On September 30, Canadians celebrated the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honour First Nations, Inuit and Metis residential school survivors, their families, and communities. In Whitecourt, the newly formed Whitecourt Indigenous Friends Society held a day-long event which began with a parade from the Whitecourt & District Public Library. Afterwards, events moved over to Rotary Park, including music by Chubby Cree and traditional dancers.
Area schools helped decorate the setup at the park. Pat Hardy students coloured hearts and added words to them, which created a pathway from the walking trail entrance by the Seniors Circle, and Percy Baxter students made orange paper links to decorate the tents. One of the organizers, Faye Myshyniuk, welcomed attendees. “Thank you for joining us here as we honour residential school survivors and the children who did not make it home. In 1973, only 48 years ago, Phyllis Webstad was sent to a residential school at six. Her grandmother bought her a brand new orange shirt to wear on the first day. When she arrived at the mission school, she was stripped, and her clothes were taken, including the orange shirt,” explained Myshyniuk.
“Phyllis did not understand, and since then, the colour orange has always reminded her of that day and how her feelings did not matter, how she felt no one cared and that she was worth nothing. All the little children were crying, and it seemed that no one cared. Since then, there have been over six thousand children’s graves uncovered across Canada. Today, on September 30, we wear orange to remember Phyllis’s story and the 150,000 Indigenous children taken from their communities, cultures, and families. Today, we raise awareness.”
Myshyniuk then shared a poem that she wrote. “Our people of the land, running wild and free, living their best lives in peace and harmony. Dancing and singing and hunting for food. Life was so simple. Life was so good. Years would go by, and then came a day. Their mothers would cry. They were taken away. Ripped from their arms, from all that they knew. Not understanding, not having a clue. The children were hurting. Things weren’t the same. Now they were a number, no longer a name. All that forgotten, placed in the ground. Lips were sealed tight. No one made a sound. Can you hear them crying in the thunder and rain? When you hear the leaves sighing, can you feel their pain? With every star up in the sky and underneath the moon, remember how the children cried, babies, gone too soon.”
Attendees from the crowd approached the microphone and shared their stories. They spoke of their loved ones who witnessed children being taken and seeing friends and family members distraught over the news. “Just imagine his parents coming home and asking, where are the kids? And the children were gone,” spoke one man. Another man spoke of hiding in the forest when they came to take them to residential school and that they survived off of the food they caught or from taking some food from area gardens. Others spoke of how quiet the reserves were once the children were taken away. The pain was evident with each word spoken and each memory shared.
Dale, the MC of the afternoon, provided smudges to those in attendance, asking that they lift their hands when they wanted one. He shared his memories from having heard stories from his family. “As native people, we are given gifts, and those gifts are handed down to you. When all those kids were taken away, there was no none to hand down to. The teachings, the old ways, we lost a lot. We lost a lot of knowledge. We lost a lot of things. Today, some of our people can’t speak our language. I’m lucky. I can speak my language. We weren’t even allowed as native people to practice our culture. We were banned from having ceremonies. We still had them, though, in secret spots. And it’s through those ceremonies that we are still here today. We are still trying to recapture all of our teachings and all of our rights.”
Mayor Maryann Chichak attended the parade and spoke later in the afternoon at Rotary Park. “I would like to acknowledge that we are on treaty six territory, a traditional meeting ground, gathering place and travelling route for Cree, the Saulteaux, Blackfoot, Metis, Dene, and Nakota Sioux. We acknowledge all of the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit whose footsteps have marked these lands for centuries.” She said the day was very important and that she was honoured to be there.
“Heartbreaking and devastating revelations over the last year have brought back the painful history of our residential schools in Canada and has brought it to the forefront of our conversations, as it should be. Together, through events such as this, the open dialogue, we’re going to acknowledge the reality of residential schools and its impact on children and families. As a community and as a nation, we need to learn more about Canada’s assimilation policies and have those open and very honest conversations about the resulting trauma that it has had on Indigenous peoples, their communities, and their culture. This is the only way we will move forward, and marking this day across Canada is just one path forward. It’s remembering, and it’s never forgetting as a lot of these signs say, Every Child Matters.”
Lonnie Letendre, Councillor for Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, said reconciliation is important. “We are who we are. They took our hair. They took our language. They took our families. They took everything, but at the same time, we are still here, and we aren’t going to go away. It’s a time to come together and talk. To look at the positive things that came from all of this, in reflection on what happened. We have kids that now, today, are educated. We need to continue working for these kids and the future of our people in relation with others, continue working together. That’s the best way. Sitting down and talking about things and finding out the best resolution through reconciliation. The songs, the stories, the medicines, every teaching, we are going to regain them, and that’s why we have this. Thank you. Hiy Hiy. I’m honoured to be with you all.” Follow the Whitecourt Indigenous Friends Society on Facebook to keep updated on their next events and initiatives.
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press