While the pandemic and elections were prominent in the public eye this year, a series of unforgettable discoveries took hold beginning in May 2021. Canada rearranged itself around the discovery of unmarked graves and what that meant for Indigenous people, the history of their ancestors and the nation as a whole.
On May 28, 2021, the remains of 215 bodies were discovered in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. This discovery shook the nation as many Canadians had their eyes opened to this country’s brutal past and led to more investigations which unearthed many more similar revelations. The current total of bodies found is now up to more than 7,000.
An unfortunate truth is that the discoveries weren’t shocking to everyone. Darrell Willier, First Nations MÃ©tis Inuit education co-ordinator for Medicine Hat Public School Division and a member of the Cree Tribe in North West Alberta, said he wasn’t surprised.
“Well, for myself personally, it really wasn’t surprising that they found all these unmarked graves, because we’ve known that for decades,” said Willier.
Willier felt it would now give all of Canada a chance to reckon with that truth.
“My apprehension was, ‘How is the country going to deal with it?'” explained Willier. “‘What will they think?'”
Overall, the country responded with an increase in media coverage and attention to the findings. Vigils were held across the nation, where children’s shoes, a visual representation of the children who never came home, lined the steps of parliament buildings and legislatures.
JoLynn Parenteau, Indigenous co-ordinated access program manager of Miywasin Friendship Centre and a member of the MÃ©tis community, spoke about the local reaction at this time.
“Miywasin Centre staff responded quickly in June to hold a vigil for the 215 children recovered in Kamloops,” said Parenteau. “An outpouring of community support provided well over 200 pairs of children’s shoes which were placed at the Saamis Tepee in seven circles for the seven generations lost from 1884 to 1996, when roughly 150,000 children passed through the overcrowded halls of Canadian residential schools. Miywasin has been grateful for the Medicine Hat community’s outpouring of support and donations, which will in turn support programming for residential school and inter-generational trauma survivors.”
In Medicine Hat, schools expanded their understanding of Indigenous culture. Willier said the amount of classroom presentations for him and his two co-workers, Shirley Boomer and Morgan Muir, increased dramatically.
“I really like what’s going on in our school division in terms of the multiple class presentations that Shirley, Morgan and I can offer,” said Willier. “It’s all curriculum-based for Grades 1 to 12. I think as more teachers and principals get on board and they realize that this covers the curriculum and it’s really good information, they feel a lot more comfortable about it.”
The City of Medicine Hat celebrated Indigenous People’s Day at the Saamis Tepee in June. In late June, local artist Shelley Ewing donated a piece of artwork to the Miywasin Friendship Centre inspired by her feelings surrounding the discoveries of unmarked graves. Mid July brought the Medicine Hat Mural Fest, with a large mural contributed by Kyle Staub and Danny Graham of Honorbound Tattoos from Calgary. The mural, found on the side of Motiv Custom Apparel, is a nod to the Indigenous community.
Before school started back up at the end of August, Todd Samuelson, principal of Alexandra Middle School, asked Sheila Toderian, a MÃ©tis artist out of Brooks, to paint an Indigenous inspired mural of the schools three core values; respect, integrity and courage.
David Restoule, Indigenous student support specialist at Medicine Hat College and an Anishinaabe from Ontario, said he feels immense sorrow each time there is a new finding, but hopes the continued exposure will create the needed changes. He hopes the 94 Calls to Action continue to be worked on and feels especially passionate about deepening Canadians’ understanding of land acknowledgements.
“I encourage people to build a relationship with the land in their area, go deeper, tell a story in your land acknowledgement,” said Restoule. “Some people are going for walks as part of their land acknowledgement to show people and let them feel how it feels to be on the land. That’s really neat to me. Imagine that land with no concrete and no buildings; just envision it how it used to be.”
Ottawa unveiled a new holiday, Truth and Reconciliation Day, on Sept. 30, 2021. It was recognized in Medicine Hat with a gathering at Riverside Veterans Memorial Park, including singing, dancing and stories of ancestors.
While Willier thinks the day is a good idea, he wishes more Indigenous people had been consulted in the decision making process of when to celebrate.
“I was hoping when they selected when they were going to have Truth and Reconciliation Day, that they would actually ask us and consult with us. Consult with different areas of the country and talk with the people in education. This way we could all come together and talk and see what a perfect day would be,” said Willier. “I think it should have been the first day of spring, because it’s a new beginning.”
Willier said he is proud to see students go home and teach their parents truths they might have never heard themselves.
“I’ve heard from some parents that they appreciate they have the ability now to learn from their kids about this stuff.”
He said he likes what he sees in moving toward Truth and Reconciliation in Medicine Hat.
“All of us need to know the truth first before we can begin to look at reconciliation and what that means. When I think about truth and reconciliation, I’m also thinking about how to approach that with my own people, because they need to understand that, too, so all the people involved can move forward together,” said Willier.
“I think when people understand what Truth and Reconciliation means and what it can mean for all of us as a country, it’s going to be better for us. It might take a generation or two to see some real good, positive effects, but it’s a start.”
LAUREN THOMSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News