What started as patchy drizzle around noon turned into a steady rain Thursday as people began to congregate in front of the Colonial Building on Military Road in St. John’s.
St. John’s lawyer Aaron Feld was taking questions from a small group of listeners gathered around a speaker’s tent where the microphones were being kept dry.
“Don’t have any weapons on you, but bring a toothbrush, maybe, just in case you get stuck in the lockup for 24 hours,” he said.
“If you’re ever unsure, or you’re not sure what the police are saying, or you don’t trust how they’re engaging with you, or even if you just aren’t sure what to do, just say, ‘I want to talk to a lawyer.’ Silence is your first line of defence, but if silence isn’t disengaging the situation, if your silence is not de-escalating, then you can always say immediately, ‘I want to talk to a lawyer.’”
When he was finished, an organizer emphasized that they didn’t expect any trouble, as this was a peaceful rally, but just in case, the Memorial Universith of Newfoundland Student Union (MUNSU) would cover legal fees.
The rally, organized by a number of groups, was called to support the national Idle No More movement’s call to “cancel Canada Day” as hundreds of unmarked graves of children continue to be found near former residential schools across the country.
The tally is now well over 1,000, with 751 found last week at a site in Saskatchewan.
Most jurisdictions have quietly backed down from marking Canada Day. Municipalities across Newfoundland and Labrador, including St. John’s, announced official celebrations would be forgone so citizens can choose their own way of reflecting or marking the occasion.
As the crowd slowly grew, Jude Benoit reflected on what the message was supposed to be.
Benoit’s ancestry is the Miawpukek Conne River nation, but their grandmother married a man on the west coast, so they grew up in Qalipu nation.
Benoit is a member of the Indigenous Activist Collective (IAC), one of the organizers of the event.
“IAC is a massive group of Indigenous youth and Indigenous professionals and we are in solidarity with the Anti-racist Coalition and Black Lives Matter and the Social Justice Co-op and First Light. There’s a lot of power here today,” Benoit said, as a drumming circle began performing off to one side.
“I think we’re all here today, in part, for mourning. I mean, it’s truly depressing to be an Indigenous person in Canada right now. It always has been, but I think that this is something that needs to be done, and I hope they start looking into the lands of the churches and the schools here as well,” Benoit said.
On Military Road, a large beer truck blew its horn as it drove by.
The rain was steady by the time speeches got underway in front of a crowd of at least 200.
“This is a difficult, painful day. We have many intersecting intergenerational traumas, experiences, histories and ongoing pains being felt across Turtle Island and Inuit Nunangat,” said Robert Leamon, a Mi’kmaw land protector from the west coast, using the Indigenous terms for Canada and the Arctic homeland of the Inuit.
“Whether you come to this land by origin, choice, displacement, violence or however you are here, know that you are welcome,” Leamon continued, after a land acknowledgement. “However, we are here today because too many of us have been made to feel unwelcome, unsafe. Instead, we find ourselves being actively harmed for years, decades and generations, and made to feel unsafe and unable to tell our stories.”
Shouts of “shame” sprang from the crowd.
“But we are here, and we refuse to sit idle while Canada’s violent history is celebrated. We will not celebrate the ongoing genocide within Canada against Indigenous people.”
Other speeches included greetings and brief messages from elders and residential school survivors.
One of them, Sylvia Murphy, had helped dress the Colonial Building fence.
“This is heartbreaking for me. I’ve been going through the struggle since 1963, and I was born in ’56, so it’s been a long time,” she told the crowd.
“No system has worked. None. From the welfare system, the orphanages, the foster homes, it doesn’t matter. No one listens to your truth.”
Many in the crowd wore bright orange shirts emblazoned with “Decolonize YYT” on the front.
Before the event began, four young people had gathered at the front gate waving large Canadian flags. They talked loudly of ending hate and coming together, and said they felt they were in no way detracting from the moment.
Two admitted they were with the local Conservative youth movement. One of them said nothing would ever change his opinion.
They were eventually supplanted by several rally-goers who lined the sidewalk and cheered as passing cars honked their horns.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram