NEYAASHIINIGMIING – Orange shirts and ribbon skirts greeted the day on July 1 as the Chippewas of Nawash youth, elders, and community members gathered at the entrance to the reserve, 28 kilometres northeast of Wiarton, to begin the 75-kilometre relay walk/ride to their sister reserve, the Chippewas of Saugeen, near Southampton.
Honouring our Children Relay: Past, Present, and Future happened on Canada Day to reflect on the recent revelations of unmarked graves at residential school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
The grounds on these sites have been holding the bodies of unknown Indigenous children, with no records of who they were or why they died. Many are believed to be those who have been missing, the people who ran the schools told the parents the children had run away in some cases.
The event was organized to spread awareness, encourage compassion, promote unity and gather support.
A sunrise ceremony began the day, a group of participants, supporters, and elders greeted the sun with pipe ceremonies, teachings and songs as they gathered the community together “to honour the lives of the children whose bodies are being recovered from unmarked graves at residential schools across Turtle Island.”
Jossann Johnston, one of the event organizers, spoke to the Wingham Advance Times about the experience, which came together very quickly, she said, after the idea was floated on social media.
Johnston estimates that the numbers doubled, maybe even tripled, by the end of the event as people joined in along the way. Some participants only joined for short periods. She believes there may have been 300 participants, give or take.
“We need our non-Indigenous allies with us,” she said, speaking about opening up the pipe ceremonies, a practise that is usually done privately.
“I thought it was really beautiful, using our culture to open the day,” added Johnston, setting the tone for the event with “and for our allies to sit and hear how we begin things in a good way.”
The event was respectful of the current health situation. All precautions were taken to make sure everyone was safe, and protocols were followed.
Some people walked, rode bicycles, and even one participant came on horseback to honour the children found.
Allies lined the streets and sat on their porches, dressed in orange shirts, holding signs to indicate their support, acknowledging the importance of standing with the Indigenous peoples on this day instead of the usual Canada Day celebrations.
“We see you, good people of Neyaashiinigmiing,”
Wiarton Chiropractor Dr. Stephen Silk said on his Facebook page. “We hear you. We’re with you.”
“To support my friends of Nawash First Nations,” he said, “I got up early today and drove to the base of Coveney’s Hill for the start of the daylong ‘Honouring our Children Relay: Past, Present, and Future.’”
Nawash band member Veronica Smith provided the following statement to the Advance Times, commenting on her personal reasons for participating and providing a more in-depth side of life on the reserve without the children.
“For many reasons, on July 1, I attended the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation ‘Honouring Our Residential School Children’ run and walk relay that was organized by our youth in the community.
“The Relay began in a good way – Praying together in Ceremony, singing to Creator and for our Ancestors and the Children; listening to our Knowledge Keepers and their wisdom; lifting each other up on a day when Canada celebrated their anniversary of the New World.
“We, the Anishinabek, were remembering the truth that Canada was built on stolen land while they implemented strategies to annihilate the First Peoples of Turtle Island.
“Almost all the children from the Nawash community were taken from their families and sent to Residential schools in Ontario, mainly – Mount Elgin, Spanish, Mohawk Institute, and Shingwauk.
“I recall hearing that the community was ‘quiet and sad,’ especially in the time when the men went to war, and the children were taken.
“The realizations are hard to accept; that the Chippewas of Nawash is known for their highest enlistment of men per capita during the Second World War to fight for our country while Canada was killing our children on our homelands!”
Smith was 20 years old when she found out her mother had been at Spanish Residential School.
“When I asked my grandmother, she had tears in her eyes and couldn’t speak. I knew then residential school was painful and bad,” said Smith.
She ran away with her first daughter to the United States, Smith said, to avoid having them sent to residential school.
“She headed out of Canada into the United States to be safe with her baby daughter. When she met my father, she had two more girls and I was the youngest of the three daughters.” Smith recalled, “I remember growing up in Chicago and hearing the words ‘half-breeds’ and ‘bastards’ and my mom defending us.”
Smith’s mom passed away when she was young, but she left an impression on her youngest daughter.
“My mother made very difficult decisions for her children and I’m proud of the strength and wisdom she carried with her. I am very grateful that my mother survived at Spanish and she returned home with a broken Spirit. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“This history has had an affect on my family and I’ve had to learn the painful truths of what really happened to the generations before me. I know this healing will take a while before my tears will finally stop falling,” Smith said. “After 45 years, my heart hurts for my mother.
“Now, my family and I know the painful past and that we need to heal so our generations coming can walk strong and proud.”
Smith believes that healing will not come until the children are repatriated, brought home where they belong.
“This will not happen unless the First Peoples can reclaim what is rightfully ours, including our language, our culture and our ceremonies. I believe that this pandemic has made us still for a reason, so the whole world knows the true history of our Nations.”
“I was happy to see support all across Turtle Island from Nations and cities, wearing the orange shirts that represent ‘Every Child Matters,’” she added.
The relay ended in the Saugeen and was followed up on Sunday with a virtual sharing circle, where organizers created a safe space for people to come together as a community, including allies, to share and reflect on the discovery of the unmarked gravesites of children taken away to residential schools.
There will be many more searches happening, and as these children are identified, there will be more events like this one to honour those who did not come home.
You can visit the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website and view a memorial that remembers, honours, and acknowledges those children who died while attending a residential school in Canada.
The National Student Memorial Register was created to forever remember and honour the children who never returned home from residential schools.
You can visit this site at https://nctr.ca/.
A National Residential School Crisis Line has also been set up to provide support to former students. This 24-Hour Crisis Line can be accessed at 1-866-925-4419.
Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times