NEYAASHIINIGMIING – Members of the Chippewas of Nawash walked from Native Child Welfare (NCW) to the Sydney Bay entrance. Members of the Lion’s Head community walked from the little red hall at Purple Valley, where they met up at the entrance to commemorate the first legislated National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.
The group unveiled a bright orange sign with changeable numbers that the band will periodically update to reflect the current number of children’s remains found in unmarked graves at residential school grounds across Canada and the United States.
The day began with a sunrise ceremony where members of the territory offered prayers and sang songs, welcoming the children’s spirits home after they remained hidden, some for 50 years.
Chief Veronica Smith spoke to the group about the importance of the day.
“It’s good to see everybody here,” she said, “to commemorate this day of Truth and Reconciliation.”
“I’d like to say Miigwetch to all of the walkers this morning,” Smith added, “it’s a special day for us all as we remember the children of residential schools.”
“The children who didn’t come home, the survivors, the families and of course this impacted the whole community.”
Smith went on to talk about how when the young men from the SON territories went to war for Canada, they didn’t know that the government and churches were busy at home taking all of their children. When they came home, they found a broken, empty community.
The community keeps a page on their website honouring those men that says, “Nawash Veterans have served their Nation well.
“Chief James Nawash served at the right hand of Tecumseh during the War of 1812. In the two major wars of the 20th century, the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation sent the largest proportion of eligible males of any community in Canada.”
Intergenerational trauma survivor Marlene Keeshig spoke to the small group about her father, one of the soldiers who came home to a broken people.
“My father went to residential school when he was 10-years-old, with his family. He never had a chance to tell his story, so I am,” Keeshig said.
“I am Randolph Keeshig’s daughter and this is his great-great granddaughter,” she said, introducing a young girl who stood with her.
“All of us have been affected by the fact that he was taken, with his siblings, to residential school,” she said.
Choked with emotion, Keeshig went on to say, “My grandmother chased the RCMP vehicle all the way to the bottom of Colpoys Hill to try and get her kids out of that car.”
“My dad didn’t come back until he was 16, when the war had started and he became a soldier and went overseas.”
Randolph Keeshig came back from overseas when he was 20 and married Marlene’s mother.
“Because they never really had the chance to be children, teenagers or even know how it was to raise children, that they have natural feelings,” Marlene Keeshig said she became a foster child.
“I was in two foster homes before I reached 16 and that’s when he died. I left. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“The fallout of that, in my family, has led to our children being taken in to the children’s aid,” she said.
“My oldest son I never found until he was 45-years-old. He was six-months-old when I saw him last, and I found him in Long Island, New York…I searched for him all those years.
“This is not just an isolated incident, but I wanted people to know what my dad’s story is.”
Like the other children who went to residential school, siblings were forbidden to speak to each other once they arrived.
Marlene said her father and his siblings’ heads were shaved when they got to the institution and all they could do was stare at each other through the fence.
She went on to address the misconception that Indigenous children choose not to get an education, saying her father was only allowed to finish Grade 5.
“The nuns where I was going to school seen him digging ditches across the road, and they used him as an example. ‘See this is what happens when you don’t get an education,’” Marlene recalled.
“It was them that only let him, only allowed him to have Grade 5 and then released him when he was 16. He didn’t go there for academics,” she said. “He went their to feed the staff, and the teachers and whoever else was there.”
The ceremony included a cash donation totalling $3,300 from a store in Lion’s Head called The Dandy Lion, which sold orange shirts, hats, and bumper stickers and donated 100 per cent of the proceeds to senior services in Neyaashiinigmiing.
In a social media post, the store owners said, “Thank you everyone who was able to purchase a shirt, hat, or bumper sticker. I know the senior’s program will make good use of the funds.”
“Today was beautiful and emotional as a small group of us from Lions Head were able to walk over the boundary line that connects our communities and join with our Indigenous friends,” the social media post went on to say. “We listened to their stories, and stood with them as they unveiled the numbers for the current bodies that have been recovered.”
Another member of the Lion’s Head community spoke to the small group of people. Then he sang a tribute to the children, a rendition of Bobby Bare’s emotional song called “500 Miles.”
The event was not publicized due to the COVID-19 restrictions currently in place on the territory.
Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times