Toronto's Scotiabank Arena transformed into a classroom for hundreds of students on Tuesday as they got the chance to learn about Indigenous cultures, the lasting impacts of residential schools on communities and reconciliation.
To mark National Indigenous Peoples Day, about 1,000 students were invited to the arena by the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund which partnered with Scotiabank and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE).
"We've had a really hard year," said Sarah Midanik, CEO and president of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund
"We're going to have to continue to face hard conversations as we continue to recover young ones from residential school sites," Midanik said, referring to the ongoing effort that made national headlines in May of last year to locate and identify the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died while at residential schools.
"I think today showcases the hope and the strength and the passion that young people have to drive reconciliation forward and ultimately to build a stronger, more equitable Canada."
The event, meant to both celebrate Indigenous cultures and educate students, featured musical performances from local Indigenous artists and offered students the chance to learn through different stations set up in the concourse.
National Indigenous Peoples Day, which falls on the same day as the summer solstice, was first recognized in 1996 by the governor general as a way to celebrate the culture and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.
The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund was founded in 2016, with the goal of helping Canada's reconciliation efforts with Indigenous people. Gord Downie, the late lead singer of The Tragically Hip, was inspired by the story of Chanie Wenjack, an Anishinaabe boy who died at the age of 12 after running away from a residential school in northern Ontario in 1966.
"In collaboration with the Wenjack Family, the goal of the fund is to continue the conversation that began with Chanie Wenjack's residential school story, and to aid our collective reconciliation journey through a combination of awareness, education, and action," the charity's website says.
At one learning station, students wrote on post-it notes what they have learned from the event and what they will do.
"We need to learn from our mistakes, I feel like this day and this event is really showcasing that," said Jessica Tran, a Grade 11 student at Downsview Secondary School.
Earlier this month marked the one-year anniversary of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation's announcement identifying as many as 215 potential unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
"As a country, we have a lot of work to do," said Mike Downie, the brother of Gord Downie, who died of a brain tumour in 2017.
"We want to help educators bring the story of residential schools and Indigenous teachings culture history in our classrooms."
Pearl Achneepineskum, Chanie Wenjack's sister, said children should learn about residential schools and the impact they've had on generations of Indigenous people, adding that the government needs to make sure all potential unmarked graves are found.
"To all the children that have not been found … I'd like every soul to go home and for the government to make sure that they do that," she said.
"We knew our friends disappeared, and we were never told why."
Earlier in the day, community elders led a crowd gathered at Nathan Phillips Square in traditional prayer, song and smudging for the annual Sunrise Ceremony.
For the first time since 2019, dozens of people circled around a sacred fire in front of Toronto city hall, passing around tobacco, berries, and prayers as the sun rose.
The ceremony was led by Kim Wheatley, an Ojibwe Anishinaabe Grandmother from Shawanaga First Nation Reserve, who said she was moved by the large turnout.
"[This] drew not only a large crowd but allies, people who are walking their talk. They're saying, 'We're sorry for what happened,'" Wheatley said.
WATCH | Toronto's annual Sunrise Ceremony returns after 3 years:
"We want to help make it right and our nudge then was, 'Show up, be here, come and bear witness, come partake,' and we saw that this morning. it was so beautiful."
Wheatley said the crowd today not only reflects the "good work" that the city has done but also the large numbers of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people that call Toronto home.
After the ceremony, Mayor John Tory said the city must continue working with Indigenous communities in its commitment to increase civic engagement and ensure community members a space at the table.
"Based on respect and mutual understanding, we can continue to grow and to learn as we work to restore truth, enact justice and advance reconciliation," he said.
"There's still a lot of work to be done."
Pamela Hart, executive director at the Native Women's Resource Centre of Toronto, said the community will continue to hold Tory to his word.
"We know that we are more than just the day, but today we accept this recognition to continue fostering the relationship that is developing between community and city systems," she said.
"This means rightful space at tables to direct community efforts, this means safety for our vulnerable and enriched futures for our children."