Redefining a national holiday

·5 min read

Editor's note: This story was first published on July 9, 2021. This version corrects the spelling of Hawkesbury, a town in eastern Ontario.

A wave of orange shirts and banners flooded through the streets of Montreal on Thursday, July 1, as thousands marched to commemorate the lives of children stolen to residential schools.

In several cities across the country, typical Canada Day celebrations were set aside to instead incite a movement for the nation to denounce the federally-funded institutions and their present day legacy.

While Kahnawake took part in a rolling blockade that circled the community’s boundaries, Kanehsata’kehró:non and allies gathered to form a convoy.

At the departing point in the sacred Pines of Kanesatake, event organizer Al Harrington said he was touched to see individuals come from far and wide to participate in the convoy.

“We have people all the way from Ottawa, Cornwall, Hawkesbury and Montreal who came out to join us,” he said. “Everybody is in high spirits – they are all here for the same cause.”

The community member explained that he planned the event to reach both future generations and non-Indigenous people.

“This convoy is a great way of not only demonstrating, but also getting more awareness out to the Canadian people who don’t necessarily understand what’s happening,” he said. “When people see a bunch of cars rolling down the highway with the number 215 written on them and orange flags flying – it sparks interest for those who don’t know.”

There were approximately 40 vehicles lined up on the right lane of the highway and across the Remembrance Road that crosses over the city’s mountain point of Mount Royal.

Harrington recounted a heart-warming feeling at the sight of encouragement received along the route.

“Cars were beeping when we drove by and people were putting their hands out, waving at us and telling us that they support us,” he said. “It was such an incredible feeling because when we saw people doing that, we knew that they understood what was happening in the country and that they saw us.”

When the convoy arrived at Montreal’s Jeanne-Mance Park, participants joined the crowds of hundreds who had already amassed for the event, initiated by the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal.

Sitting along the steps, on the grass and pavement, a herd of people attentively listened as Kahnawa’kehró:non faithkeeper Kevin Ka’nahsóhon Deer delivered an opening speech grounded on healing and harmony.

“We’re all wearing orange today because what we are doing is igniting the sacred fire that exists within each and every one of us,” said Deer. “When we look at what we’ve done to each other as human beings, the entire world needs a grief ceremony.”

This plea for unity was accompanied with a sense of urgency for people to wake up to the injustices that have persistently targeted Onkwehón:we.

“See different, hear different, speak different and do different – not only for us – but for those future generations coming,” he said. “We all owe a responsibility to them so that when they are born and come into this world, they inherit a happy, safe, clean, beautiful, peaceful and loving world. This is our responsibility to them.”

Deer’s words hung in the air as drums, singing and more speeches followed.

Inuk singer-songwriter Elisapie Isaac joined the calls for thoughtfulness and justice by requesting that those in the province recognize their own share of duty.

“It’s important that Quebecers turn the mirror towards themselves – it’s your responsibility. I say this not to divide us but so that we can really come together,” said Isaac. “We will go nowhere if we’re not able to feel that you too have the courage to open your eyes, your ears, and start raising awareness on your own.”

As the streets filled with the sound of chants and drums, pedestrians enthusiastically joined the march towards Place du Canada, in the city’s downtown.

Once arrived, Kahnawake community member Alex McComber seized the microphone to address the crowd that filled the green space.

“We know what is taking place and we know this is the start – the tip of an iceberg,” McComber said, referring to the discoveries of remains at former residential schools. “We need to prepare for that and we do that by coming together strong, by understanding what is taking place and what our responsibilities are.”

Between echoing cheers, the Kahnawa’kehró:non reminded non-Indigenous people that their pledge to stand with Onkwehón:we is a life-long commitment.

“Your important work is to talk to your leaders and get them to change the systems – not just the laws and rules but in health, education and everywhere else,” he said.

While scans continue at the grounds of former residential schools, McComber evoked the memories of the 1,500 souls found to have been stolen by a system whose consequences permeate today.

“When we’re hurting because our grandparents and ancestors have experienced this horrific history that’s been put upon us, it brings us together and we know that that’s going to stop,” he said.

“As I look at those little ones here, I picture my own grand-children and I know that this will never happen again. Never again.”

Laurence Brisson Dubreuil, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door

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