Indian residential school survivors, family and friends gathered with dignitaries at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, for an emotional ceremony to remember children who did not return from residential schools.
The names of 2,800 children known to have died in the schools were printed in white on a 50-metre-long red cloth solemnly carried by a procession of volunteers through the museum’s Grand Hall and up onto the stage. Its length served as a reminder of the magnitude of loss and grief felt by Indigenous families and communities across Canada—though the red cloth only bore a partial list of the children who died while attending the schools.
According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), the most accurate number to date of children who did not return home is 4,200. That includes 1,600 unnamed students—those for whom a child’s death is noted in a school record but who are not identified. That work to identify the children continues, Ry Moran, the director of the NCTR, told the assembly.
The children’s names were also listed along with the schools they attended in a book published as the National Student Memorial Register: Remembering the Children Who Never Returned Home by the NCTR and the University of Manitoba. The NCTR received federal funding in 2018 to create the registry in response to the TRC’s Call to Action 72.
Anishinaabe Elder Claudette Commanda welcomed those in attendance to the unceded homeland of the Algonquin Nation and prayed, asking the Creator to bless those gathered with strength and courage as they assembled to remember and honour the children who died in the schools. She prayed for the families, communities and nations who mourn for those children. “Together, Creator, we lift our love to the children. And to them, Creator, with one voice, one heart, and one prayer, take our message to the children and tell them we remember and we love them forever.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde spoke of the more than 4,000 “little ones” who didn’t come home. “In some cases, their parents weren’t even notified. In some cases, there are unmarked graves,” he said. “The residential school system was a genocide of First Nations peoples, forcibly removing children from their homes and inflicting harm and inflicting pain. We still feel the intergenerational trauma of that genocide. We see it every day in our communities.”
But Bellegarde said there is hope now and talk of being not only survivors, but “thrivers.” “The people are standing up…. We are starting to thrive and be proud of who we are as Indigenous peoples.”
Following the ceremony, National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald told the Anglican Journal that he found it to be a very moving experience. “I felt a whole gamut of emotions, mostly grief,” he said. “I know that for many people the word genocide seems far too strong. To me, it seems absolutely right in the context of an event such as this.”
MacDonald recalled when he first began his work as national Indigenous Anglican bishop and visited communities: “They would always bring me to the cemeteries so that I would see where the children are buried, and that was just a shocking experience—schools that needed cemeteries. And that everyone knew that this was going on was just horrible.”
Bishop Lydia Mamakwa of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh said she thought the ceremony was helpful for families of the children. “It is one step forward for Canada to acknowledge that this happened and for the families to know that their missing children are acknowledged, even though knowing where the graves are would bring more closure…. There is much still to be done, especially the location of where they are buried.”
Maj. Canon Catherine Askew, Canadian Forces chaplain who is canon Indigenous advisor of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, added, “I believe that the flag on the Peace Tower should fly at half-mast every Sept. 30, as a day of remembrance for those who died in the schools and to mourn the fact that the schools existed at all.”
Many of those who attended the ceremony wore orange. In his remarks, Bellegarde noted that Sept. 30 is also marked as Orange Shirt Day, started in response to Phyllis Webstad’s account of her first day of school at the St. Joseph Indian Residential School near Williams Lake, B.C. She was six years old and wearing a new orange shirt her grandmother had bought for her—but it was taken away from her as soon as she arrived at the school, and she never saw it again. “On Sept. 30, every child matters,” said Bellegarde. “We can’t change the past, but we all can be part of changing the future and building a better country. That’s what today is all about.”
Leigh Anne Williams is the editor of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the diocese of Ottawa.