WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A still-growing group is walking from Saskatchewan to Ottawa to honour the children buried in hundreds of unmarked graves recently identified on the sites of Canada's former residential schools.
The walk began with just one person — Patricia Ballantyne, who started out in Prince Albert, Sask., a couple of days after the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children adjacent to the former Kamloops, B.C. residential school.
For Ballantyne, a residential school survivor from the Deschambault Lake community of Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, it's been a healing journey for her and others.
"I wanted to do something because I was feeling the hurt and pain of all the people and all the parents that didn't get to see their loved ones again," she said during the walk's stop in Winnipeg on Friday.
"I'm doing it all for all the lost little souls that are still out there that need to be found."
Ballantyne and a growing group of people are stopping at different First Nations and the sites of former residential schools on their journey, which she calls the Walk of Sorrow.
"When we go to the sites we can feel all the sadness and the hurt.... We pray for the lost ones to find their way home," she said.
'We don't know where she's buried,' survivor says of cousin
Joseph Maud, from Skownan First Nation in Manitoba's Interlake region, joined the group along the way.
When he was five, he and his siblings were taken across Lake Winnipegosis to the Pine Creek Indian Residential School. They were separated and punished for speaking their Ojibway language, even though they didn't know English.
The sudden changes and abuse were traumatizing for Maud. That's when things got worse.
"I felt lonely, I felt scared, afraid.... I started wetting my bed, so every day when I woke up the nun that was looking after my section would grab me by my head and would rub my face in my own urine. Day after day after day," he recalled.
Maud's seven-year-old cousin died after she was taken to the same residential school.
"We want to bring her home but we don't know where she's buried. There's thousands of unmarked graves and they have to be identified," Maud said.
Ballantyne says this week's news of what are believed to be 751 unmarked graves in Cowessess First Nation, east of Regina, as well as others being rediscovered is opening up old wounds.
"I didn't realize how I was hiding all those trauma that happened to me as a child at residential schools. It just came bubbling up and I just couldn't stop it," Ballantyne said.
But those wounds aren't all old. Some of the walkers are traumatized after being taken away from their parents through the child welfare system.
"We start opening up to each other about our different experiences," Ballantyne said.
"For me it's residential schools ... and we have a group that's representing the foster care system, who were stuck in that care and they didn't know why their parents couldn't take care of them, so we're helping them understand their parents," she said.
"We tell them, 'Leave your hurt with us. I'll take your hurt with me. You go start healing yourself.'"
The group also wants to effect change.
Maud went to Ottawa 13 years ago when former prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for residential schools.
"I shook his hands later and said, 'If you meant all those words, actions speak louder than words.'" Many promises haven't ben kept, Maud says.
He hopes all levels of government will support efforts to find residential school gravesites so families can honour those lost with proper funerals and finally get closure.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected.
People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.