What began as a 300-metre memorial walk honouring victims and survivors of the residential school system turned into a seven-day, 130-kilometre journey for Chief Vern Janvier and members of the Chipewyan Prairie Déne First Nation (CPDFN), culminating Wednesday morning at Snye Point Park.
The CPDFN members were joined by approximately 130 supporters on the final leg and were met by a crowd of nearly 300 at the park.
Janvier and CPDFN members began the walk on July 1 from the Janvier Health Centre, but felt compelled to continue the journey until they finished at the point where Clearwater River meets the Snye. The walk took place as a heat wave engulfing much of western Canada, with temperatures in Fort McMurray averaging 40 degrees on July 1.
Janvier was unable to speak to media following the walk, but multiple First Nation and Métis communities joined the CPDFN members in solidarity.
“The goal of the walk is to raise awareness, but [Vern’s goal] is really to change the Indian Act and to change the way we have been treated,” said Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Peter Powder, who joined Janvier on the final day. “If we didn't do the walk, people would just carry on and people wouldn't be as serious about this as we are. We want to change things.”
The walk led into the Memorial Gathering of Solidarity, where people who impacted by the residential school system were invited to share stories. For Karla Buffalo, the CEO of the Athabasca Tribal Council, the walk and gathering provided an opportunity for reflection.
“The significance behind today is that our communities know these stories,” said Buffalo. “With the recent finding of the unmarked graves of the children, something's really happened in our communities, where it's started to open our people to wanting to actually start talking about what's happened in residential schools, because for so long, people held it inside.”
Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey also attended the final day of the walk. He said until the first unmarked graves of children in Kamloops were found, there was little attention paid to the legacies of residential schools.
There are plans to search the grounds of Holy Angels Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, which closed and was torn down in 1974. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has identified the deaths of 89 children at the school between 1880 and 1953.
The Alberta government has pledged $8 million to search 25 residential school locations in the province. Noskey said more support is needed to properly conduct land surveys.
“Identifying the area where the residential schools were is difficult because a lot of the lands have been developed," he said. "I get the significance, OK, the truth came out. But now there needs to be closure as well.”
Fort McKay First Nation Chief Mel Grandjamb said the week-long walk was an opportunity for different communities to show solidarity over the legacy of residential schools.
“We had a number of meetings where Chief Janvier talked about his desire to do something and when you speak with him there is a lot of pain and a lot of sorrow,” said Grandjamb. “One of our big goals is to get our community healthy and learn our culture back. That’s a step to recovery.”
Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today