A lingering feeling of heartache prevailed in Park Jeanne-Mance on Monday evening, as hundreds of Montrealers gathered to take part in a commemorative drumming event.
This impromptu ceremony was organized to deplore the conditions which led to last week’s uncovering of a mass unmarked grave at a former residential school in British Columbia.
The discovery of 215 children buried on the ground where the Kamloops Indian Residential School once stood is devastating news that has left Indigenous Peoples all over the country grappling with the past and current systems actively harming them.
“Actions speak louder than words and this is why we gathered all these people tonight. Each person who showed up is a person of action,” said the director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, Nakuset.
Though the initiative did not come from her, Nakuset’s outreach on social media that afternoon helped spread word and garner approximately 200 attendees.
“A lot of people continue to say that they never learned about residential schools while in school themselves – that’s because it’s a dark stain on Canada that no one wants to acknowledge,” she said.
Shortly after 7 p.m., everyone in the park assembled to listen to the group of people whose drumming and singing began to fill the air.
A handful of men formed a drumming circle, as five women swiftly arranged themselves in a line - each with drum and stick in hand.
The voice of Kahnawake elder Sedalia Kawennotas Fazio carried with every word she sang.
Before leading a heart-stirring lullaby, Fazio seized an opportunity to address the crowd, which was still growing.
“When we sang it this afternoon, all I could imagine was: what if those were my babies?” she said. “Since this whole thing was uprooted all I can ever think about is my own babies.”
Akin to other speakers present, the Kahnawa’kehró:non opened up about her own experience.
“I am a fluent speaker and neither one of my children understands the language because I was threatened in school and I was not allowed to speak my language,” said Fazio.
The Kanien’kéha speaker was referring to the common violent punishment of children who spoke their language or practiced their culture while in the care of one of the former 130-plus residential schools across Canada.
Accompanied by other community members, Frank Diabo expressed how significant it was for everyone to show support at this time.
“What brought me here today is this fight,” he said. “I want to be here to show support for not only our community, but every other residential school sufferer.”
Like many in Kahnawake, Diabo said he was forced to attend Indian Day School where he “got a taste” of the conditions faced by residential school students.
Also in attendance was Kahnawa’kehró:non Wahiio Deslisle, who is known in Montreal for his generosity, as this is where he regularly spends time volunteering for initiatives that namely help unhoused Onkwehón:we.
He donned a Warrior flag mask, which fit in perfectly with the orange shirts, ribbon skirts, different flags and signs surrounding the park.
“It’s important to be able to come together as people and acknowledge this because it’s not only about us, this is about them too,” said Deslisle. “There are different things that are a direct by-product of that system and we always have to carry the intergenerational burden that is a result of that environment and abuse.”
While the mass grave was dug many decades ago, the community member emphasized how this event is a chance for everyone to rally together, demanding change.
“It’s history in the making and we need to be calculative because right now, it’s all eyes on us,” said Delisle.
In the crowd sitting on the grass next to where the drumming took place was also mayor Valerie Plante.
“I think that for many Montrealers here today, we feel very powerless since the discovery of the children’s bodies,” said the mayor. “I am glad that there was an initiative to gather all of us, so we can all grieve this together and denounce what happened.”
The overwhelming support witnessed throughout the evening coexisted with the pain and sorrow that could be felt with every word sung and spoken.
“If we forget the past, we will repeat it,” said Fazio. “So never forget what you are learning here today and never forget what our people are telling you.”
Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door