WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Hundreds of people took to Yellowknife streets Friday afternoon as part of the Dene Nation memorial gathering honouring the remains of an estimated 215 children found at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Community leaders and residential school survivors shared their stories and honoured the children, their families and all survivors at stops along the march route, which ended with a feeding the fire ceremony at Somba K'e Park.
Marchers, many with orange ribbons pinned to their jackets, gathered at the former site of the Akaitcho Hall residential school downtown around noon for a prayer and words from, among others, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya and Chief Edward Sangris of Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Dettah.
"When a child gets sick, the most important thing they want is comfort from their parents, but these children died alone," Sangris told the crowd.
"We, as Dene people, we help people in other provinces through our prayers, through our walk, to show them they're not alone."
Adults pushed strollers and held the hands of their children as the crowd walked up 52nd Avenue toward St. Patrick's Catholic Church. There, Paul Andrew, a residential school survivor and former CBC broadcaster, spoke in front of a large orange banner that read "215, we will remember."
"No children should be separated from their families," said Andrew. "My grandmother passed on not knowing what happened to her two daughters."
"We're survivors and we're going to survive this," he said.
There have been strong reactions across the North since the discovery, with childrens' shoes laid at various sites including on the steps of St. Patrick's church.
Kaitlyn Rose Nasogaluak is the child of a residential school survivor. She said the legacy of residential schools affects her family every day.
"This news really broke my heart because all those 215 children, they could have been elders that would have shared what was left of their culture," she said.
"So there was not only a loss of lives, but a loss of legacy. These children, they would have carried on the traditions that would have probably been lost."
Nasogaluak said she appreciated seeing such a diverse crowd marching in the streets of Yellowknife on Friday.
Politicians have also been speaking out about the discovery, including N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane, who said the territory would support Indigenous leaders who wish to do their own local ground searches at former residential school sites.
At the march on Friday, Chief Ernest Betsina of Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Ndilo said he wants to see a national inquiry into deaths of children at residential schools.
"Where else is there that [there are] other bodies?" he said. "There's got to be some answers."
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya called for an international investigation into deaths at residential schools — one that would hold the federal government and the churches accountable.
He said the world must "bring the people who are responsible before us to justice and tell us the truth once and for all."
The March continued toward the RCMP detachment on 49th Avenue.
There, Jennifer Roberts stood with a heart-shaped sign that read "The real Canadian history," referring to the brutal legacy of residential schools.
Roberts said she was sickened with grief to learn about the 215 deceased children in Kamloops.
Tanya Gruben is a residential school survivor, as are her parents and grandparents.
She said the discovery in Kamloops "is definitely opening the eyes of Canadians who maybe didn't understand what the residential schools did to the Natives of Canada."
Shene Catholique-Valpy is the daughter of a residential school survivor, and her aunt died in care at seven years old.
"I'm here to support and honour all the children, and the children who are still not brought home yet and the ones that didn't make it home," she said.
Catholique-Valpy said over the last week, she's been going through a mourning process. "I didn't think it would be this traumatic."
The crowd came to a stop at Somba K'e Park where there were more speeches, refreshments and a feeding the fire ceremony.
Mayor Rebecca Alty broke into tears as she spoke at the gathering next to city hall.
"Our collective past is atrocious," she said.
Though the mood was sombre, it wasn't entirely without light.
Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief George Mackenzie said he was "very pleased to see the turnout."
"More people than at hand games," he joked.
The event ended with levity: drumming and dancing around the fire.
Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
The NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.
In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason.
In Yukon, mental health services are available to those in both Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.