WARNING: This story contains details readers might find distressing.
With the Thanksgiving long weekend upon us, this year on the heels of the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, CBC Windsor spoke to these Indigenous educators in Ontario about what the holiday means to them:
Theresa Sims, the elder and cultural language specialist at Ska:na Family Learning Centre in Windsor.
Biindigegizhig Deleary, an Indigenous educator, facilitator and consultant in Walpole, Ont.
Trent Prof. Shirley Williams, an elder and member of the Ontario university's Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies.
"Thanksgiving, we had that even before there was colonizers," Sims said.
"We always celebrated the harvest and what creation has provided for us. Mother Nature has provided everything that we need, but we have to learn how to respect it and care for it, and also keep it for the next seven generations."
Williams said celebrations of the harvest were multi-day affairs, giving thanks for not just nature's bounty, but the health of the community.
Deleary said celebrating the harvest at this time of year is important, and giving thanks for the Earth shouldn't be a once-a-year event, but an everyday occurrence.
They finally believe us because we've known this since residential schools started. — Theresa Sims, Ska:na Family Learning Centre
"Every day that we wake up, every day that we have another opportunity to walk on this beautiful gift, which is our mother the Earth, to experience life, we give thanks. And that is our world view," Deleary said.
"So for Canadians and for all people, I think we really have to get to a place in the world where we appreciate what we have, and by appreciating what we have, we begin to take care of it better."
Deleary said that with the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation so recent, on Sept. 30, he hopes Canadians take this opportunity to learn more about the history of Thanksgiving and of Indigenous people.
Williams said the earliest Thanksgivings were shared between Europeans and Indigenous people in Canada, but in the years following, the Europeans wanted more resources and more land, and started wars to get them.
Thanksgiving 'not the kind of Hollywood-ized version that we've been told in our history books or that's shown to us in the media. — Biindigegizhig Deleary, Indigenous educator
"There is a truthful story with regards to how Thanksgiving came to be, and that story is not the kind of Hollywood-ized version that we've been told in our history books or that's shown to us in the media," Deleary said.
"It is very much a dark history, very much a dark story about how Indigenous people saved those early colonialists from starvation, and then the following year, those same colonialists, burning and murdering those very Indigenous people on the eastern shores of of Turtle Island, North America," he continued.
"So it's a very dark, dark history and a dark story, and I think that's something that Canadians should take an opportunity to learn."
That dark history isn't in the distant past.
"They finally believe us because we've known this since residential schools started," Sims said of her feelings about the outpouring of support from non-Indigenous Canadians on the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation.
"It's time for them to realize how privileged they really are, that they don't have to worry about their children now coming home from school. They don't have to worry about their children being abused, neglected or, you know, sexually assaulted as we had to every day where we lost our children."
She points to the Mohawk Institute, the residential school in Brantford, Ont., that closed in in the 1970s.
"I was just finishing high school at the time, so my mom had to worry about all her nephews and nieces. They moved us off the reserve because she did not want us to go through that abuse and that terror that she went through as a child. So they're very privileged to really give thanks for what you have because not everyone in Canada had that."
'With knowledge comes responsibility'
With more Canadians hearing about the horrors of residential schools, Williams, a survivor of the system herself, said she and many Indigenous people are giving thanks "for getting the truth out."
"Many people are becoming more aware," Wiliams said. "I'm a survivor. They didn't believe us."
Sims hopes to see concrete impacts on the way Indigenous people and cultures are treated in Canada.
"Finally, we have more allies, but also with knowledge comes responsibility. OK, what are you going to do about this? Because we're only four per cent of the population. We can't fix everything, and it's not going to happen overnight," she said.
"We need the basics first. We need that foundation, and then we slowly build.
Sims acknowledged it will take time to do this.
"Now we're reclaiming it, we're learning the languages. Some of it's hard because of the trauma — it's hard to learn it when you were taught not to," she said.
"It takes little steps, but we're taking those steps forward and we need that support."
Williams said she hopes non-Indigenous Canadians work to help Indigenous people restore the culture and languages that were stolen.
And the institutions she says brought about these horrors — the Catholic Church and government of Canada — work to rectify the harm done.
"They need to do some penance."
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Do you have information about unmarked graves, children who never came home or residential school staff and operations? Email your tips to CBC's new Indigenous-led team investigating residential schools: WhereAreThey@cbc.ca.
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