A new monument at Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery now stands as a sobering memorial to the Indigenous children who never made it back to their families after attending Canada's oppressive residential schools.
It's called the Children's Sacred Forest and consists of a circle of rocks, about 10 metres wide, at the crest of a small hill overlooking the headstone of Dr. Peter Bryce.
Bryce was the former chief medical health inspector of what was then known as Canada's Indian Affairs department who blew the whistle on the horrors of the residential school system.
Inside the circle, under a mat of cedar mulch, modest boulders share space with seven small dwarf pine trees.
"They'll never grow higher than the height of children," said Cindy Blackstock, an Indigenous advocate and the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
The society unveiled the sacred forest on Saturday, Canada's third annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, for a crowd of about 200 people.
The goal is to add other tree varieties representing distinct Indigenous groups to the memorial over time, Blackstock added.
Cindy Blackstock, an Indigenous advocate and the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said the discovery in recent years of what are believed to be the graves of residential school students has brought renewed attention to the system's dark legacy. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)
A long, painful history
Beginning in the late 19th century, major Christian denominations operated federally funded residential schools in Canada.
They separated Indigenous children from their communities and families, children who were then subjected to various forms of neglect and abuse.
Many suffered even worse fates. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates at least 4,100 children died at residential schools. The true number is likely much higher, according to Murray Sinclair, who served as the commission's chair.
Stephen Kakfwi, the former premier of the Northwest Territories — and a residential school survivor — spoke on behalf of his wife Marie Wilson at Saturday's unveiling.
Wilson was one of the three Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) heads who travelled across the country to hear the accounts of former students.
Kakfwi recalled Wilson reading back some of the testimony and her crying a few years after the work was completed.
"It's the voices, she said, of the little children," Kakfwi recalled Wilson saying of what left her shaken.
Stephen Kakfwi, the former premier of the Northwest Territories and a residential school survivor, was on hand for Saturday's unveiling. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)
A trail of placards outlining the commission's 94 calls to action snaked its way down the hill to Bryce's grave.
Before the ceremony, Laura Shugart made her way up the line, reading the signs. She'd decided to mark the day by visiting the memorial site and was struck in particular by the height of the trees inside the circle.
"I mean, it's devastating that children were ripped away from their families," she said.
Though the sacred forest site is somber, Blackstock welcomed some light on Saturday. She encouraged bubble blowing, describing it as an apt callback to the TRC's closing ceremonies.
Laura Shugart reads a series of placards outlining the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)
"There were children and survivors blowing bubbles to represent the dreams of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children," Blackstock said.
"And the reason those dreams are important is: each one of us, by implementing those TRC calls to action, can make them real."
The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which recognizes the legacy of Canada's residential school system and its harms to Indigenous peoples, was introduced in response to one of the 94 calls to action.
Joanna Bernard, interim national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, used the day to urge the government to implement the rest of them.
The assembly says only 13 calls to action have been completed so far.
The sacred forest overlooks the headstone of Dr. Peter Bryce, the former chief medical health inspector of what was then known as Canada's Indian Affairs department who blew the whistle on the horrors of the residential school system. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.