Instead of raising a red-and-white flag on Canada Day, thousands marched through downtown London in honour of residential-school victims and survivors.
More than 10,000 people gathered at Victoria Park Thursday for the so-called Turtle Island Healing Walk to mourn the nearly 1,150 children whose unmarked graves were recently discovered at three former residential schools in Western Canada.
“It’s beautiful. It shows we’re supported,” co-organizer Elyssa Rose said.
The goal, she says, is for people to learn “hope, healing, love, kindness and unity . . . and a better understanding of how we can move forward in Canada.”
Several speakers addressed the event and Indigenous drummers and singers performed a tribute song to kick off the march.
Chief Jason Henry of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation was one of many Indigenous leaders in attendance Thursday.
“We’re here to talk about healing, but healing can’t begin until we talk about the truth,” said Henry, speaking to the large crowd at Victoria Park.
“And the truth is, there was a land bridge here in Canada and we sure as hell never crossed that.”
The five-kilometre march started at Victoria Park and looped around the downtown core, along Oxford Street, Wharncliffe Road and Riverside Drive. Participants wore all shades of orange shirts, many with the slogan “every child matters” – recalling the devastating toll of Canada’s residential school system on Indigenous communities.
Residential schools were a network of mandatory boarding schools for Indigenous children across Canada, started by the federal government and run by churches with the goal of assimilating them into Canadian culture at the expense of their own. An estimated 150,000 children were sent to them.
“This walk is about healing. It’s time for us not to let go of the hurt but to accept what is there and find our path forward,” Henry said.
London city hall and Parliament Hill have lowered its Canadian flags in memory of the children and the schools’ toll on Indigenous people.
The walk comes shortly after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves in British Columbia and 751 graves at a former residential school in Saskatchewan. Just this week, 182 more unmarked graves were found near a residential school in British Columbia.
Though the recent discoveries have shed new light on the grim legacy, the loss is nothing new for Indigenous peoples, march attendee Delbert (Del) Riley, of Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, said Thursday.
“It’s about time people know the truth,” he said, noting many child deaths were not documented.
Now that the general public is aware of what happened at these sites, he says, he hopes it will spur change. “There’s one thing to help solve all of this, and that’s to eliminate racism.”
Riley was age five or six when he was sent to Mohawk Institute, the residential school on the Six Nations of the Grand River, near Brantford, he said. “It was horrific. I was lucky to get out alive."
More than 4,100 children are known to have died through the church- and government-run residential school system nationwide, officials say.
First Nations, Inuit and Métis children who attended the schools – which ran from the 19th century well into the 20th – suffered abuse and neglect. More than 150,000 children are believed to have been taken away from their families.
Southwestern Ontario was home to two residential schools, Mohawk Institute and the Mount Elgin Industrial School, which opened in 1851 near London on the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and closed in 1947.
The march in London, and in other communities, marked a sombre Canada Day unlike any in recent history. In his Canada Day message, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the horrific findings at the site of former residential schools have “rightfully pressed us to reflect on our country’s historical failures," Canadian Press reported.
RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL SURVIVORS:
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press