Residential school survivor finds support in community march to honour remains found in B.C.

·4 min read
Students and community members in Sheshatshiu gathered to release balloons in honour of the 215 Indigenous children found at a former residential school in British Columbia. (Regan Burden/CBC - image credit)
Students and community members in Sheshatshiu gathered to release balloons in honour of the 215 Indigenous children found at a former residential school in British Columbia. (Regan Burden/CBC - image credit)
Students and community members in Sheshatshiu gathered to release balloons in honour of the 215 Indigenous children found at a former residential school in British Columbia.
Students and community members in Sheshatshiu gathered to release balloons in honour of the 215 Indigenous children found at a former residential school in British Columbia.(Regan Burden/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

As Gervais Penashue watched children from the Sheshatshiu Innu school walk through the community earlier this week in support of those traumatized by Canada's former residential schools, he said, it gave him a feeling of warmth through what has been a troubling time.

Penashue organized the walk to honour the children whose remains were found at a British Columbia residential school earlier this week. As the crowd made its way through the Labrador community, Innu children held 215 red and blue balloons, one for each child that a First Nation in B.C. estimates, through its preliminary findings using ground-penetrating radar, is buried on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops.

The discovery has shaken people across Canada, and brought back painful memories for Penashue, who, like his father, was forced to attend residential schools.

"When he was living, it was hard for me listening to him. How he was physically assaulted, and the wounds he had on his hands," Penashue told Labrador Morning during the walk.

"When I listened to him as we got older … he thought that things would end, but his kids were physically and sexually assaulted also, and I am one of them."

The walk ended at a newly erected cross in the community, which Penashue says symbolizes love and hope for the future. As walkers gathered around the monument, he said he hopes positive change will come.

Gervais Penashue hopes the newly erected cross in Sheshatshiu will serve as a symbol of hope in the community.
Gervais Penashue hopes the newly erected cross in Sheshatshiu will serve as a symbol of hope in the community.(Regan Burden/CBC)

"Back then there was no help, nowhere to turn to back then. There was so much darkness," he said. "Today, I am able to talk to my children about sexual abuse and prevention and awareness.… I'm not hiding in the closet anymore.

"That's the message we want to send out. We see hope."

Students need to learn, says Point Leamington teacher

Students at a school in central Newfoundland are also memorializing the deaths, through art.

Earlier this week, the Grade 4-6 class at Point Leamington Academy made 215 origami hearts.

"That's over three times as many students as what we have here. Knowing that that number is actually much bigger than that if we consider all across Canada, it's just so sad," teacher Deanne Barker-Jeans told Newfoundland Morning.

She said many of the students have an understanding of what happened at residential schools from previous classroom lessons. The class decided to make the origami hearts as a symbol of love, respect, and a desire to want to learn more, she said.

Grade 4-6 students at Point Leamington Academy created 215 paper hearts this week to mark the discovery of remains found at a former British Columbia residential school.
Grade 4-6 students at Point Leamington Academy created 215 paper hearts this week to mark the discovery of remains found at a former British Columbia residential school.(Submitted by Deanne Barker-Jeans)

"You could tell when they were folding the hearts that they were thinking. There was some reflection going on," Barker-Jeans said. "Some were asking questions, and I guess they were trying to make sense of it in their own way.… Some students, I think, were making their own connections."

Barker-Jeans said she hopes to continue educating her students about residential schools, marking Indigenous History Month with Orange Shirt Day and a novel study, among other ideas. She said it's important for young Canadians to learn about the history, as they will be the ones sharing it with future generations.

"Generations have been, and continue to be, impacted. Any of this hard truth, our students need to learn it," she said.

"[History] is still being written, and they're going to be the ones writing it."

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 line: 1-866-925-4419.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador