July 1 A Day of Healing in Sioux Lookout
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
The morning of July 1 began with a sunrise ceremony in Sioux Lookout, followed by a day-long gathering as part of A Day of Healing.
Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance shared, “This year typical celebrations of Canada Day have been altered by recent confirmation that hundreds of Indigenous children were buried in unmarked graves at former Indian Residential School sites. And as investigations continue at many sites across the country, it is likely that the anecdotal accounts of this tragedy will continue to be confirmed.” He added, “Indigenous People form a high percentage of the population of Sioux Lookout, we have a former Indian Residential School site within our Municipal boundary, and we are a service hub for thirty or so First Nations - so we are deeply impacted by this growing tragedy. It is more than appropriate that many of the typical celebrations did not take place this Canada Day. It is very appropriate that we recognize the need for healing and respectful reflection. With the undeniable proof of the cruel and inhumane treatment of Indigenous children in the Indian Residential School program, it is hoped that more and more people are now realizing and acknowledging the horrendous wrongs committed by our country against the Indigenous People of this land.”
Sioux Lookout resident Victor Lyon, who organized the day’s events in collaboration with his wife Romaine, said that seeing the community’s support and involvement in honouring Indian Residential School survivors and victims, while altering the usual Canada Day celebrations, came as a surprise to him. He said, “I was surprised, but it was a pleasant surprise, knowing that they weren’t pursuing Canada Day as usual, and I’m grateful that they have allowed us to come up here (Rotary Park on Wellington Street)…and it’s quite an honour.”
Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, who attended the event, expressed his contentment seeing the community come together to acknowledge the continuing pain faced by Indigenous people, as a result of the former Indian Residential School system. He said, “It’s important for Sioux Lookout to acknowledge the history, the historical trauma of Indigenous peoples, but also to think about the children that never came home, and to acknowledge today as a day of reflection, a day of mourning, with the Sioux Lookout survivors and the community itself, and I think it’s very good of them to do that.”
The morning of July 1 began at Rotary Park with a sunrise ceremony. A sacred fire was lit, burning until sunset, where tobacco offerings were made. “This fire is representative of the spirit world, where these young spirits, these buried children are. And they need to be recognized and honoured. By offering tobacco, we are helping them to remember their memories and to give them life again,” explained Lyon. He said that they strived to create an environment of healing, understanding, and love, with individuals playing their traditional drum, and dancing as part of their healing process throughout the day. After letting the sacred fire burn out around 9 p.m., the evening ended with singing an honour song with rattles in memory of the 215 children whose remains were recovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School site, said Lyon.
Throughout the day, participants were offered drinks and a variety of snacks from tea, coffee, and pop, to fruits, baked items and moose meat porridge. The event received support from several local organization including, the Nishnawbe-Gamik Friendship Centre, Sunset Women’s Aboriginal Circle, First Step Women’s Shelter, and some individual community members.
“The sunrise ceremony held locally provided an opportunity for quiet reflection on all of this and I am thankful to those who organized it. I felt humbled to have been able to attend,” shared Lawrance.
Patti Keno, from Sandy Lake First Nation, went to two Indian Residential Schools. She attended the Day of Healing in memory of her peers and the children lost to the system. “I went to two residential schools, and I decided to come here to remember the children I went to school with, and plus remembering the children that didn’t make it home from the residential schools. That’s the reason why I came here today,” said Keno. She added, “For me it’s going to take a while to overcome the feelings, get over the impact I had from residential schools. It’s going to take me a while to forget, I guess. Or maybe, it’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Lyon, whose mother is a residential school survivor, said that it is not something a person could simply move on from. He said, “People tell us to forget about it, or to get over it. They say to move on, and stuff like that. But it’s hard to move on because that happened to my mother. That’s not a long time ago, that’s my mother!”
Darlene Angeconeb, a Sioux Lookout resident and a Pelican Falls Indian Residential School survivor who was a part of A Day of Healing, said that she was happy to see Victor and Romaine Lyon initiate this event to honour the thousands of children forced to attend residential schools. She added that the recent recovery of children’s remains from several unmarked graves has stirred up the past for a lot of residential school survivors, like herself. She said, “It has just really been something that this has struck a chord with everybody across Canada, and that people can’t believe it, and it just shows the lack of education from the school system.”
Dorothy Ross from Lac Seul First Nation, who attended the sunrise ceremony, was also a part of the residential school system throughout her schooling. Ross said, “I am 71-years-old now, so I am still healing, and it hurts. The pain is still there. But, as long as I pray all the time, it helps me to heal.” She added, “I came here to better understand about the healing process for myself. I guess I’m the survivor of Pelican Residential school that was here in Sioux Lookout, and the first time when I heard about the babies that were found, that kind of triggered me, when I was taken away when I was four-years-old, when I came to Pelican, and they came to take me away. My parents, I know they didn’t want me to go, but they had to, because they were threatened…that they will never see me again if they didn’t let me go to school. It kind of triggered a lot of sadness, and I came here today to heal, more healing for myself. And, I prayed for those babies that were found. It is very sad. I believe in a Creator and I always pray every day for people who lived in a residential school, for their healing.”
Mamakwa said that this is just the beginning of restoring the teachings, spirituality, language and traditions that the Indigenous people were stripped of, and that it may take weeks, months, and even several years for complete reconciliation. He said, “This is the starting point. Canada Day is not a time of celebration for Indigenous people, and I think that for the town, and also the residents that stand in solidarity, I don’t hold anything against people that will continue to celebrate, and again, that’s their right. But, we just ask people to take a moment of reflection, a moment to mourn with us.” Mamakwa added, “It is not your traditional Canada Day, and I think there is so much intergenerational trauma, so much hurt, that I think needs to be acknowledged.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shared in a July 1 statement on Canada Day that while the day is marked to celebrate this nation, its successes and everyone who calls it home, we must also recognize that, for some, Canada Day is not yet a day of celebration.
Trudeau shared, “The horrific findings of the remains of hundreds of children at the sites of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country’s historical failures, and the injustices that still exist for Indigenous peoples and many others in Canada. We as Canadians must be honest with ourselves about our past. And we must recognize that here in Canada there are still people who don’t feel safe walking the streets of their communities, who still don’t have the same opportunities as others, and who still face discrimination or systemic racism in their daily lives.”
Lyon shared that this recognition and honouring that was long overdue cannot continue to be ignored, marking the Day of Healing as the beginning of the community’s collaborative process to alleviate the continuing consequences of past and present injustices against Indigenous people. “It is something that we cannot forget or sweep under the rug,” said Lyon, adding, “Canada was built from rape and pillage of this land, and their people, and the killing of them, and that is quite evident now. That doesn’t mean that I am not proud to be Canadian. It just means that we have to reassess, we have to rethink about where we go from here and how we go from here. To me, it is something that I still do struggle with.”
With the former Pelican Falls Indian Residential School having operated just outside of the town of Sioux Lookout, Lyon said that its effects are deeply rooted among Indigenous people in town. “The effects of that residential school are quite evident. When you walk around town, you see people struggling in their own things. Those are effects of the residential schools. There’s no getting around that, there is no denying that. Those people are there on the street and those people are hurting because their people ahead of them, their parents and relatives have suffered through, and have pushed upon them. So, it gives them a chance to be recognized, and I’m hoping that this day will create an understanding for others to give them a chance to come and to be a part of something, to come and acknowledge what has happened in our country.”
Originally from Bearskin Lake First Nation, Wendell Kamenawatamin, who was attending the sunrise ceremony, shared his pride to be a part of the healing process. He said the result of the suffering that persists among First Nations people is quite evident in downtown Sioux Lookout and that people may tend to generalize an assumption of all Indigenous people being the same way. Kamenawatamin said, “If you look around on the Front Street, there are Native people around using drugs and alcohol. And the other folks they try to put us down like that because they think we are going to end up like them. But many of us Native people are trying to get an education, because we have the poorest education level.”
Kamenawatamin said that his father is one of many residential school survivors, whose lives, along with their families, faced lasting effects of this tragedy. He feels the rush of hesitancy, discomfort and agony that continue to affect his father each time the topic of residential schools is brought up. Kamenawatamin said that initiatives such as A Day of Healing, “it shows people care for us, the Aboriginal people, because we face racism a lot.”
Mamakwa said that this Day of Healing gave Indigenous people an opportunity to meet, talk, heal, and be able to move ahead to live life in a better way. He sees such opportunities as a time of reflection on the dark side of Canada’s history, to collectively work to move forward united, as a nation.
Trudeau shared in his statement that since we cannot turn back time, we must be resolute in confronting our truths in order to chart a new and better path forward. “Together, we have a long way to go to make things right with Indigenous peoples. But if we all pledge to do the work – and if we lead with those core values of hard work, kindness, resilience, and respect – we can achieve reconciliation and build a better Canada for everyone,” he added.
Trudeau shared, “This Canada Day, let’s recommit to learning from and listening to each other so we can break down the barriers that divide us, rectify the injustices of our past, and build a more fair and equitable society for everyone. Together, we will roll up our sleeves and do the hard work that is necessary to build a better Canada.”
Angeconeb said that people have varied emotions and are at different levels of healing from the effects of Indian Residential Schools. She hopes that a lot of other Canadians are also able to find their own way of honouring Indian Residential School survivors and victims, and broadening their knowledge and awareness about Canada’s past.
Angeconeb said, “I think that is one of the messages I see for non-Indigenous people is it is not about feeling sorry for us, we don’t want pity. But, I would hope that people make a better society together.” She added, “People shouldn’t feel guilty. When we had that 215 memorial down there, some people we were talking to, they just felt so bad, and so, we tell people it’s not meant to make you feel bad, when we do these things, these events. But we are hoping that they will take it and make improvement to the system, to the education system, or where you work, to have a better understanding and to promote a better understanding of what has happened in the Canadian society.”
Mamakwa shared that it wasn’t just the Indian Residential Schools, but also Indian hospitals from where children at times never returned. He added that Indigenous people are now starting to reach out, wanting to bring their children, family members, and ancestors, home. Mamakwa said, “I think those are some of the tough conversations that are going to be coming forward. Those are the tough discussions that people need to have, those are hard conversations that will be needed and depending on each community, depending on each family, it is going to be very different for everyone.”
Lawrance suggests non-Indigenous people see this as an opportunity to learn the truths about Indigenous people, and together walk the path of reconciliation. He shared, “Canadians who had no direct involvement in these acts should not feel ashamed, but should embrace this evidence as an opportunity to better understand and to join the process of reconciliation.
Perhaps this might be the earthquake that shakes loose true reconciliation. And for we in the mainstream to truly reconcile with Indigenous People, we will have to give some things up, among them will be the veil we have kept over some of Canada’s history. The full truth must be revealed before true reconciliation can happen and we can again celebrate Canada Day together.” Lyon added that while the celebration of Canada Day is something that he believes the community should collectively do, that it would be nice to see an inclusive approach towards the celebration with input from First Nations.
Resources to support those in distress due to the Indian Residential School system include the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, Indian Residential School (IRS) National Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, and Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s NAN HOPE program at 1-844-626-4673.