logistics, said General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn, who was involved in the planning process. In all, it took four Anglican churches and the Canadian Department of National Defence to make it happen.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Newmarket, Ont., and St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Toronto donated funds for the ingredients, while the congregation of Christ Church, Edmonton, took care of buying the ingredients and making sure they got loaded onto a Hercules that transported it to this town north of the Arctic Circle. Once in town, members of the Church of the Ascension got to work on the eve of the celebration, bringing their own muffin pans from home and borrowing some from their neighbours. They spent more than 16 hours baking the cupcakes in the church’s small oven. Volunteers, including Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the church’s incumbent, the Rev. Capt. David Parsons, and his spouse, Rita, frosted, transported and distributed the cupcakes.
Anne Campbell, a St. Paul's parishioner who came to the event to represent her mother, Mossie Moorby—a nurse for eight years at the Anglican-run hostel, Stringer Hall—spoke on behalf of the churches. Moorby’s collection of artifacts and photos was part of the exhibit of the Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod Archives at the event's Learning Space.
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