Saturday, September 30 marked the third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Special events held in the Niverville and Ritchot provided opportunities for hundreds of residents to learn about the past and the wrongs that have been committed. As a result, we can begin to build new bridges between cultures.
Residents of Niverville marked the occasion with a ceremony held at the Niverville Community Fellowship church.
Attendees heard from two keynote Indigenous leaders of national notoriety, including Peter YellowQuill, a residential school survivor and a fifth-generation descendant of Chief YellowQuill, signatory to Treaty #1.
The other was Wally McKay, also a residential school survivor and chief organizer of Elijah Harper’s Sacred Assembly in 1995.
Representing the Métis community, Armand and Kelly Jerome attended as honoured guests. They are the builders of Niverville’s authentic Métis Red River cart, on display next to the Centennial Arena, which commemorates the unique historical connection between the Mennonites and the Métis.
Music was provided by Indigenous locals Howard and Joel Jolly. Niverville dance studio Prairie Soul Dance staged a moving performance choreographed to Inuit musician Susan Aglukark’s song, “O Siem.”
In his address, YellowQuill revisited a time in 1871 when a colonized Canada was governed by the newly appointed John A. Macdonald.
His ancestor, Chief YellowQuill, was among the First Nations leaders to negotiate a deal for Treaty #1, covering the land on which his people lived. That land encompassed a vast stretch of southeastern Manitoba, including the land on which Niverville sits today.
For the First Nations people, the agreement they signed that day was intended to foster a long-term relationship of mutual respect and sharing between Canada’s Indigenous peoples and European settlers.
If honoured, the agreement would have respected the Indigenous people’s right to livelihood, self-government, and title to their land.
Instead the deal was followed by a stream of broken promises and unresolved disputes that has continued for 150 years.
“When we met with the British, we entered into a relationship,” YellowQuill told the Niverville gathering. “We called it ‘God’s document.’ We entered into this relationship in the best of faith. It was to be a relationship that we would grow together. There was no talk of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the courts, the prisons where so many of our people are suffering. On August 3, 1871, we entered into a sacred relationship. On August 4, 1871, we began to know that we were in trouble. You gave your word that you, the Crown, would build us schools on our land. But then came the affliction, the scourge, the genocide.”
As for culpability, YellowQuill says it’s not for those of this generation to assume. Neither is it the job of the various levels of government alone to see to the reconciliation of the nation.
But a wall has been built and it is everyone’s job to ensure that the wall comes down, he said. That cannot be done on one day of the year. It’s done every day, by all people.
Wally McKay fleshed out details of his own childhood and what his residential school experience meant to him.
He recalled memories of his earliest years, sitting next to the stove with his siblings, listening to legends being told by his father and mother. These occasions always included valuable life lessons for the children to learn from.
These are fond memories for McKay. Memories of love and caring between generations of kin who shared a deep connection with their heritage and their purpose.
“At five years old, I was taken away from my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and my kookums, from my homelands,” McKay said. “They took me on a journey to an Indian residential school. A journey I didn’t want.”
McKay describes the early residential school as a collaboration between the newly formed Canadian government and the church.
“The purpose was to take the Indian out of the child,” McKay said. “When you remove the creation of God from a human soul, then begins the process of eradication. It was a plan of genocide right from the beginning.”
Churches, he said, were complicit with the genocide policy of the government. They were paid for every head they housed and tasked with the job of erasing Indigenous heritage by whatever means necessary.
“Reconciliation must be determined by who committed the crime and who, on the receiving end, says, ‘Yes, this is it. We have met [on the same path].’”
For the second year in a row, the RM of Ritchot hosted story walks along trails in four of their communities.
“The story walk is something that was started by a librarian down in the U.S.,” says Shane Ray, director of Ritchot Recreation Services. “Basically, you take pages of stories and put them on signboards and line them up along a trail so families can walk and be active while reading the story. Hopefully the stories that we’re doing here today spark a conversation between children and adults. In some cases, the adults help educate the children, and also the opposite. Our schools are doing a great job in educating our kids in Truth and Reconciliation, so maybe there’s some education that can go back the other way.”
New this year was the introduction of 94 signs along these paths, each displaying one of the 94 calls to action as developed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The signs were distributed between the four communities with the intention of rotating them year after year.
St. Adolphe’s Friendship Trail was also alive with energy as truth and reconciliation events drew young and old to honour victims of residential schools.
Event organizers planned a scavenger hunt along the trail for children. Families enjoyed wood carving demonstrations, fiddlers and guitarists, and hoop dancers.
A Red River cart and tipi were set up nearby with volunteers sharing the experiences and traditions of the Indigenous peoples.
“It is important to acknowledge the truth of what occurred,” says Ray. “Recognizing truth and reconciliation through annual events is essential for acknowledging historical wrongs, honouring survivors of the residential school system, educating the public, promoting healing, preventing future injustices, strengthening relationships, and addressing systemic issues. It is a step towards building a more inclusive, empathetic, and just society for all Canadians.”
Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen