Hope and grief intermingled as residential school survivors, Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous people gathered across Vancouver to commemorate the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Saturday.
The day is meant to recognize and honour residential school survivors and those who didn't make it home, as well as acknowledge the inter-generational damage caused by Canada's residential school system and celebrate Indigenous cultures.
Multiple Indigenous-led events in Vancouver brought hundreds of survivors, elders, children and members of the public together in song, dance, prayer and learning.
In East Vancouver, hundreds marched from Strathcona Community Centre to Grandview park in the morning as part of the Orange Shirt Walk.
"It's a tough day, because if you know an Indigenous person, their parent or their grandparent went to residential school, so it's important that we create a safe space," said Jerilynn Snuxyaltwa Webster, a Nuxalk and Onondaga spoken word artist also known as JB the First Lady.
"We're here, coming together to heal, to uplift each other and share that medicine through songs, dances and ceremony, and reclaiming who we are and what colonization and residential schools took from our elders, which was their songs, dances, language and land."
Jerilynn Snuxyaltwa Webster, a Nuxalk and Onondaga spoken word artist also known as JB the First Lady, says it's important for non-Indigenous Canadians to take actions towards reconciliation every day of the year. (Shawn Foss/CBC News)
Webster emceed the events following the march, which included a drum circle, craft circles and dance performances by members of several First Nations in B.C. at Grandview Park and Britannia Community Centre.
She was heartened to see many non-Indigenous people come out to show their support and learn from the programming, and said every Canadian should read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 calls to action to take a stand year-round.
"It's not just wearing an orange shirt, it's about learning and understanding and creating justice for Indigenous peoples," said Webster.
Esther Calder said seeing so many people come out to recognize the abuse she and others suffered at residential school was validating.
Calder is a member of Nisga'a First Nation and said she was sexually abused at St. George's School in Lytton when she was forced to attend from 1965 to 1969.
"It's a blessing to be able to see all these people because a lot of them went through what we went through in residential school," she said. "It's a very painful thing to go through."
Esther Calder says seeing so many other survivors, and members of the public, in Vancouver to honour residential school survivors is a "blessing." (Shawn Foss/CBC News)
That sense of recognition is also a comfort to Sylvia Sharon Isaac, a member of the Nak'azdli Whut'en, who said she was physically, sexually and emotionally abused at an Indian day school she was forced to attend as a child.
Isaac said forgiving the perpetrators has helped her to heal, and she recently celebrated 25 years sober from alcohol.
"I feel at peace today because I worked on so much. In the past, I couldn't even think about my childhood trauma and would go into some kind of fit … But today I can talk about it, I can think of it, and I know I'm not carrying it," she said.
She said there has been an awakening since the preliminary findings of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops were discovered and that she hopes being able to share her story will help other survivors know that healing is possible.
Generations to go
The absence of the many who did not make it home, and the lives and families they did not have, also hung heavy on the sunny afternoon.
Many survivors spoke of the inter-generational trauma caused by residential schools that still reverberates through families and communities.
Elder William "Bill" Nelson said the loss of many people who died not at, but because of residential schools still looms large on days to honour survivors. (Shawn Foss/CBC News)
Elder Bill Nelson, a Nisga'a and Gitxsan residential school survivor, said he lost three sisters "far long before their time."
"Their headstones do not tell that they died directly due to residential schools," Nelson said to the crowd at Grandview Park. "They took our children, they carved up the souls of our nations … they took these little children here with the sole intent to break their spirits. That is unforgivable."
At Trout Lake, where the Nisga'a Ts'amiks Vancouver Society hosted an afternoon to commemorate the day, Debra Beynon said being there with her five-year-old grandson meant a lot.
Jack and Debra Beynon were grateful to attend National Day for Truth and Reconciliation events at Trout Lake with their five-year-old grandson. (Shawn Foss/CBC News)
Beynon survived residential school near Port Alberni, while her husband is a first-generation survivor whose father never spoke of his own time at residential school.
"It's really overwhelming for me, to see all the supports, with all different cultures here," she said.
Her husband, Jack Beynon, says they have both been working hard on more than 30 years of sobriety and trying to parent their children and grandchildren to break those cycles of abuse.
But in 2017 they lost one son to a drug poisoning. Another is incarcerated, and their third is still struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, he said.
"It's hard when you think of those things, because of what the residential schools did to that second generation," said Beynon.
He says true healing and justice will take many more generations than are alive today, "when each generation gets the help that they need."