P.E.I. First Nations honour victims of B.C. residential school

·3 min read
Mi'kmaq Elder Marlene Thomas, who survived the residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S., hugs a community member during the ceremony at Lennox Island on Monday.  (Brian Higgins/CBC - image credit)
Mi'kmaq Elder Marlene Thomas, who survived the residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S., hugs a community member during the ceremony at Lennox Island on Monday. (Brian Higgins/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

More than 100 people attended a gathering and lit a sacred fire at Lennox Island First Nation on Monday to honour the 215 children whose remains were found buried on the Kamloops Indian Residential School grounds in B.C. last week.

Another ceremony was held at the Abegweit First Nation in Scotchfort, where another 100 community members came together to share their own reactions to news that scientific testing had revealed a number of graves at the Kamloops site.

The residential school there was run by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969, at which time the federal government took it over to operate it as a residence for a day school — until even that closed in 1978.

Marlene Thomas, an elder from Lennox Island First Nation who survived the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, said the B.C. discovery is probably not an isolated incident.

"I worry about our community because I'm sure we had children that went missing and was buried there because I'm told there's a burial ground for Shubenacadie," Thomas said. "I don't know where. I just heard there is."

According to a Nova Scotia group called Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative, various locations at the Shubenacadie school site have been searched using ground-penetrating radar. No graves or human remains have been found so far.

Matilda Snache Knockwood holds the talking stick during the ceremony at Lennox Island on Monday. Orange shirts were the predominant outfit, in honour of Phyllis Jack Webstad, whose grandmother gave her such a shirt to wear to residential school as a young girl. Her teacher confiscated and destroyed it.
Matilda Snache Knockwood holds the talking stick during the ceremony at Lennox Island on Monday. Orange shirts were the predominant outfit, in honour of Phyllis Jack Webstad, whose grandmother gave her such a shirt to wear to residential school as a young girl. Her teacher confiscated and destroyed it. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"[I] remember getting hit across the face because I was speaking Mi'kmaq," Matilda Snache Knockwood said of her own experience at residential school, as she held the talking stick during the Lennox Island ceremony. "And my sister… she was sexually abused by a nun and she had trauma that was never dealt with. We still suffer the PTSD from that."

Earlier Monday, about 80 people gathered for a vigil at the controversial Sir John A. Macdonald statue in downtown Charlottetown. Someone had added red paint to the Macdonald statue's hand, reflecting the belief of many Indigenous Canadians that Canada's first prime minister should be blamed and not honoured because of his role in establishing the residential school system.

To honour the children buried at the Kamloops site, pairs of shoes were laid in front of the statue as prayers were read and Mi'kmaw jingle dancers performed in front of a sombre crowd.

People gather near small crosses erected at the Abegweit First Nation in Scotchfort, P.E.I., to honour the victims of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
People gather near small crosses erected at the Abegweit First Nation in Scotchfort, P.E.I., to honour the victims of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.(Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

On Monday afternoon, 215 pairs of shoes were also the focus at the Abegweit First Nation at Scotchfort, northeast of Charlottetown along the Hillsborough River.

Chief Junior Gould, who organized the collection of shoes over the weekend, told CBC News that a light will shine upon each pair for 215 hours to signal that the children will not be forgotten this time.

Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Association of First Nation Women were among many groups across Canada holding ceremonies to remember the 215 children whose remains were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Association of First Nation Women were among many groups across Canada holding ceremonies to remember the 215 children whose remains were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

"It's just a horrendous event, but we wanted to celebrate the absence and share with the West Coast that the East Coast is here," said Gould.

"We want to keep the story alive. We want our people to be honoured, even the ones who no longer walk this earth — not by their own choice, by somebody else's."

Note: Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at 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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