Truth and reconciliation in Sioux Lookout
Tim Brody - Editor
WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
September 30th was Orange Shirt Day and the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Municipal Truth and Reconciliation Committee in Sioux Lookout invited businesses, organizations, and agencies to host events on the theme of education and awareness of truth and reconciliation and events took place throughout the week beginning on Sept. 23 and wrapping up on Oct. 4.
A well attended Orange Shirt Day Walk honouring Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors took place on Sept. 29 and on Sept.30, businesses in the community shut down or reduced their hours of operation, schools dedicated the day’s lessons to teaching students about the IRS legacy and reconciliation, a survivors flag, which a local survivor contributed to was raised at the Travel Information Centre, more than 150 people gathered at an Orange Shirt Day event on Wellington Street, and just about everywhere you looked in town, people were wearing orange shirts to honour IRS survivors and the children who never came home.
Sioux Lookout resident and Lac Seul band member Garnet Angeconeb attended Pelican Lake Indian Residential School from 1963 to 1969.
A former journalist and municipal councillor in Sioux Lookout, Angeconeb has been involved with both the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Angeconeb was one of the survivors who contributed to a new Survivors’ Flag unveiled by The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It was this flag which was raised in Sioux Lookout at approximately 2:15 p.m. on Sept. 30 at the Travel Information Centre.
“As I saw that flag go up, I could also feel my spirit rise, to be able to say to you, we can do it,” Angeconeb told those gathered.
“To me, this flag is a gesture of coming together as a country. As a country that can tell the world we can and we will do better,” he said, adding, “To me, the spirit of reconciliation is alive today as we come together.”
“Coming from the dark shadows of the Indian Residential School system, within the hallways we felt lonely, separated from our loved ones, our families, our siblings, our grandparents, our community, and separated from our culture, separated from our language…never again can anybody else ever now try and change us, simply because the policy of assimilation failed. It is upon us to find and seek those better ways to bring us together,” he said.
Speaking about the Survivors’ Flag, Angeconeb explained, “It was a collective effort by a number of survivors across the country, so each of us were consulted, each of us put our thoughts into the design and the meaning and so on. With all our collective thoughts they were able to come up with the design of a flag and so no one individual takes responsibility for it, other than it is a collective effort, in much the same way that reconciliation is a collective effort, so if we can work together, we can come up with a brilliant piece of work that draws people together, like this flag, and so I was very honoured and I will be honoured always to have played a very small role, but I think a very important role none the less.”
People can find out more about the Survivors’ Flag at https://nctr.ca/exhibits/survivors-flag/.
“I’m also a member of the survivors circle with The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation that put this flag together, there was a call out for survivors to see who would be interested in participating in a simultaneous ceremony right across the country at 2:15 (local time) which is a number that has become a symbolic number in remembering the 215 graves that were detected of children at Kamloops Residential School. While I’m on that subject, I was very honoured and very touched by the fact that my daughter and her partner and three of their children went to Kamloops this summer…to be able to witness the site and what it meant, so in many ways it was a validation and a real honour that they brought their feelings, their message back to me, that they had been there and how powerful it was for them to go to Kamloops.”
Speaking of the experiences shared among survivors, Angeconeb shared, “Some people say get over it. It’s not that easy and it will never be easy. Don’t ever be in that realm where people think, get over it. The memories and the scars will be there – always. They are part of us now. And the effects that we have felt from Residential School, we have passed on to our own children. The negative effects…you don’t get over anything like that.”
“We know that there are better ways and to me, that’s reconciliation. So, reconciliation starts now,” he said.
Asked about a national day dedicated to truth and reconciliation and what he had witnessed during a week dedicated to education, awareness and truth and reconciliation in Sioux Lookout, Angeconeb had this to say, “It’s been a long journey right from the get go where there was silence, where there was denial, where nobody wanted to talk and breaking through those walls of silence by survivors to come see this day on a national scale, is so moving and so powerful. Who knew that about 30 years later we would see such a day and so, in many ways, we as a country, as citizens of Canada, have to respond and react in a very pro-active way to rebuild what was set aside for a while. The spirit is there, we’ve just got to find it and be able to bridge things back together the way they were meant to be.”
“The Municipality of Sioux Lookout remains committed to acknowledging the tragic and painful history and legacy of residential school,” Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance shared.
Lawrance proclaimed Sept. 30 as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Sioux Lookout, commending its thoughtful observance in the Municipality of Sioux Lookout.
“The Municipality of Sioux Lookout recognizes that the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is but one small step in our journey to advance reconciliation, right historical wrongs and reflect on how we can build a more inclusive municipality,” he shared in his proclamation.
He added, “It’s one step at a time. As Garnet said, we’re on a path, it’s a long journey, it takes commitment from all of us and all levels of government. The Municipality is going to do what we can do, council is committed and staff are committed.”
“This is a historical day in many ways,” Lawrance said. “It feels like a coming together across the nation and in the municipality. I just hope that we can take it and keep going with it and it takes commitment from all of us. It takes commitment from government. The kind of commitment it takes means more than just the acknowledgements and the awareness and the education, we have to, so to speak, put our money where our mouth is and get behind some of these things that need to be done. We need to do that as a society and pressure our politicians, especially at the federal and provincial level, to do that. Whether it be changes in the child welfare system, the education system, upgrading water treatment, housing, such a myriad of things that need to be done both on reserve and in our municipality.”
Orange Shirt Day, Sept. 30, was recognized by Sioux Lookout’s Victim Awareness and Action Committee (VAAC), which includes First Step Women’s Shelter (FSWS), Sunset Women’s Aboriginal Circle (SWAC), Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA), Ah-shawah-bin Support Services, Nishnawbe-Gamik Friendship Centre, Northwestern Health Unit, and St. Andrew’s United Church.
The organization invited the community to join them in recognizing Orange Shirt Day at the memorial site on the corner of Wellington Street and Government Row.
SWAC Breaking Free from Family Violence Program Coordinator Kimberly Murphy shared, “We’re coming together because we truly believe that every day we must acknowledge and work to address the legacy of residential schools and their continued impacts in our community and world-wide. Every day the news is bringing more and more information and traumatic news about this.”
She added, “We must commit to educating ourselves and taking action to advance reconciliation for all the children of the past and for the future, and we’re not going to ever be quiet about it! Ever!”
Romaine Wesley welcomed those present, sharing, “All of us have been affected by the residential school and we have had intergenerational trauma also and we are all trying to heal from that, all of us. We have family members who went to residential school. We had family members who never came back. We have so much healing to do, but now that we understand where we come from, we will be okay, because we are going to heal.”
Sioux Mountain Public School Grade 5 student Anika Ashmugeesha addressed those present telling them she refused to stand for O Canada in school, because, “it is a song that celebrates the colonization of our land. These colonizers are responsible for sending my family members to residential schools. I am doing this in honour of Orange Shirt Day and for all those babies and kids that never returned home. As the next generation of Indigenous people, I will not stand today, tomorrow, the rest of the school year, or the rest of my life.”
Throughout the Sioux Lookout area, schools marked the day.
Pelican Falls First Nations High School Principal Darrin Head shared that though his students have not been able to return to in-person learning and continue online learning, students wore orange shirts provided by the school during their classes. School staff also wore orange and took part in a memorial walk at the school as well as a ceremony at the site where the former Pelican Lake Indian Residential School once stood.
“All of our teachers incorporated reconciliation activities and topics into their curriculum, into their daily lessons,” Head said.
Sharon Dumonski, Indigenous Family Case Worker for Sioux Mountain Public School (SMPS) shared, “At SMPS, we have been focusing on incorporating activities and traditional teachings into the classroom in the weeks leading up to September 30th, including learning about the history and impacts of the Residential School System in Canada. As a Legacy school, we are committed to engaging and connecting our students to reconciliation everyday through education, awareness and action.”
She continued, “On September 30th students were invited outside to listen to the SMPS school drum throughout the day. Students and staff from SMPS and Sioux North High School (SNHS), along with Knowledge Keeper Victor Lyon, Eric Anderson, Elders Tom Chisel, Romaine Lyon and Nick Kowalow, and staff from the Nishnawbe-Gamik Friendship Centre, took part in feasting Anishnawbe Equay over the lunch hour. Elder Romaine Lyon recently shared a teaching about our Grandmother drum, Anishnawbe Equay, which is that she provides healing to all who hear her. Feasting her together was a beautiful way to mark the beginning of a healing journey for all of us and to “teach our kids with love”, as Romaine so beautifully put it.
“For me personally, the most powerful part of the day was watching students enjoy taking part in a traditional ceremony at school knowing that only a few years ago, we had a school system in Canada designed to eradicate Indigenous culture from our children. It was very moving to watch children sit at the drum with Elders and Knowledge Keepers, learning and honouring the day together.”
She added, “September 30th is an important day to honour the lost children and survivors of residential schools as well as recognize the lasting impacts of the damage done to Indigenous children by stripping away their culture and identity. Even though the learning can be heavy and painful, it is important for every Canadian to learn about the legacy of Residential schools to further our understanding and begin to heal together.”
SMPS Principal Wayne Mercer agreed stating, “The action of reconciliation and our responsibility to continue to learn about the residential school system and how it has impacted the First Nations people across this country, is an obligation that it’s not just on September 30, it is a way of thinking. It is a way of living. It is a way that we must do every day. We have that responsibility as Canadians, I think. So that’s our pledge at Sioux Mountain School, that we will continue our journey of this learning, not just on September 30, but every day.”
Sacred Heart School Principal Emily Hamilton shared, “On September 30th our staff and students at Sacred Heart School took part in a virtual assembly produced by staff, students and community members from throughout The Northwest Catholic District School Board. The assembly featured a land acknowledgement from Michelle Tymkin, our Indigenous Lead. Our Director, Brendan Hyatt, gave an explanation of the origin and significance of the orange shirt, and a history of the residential school system. Each student throughout each of our six schools was given an orange shirt and they proudly wore them in memory of all the children who survived the residential school system and to remember those who did not. A prayer was said as we committed to work towards reconciliation. The students of Sacred Heart school sang O Canada in Ojibwe. Our students from St. Mary School in Fort Frances recited the Ojibwe Morning Prayer. The assembly concluded with two songs performed by Linda Guimond and Lavana Fox of Couchiching First Nation; singing ‘The Children’s Song’ and ‘Healing Mother Earth’.”
She continued, “Each class then participated in lessons and activities with a focus on Truth and Reconciliation or Indigenous Studies.
“For example, students from Mrs. Waites JK/SK class enjoyed virtual activities with Jennifer Manitowabi of Connected North. Mrs. Manitowabi read them Phyllis’s Orange Shirt by Phyllis Webstad, learned the words and actions to the song, “I am Happy,” and made bracelets with 8 orange beads to represent “every child matters”, 2 red beads to represent summer and animals, 2 yellow beads to represent spring and fish, 2 white beads to represent winter and birds, and 2 black beads to represent fall and 2-legged people.”
“Staff are pictured from Sacred Heart School proudly committing to Truth and Reconciliation on the First official day of National Truth and Reconciliation Day,” Hamilton explained, adding, “The theme of Catholic Education Week this year is Rebuild, Restore and Renew Together, which was inspired by inclusion, challenges to personal and spiritual well-being, and the ongoing recognition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the relevance of Indigenous culture and spirituality that will continue to move us forward.
“September 30 was a day to show our continued commitment to Truth and Reconciliation and the Calls to Action. This day was a day of mourning, reflection, and learning for our school and community.”
At SNHS, in the days leading up to Orange Shirt Day, Sioux North High School teachers provided different opportunities in their classroom which included educational videos, beadings, button making, storytelling and more, the school shared.
The school also shared, “We had educational videos playing in Student Square all week for students to check out on their breaks. We thank Sioux Mountain Public School and Sharon Dumonski for inviting us to join them in the feasting of their school drum over the lunch hour. Students and staff came to listen to the drumming, enjoy a school wide lunch and hear stories from Residential School Survivors. As a school, we all wore orange shirts, ribbons and buttons and participated in a school wide Walk for Wenjack.”
Nishnawbe-Gamik Friendship Centre Cultural Resource Coordinator Victor Lyon spend the day on the grounds between SMPS and SNHS with his fellow staff members.
“We’re out here full force. All staff members are on hand. They’re helping in one way or another, handing out food, setting up things and trying to manage things with COVID protocols,” he explained, adding, “We’re just trying to provide an environment where we can help to celebrate and remember all the children that didn’t make it home from residential school and also the survivors who did make it home, to honour their journey and also honour the ones who didn’t make it home. I did a couple of teachings in the classroom at the grade school. I talked about sacred items and feasting sacred items on another day. It’s one of the things we did with this big drum here, in front of everybody we feasted this drum and try to help provide that education to the kids.”
He said he hopes people will take the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to heart, “It’s definitely an opportunity for reflection and self-introspection
Calvary Baptist Church hosted a Prayer for Healing and Reconciliation on the evening of Sept. 28 at the former Queen Elizabeth District High School soccer pitch.
Pastor Carter Krahn shared, “It’s been wonderful, as a church, to be able to be a part of some of the bigger events that have been happening in our region. Through some of the help that our church has been a part of and churches in town have been a part of in helping with evacuations, I believe it was out of that that we received an invitation to host an event for truth and reconciliation week and it is really our heart to be able to build relationship and to be able to be a part of the healing process because there are certain things that the church has to acknowledge that has happened through the church, and it doesn’t matter which denomination…we have to be able to acknowledge what has happened, but then also be a part of the process of healing. So, we want to extend a hand of relationship to be able to greave with people, and to walk with them, and we truly believe that God brings healing and hope and encouragement and strength.”
He also told those present, “This time that we have together is to acknowledge those who have suffered under the ungodly acts that were forced upon this people. We gather together today to lift up in prayer the families that have lost loved ones over the many decades to those with a knowledge of God, but not the love of God…It has been our nation and unfortunately the church that has brough these overwhelming circumstances to these lands. It is now our call, in Christ, to set the wrong done to right. To right what has been wronged. To pray for the forgiveness of God for what has been done to many in our community and in these northern communities of this region and the First Nations across this nation.”
He added, “I believe it’s our call to be a part of building relationship and being a part of the reconciliation that’s truly needed. As our nation seeks to do that, we want to be a part of that, and we also want to lead in that.”
The week also included the Take Back the Night walk on Sept. 23, the opening ceremony and blessing for Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority’s Development Services Office at 42 King Street, at film night at St. Andrew’s United Church featuring two short films and one full length film created by Indigenous film makers both local and a formerly local. A SLAAMB open house, and Sisters in Spirit Vigil also took place during the week.
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.