TSUUT'INA, ALBERTA, CANADA — More than 800 people, many wearing orange, walked silently Monday on the Tsuut'ina First Nation near Calgary in honour of Indigenous children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Many of the participants wore T-shirts with the number 215 written on them, while others had shirts that read: "Every child matters." Some were pushing strollers, while those carrying their children held on to them tightly.
People pinned orange and yellow ribbons on a white bulletin board at an outdoor arena where the walk came to an end.
Late last month, the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia announced what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site.
Ground-penetrating radar confirmed the findings, the First Nation said.
Prayers and a pipe ceremony were held on behalf of the children during Monday's march at Tsuut’ina. The mood was sombre, but there was no visible anger.
"The purpose of today here was to conduct a ceremony for those 215 children that were found and I think when we do a ceremony anger has no place in it. It's about healing," said Kelsey Big Plume, a band councillor at Tsuut'ina.
"It's about honouring, remembering those babies and giving them the opportunities to be released to the spirit world. That's why people here today feel happiness because something's being done to help them."
Coreen Rider attended the ceremony with her daughter, Alanna Bluebird, and her granddaughter, Lindy.
Rider said the news out of Kamloops has triggered suppressed memories and stories she had heard from her grandparents who went to residential schools.
"I heard stories of residential school survivors and the stories are so horrific and I think about those stories and then all those children that were buried together," Rider said.
"The mass grave that they found triggered so many hurts and pains that our grandparents went through."
Bluebird, who was holding her squirming daughter, said family is so important to First Nations that just the thought of what might have happened in Kamloops is hard to take.
"It's just like really heartbreaking to know that those kids never had that closeness of family. I just always cherish my daughter and I'm just really grateful for her," said Bluebird.
Big Plume said the healing process would have been helped if Pope Francis had offered an apology on the weekend.
The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church and operated it as a day school until it closed in 1978.
The Pope spoke Sunday in Rome and expressed his pain over the discovery of remains at a former residential school site in British Columbia but didn't officially apologize.
"Taking accountability is really important, especially if you hold the title and leadership of a religion. Not being able too express a sincere apology really hurt a lot of First Nation people," Big Plume said.
"We need to have some type of acknowledgment that there was wrongdoings done to our people and I think it would mean something to some."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2021.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering with trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press