Mi'kmaq plan fall gathering of survivors of Shubenacadie residential school

·3 min read
Dorene Bernard stands on the shores of the Shubenacadie River during a protest over a gas project in 2018.  (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Dorene Bernard stands on the shores of the Shubenacadie River during a protest over a gas project in 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Mi'kmaw leaders are working to bring together survivors of the Shubenacadie, N.S., residential school this fall.

"We haven't cemented the date yet," said Tim Bernard of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq. He said they're waiting until COVID-19 restrictions will allow a gathering of 150 to 200 people.

Bernard said the gathering will mark the designation of the former school grounds as a national historic site, the result of a process involving Mi'kmaw governments, the province and the federal government.

Elder Dorene Bernard of Indian Brook, who is not related to Tim Bernard, has consulted with residential school survivors in 13 Mi'kmaw communities about how to remember the residential school.

She said this type of event is deeply significant.

"It's very important that commemorations are completed as part of the calls to action under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report," she said.

"But also, survivors have talked about the children who have been left behind. And so as ... ground-penetrating radar research continues on the grounds of the former residential school site, it's very important that our people come together ... and heal."

The Shubenacadie residential school operated from 1929 to 1967.
The Shubenacadie residential school operated from 1929 to 1967.(CBC)

The hilltop site of the former school has been searched with radar without any sign of graves. But Tim Bernard said further searches will continue at sites nearby.

On Wednesday, the federal government pledged $27 million to fund a search for the bodies of children who died at residential schools. Those children were often buried in unmarked graves.

Tim Bernard said the confederacy has gathered ideas for a residential school memorial site through meetings and an online survey.

The gathering in the fall would allow survivors and their families to talk about those options.

"We don't want to say, 'This is what we're going to do.' We want them to tell us what they would want.

"Some people would like a sculpture. Some, you know, would like to have a garden ... some type of park-like memorial. But not at the site itself. It would be near by the site."

Urgent work

Dorene Bernard said she knows what survivors don't want.

"It's not something, I think, like a marble stone or something that resembles a headstone. They don't want something like that. They're looking at something more, I guess, more reflective of the children that were there," she said.

Tim Bernard said it's not clear how many residential school survivors there are in Atlantic Canada, as the information is private, and it's up to survivors to identify themselves.

But he estimated there are between 90 and 100 still alive, ranging in age from 60 to 93.

Dorene Bernard said many prominent survivors have died since she began working on the memorial plans four years ago.

"It's very urgent that we get this work that needs to be done on commemoration, and the research on burial sites completed as soon as we can," she said.

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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