WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
A group of francophone students from École Saint-Augustin in South Rustico say they are grateful for the timing of a planned visit to Lennox Island First Nation, as it allowed them to show their support, and shared grief after the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
"It means a lot to me, it just means so much, like, in my heart," said 11-year-old Keira Dionne-Arsenault, a student at the school.
"I feel so blessed to be here right now and that our school is working with them and that we're trying to bring everybody together and we're trying to support them."
Throughout this academic year, members of the First Nation have been collaborating with École Saint-Augustin on activities and events to help build new connections between the Mi'kmaq and the Acadians — and support truth and reconciliation through relationship building.
This week's visit to Lennox Island had been planned for weeks — and ended up occurring just days after the discovery at the former residential school in B.C. It's something that came up early in the visit, during a talking circle ceremony led by Elder Methilda Knockwood-Snache.
Participants were asked to introduce themselves and share anything they wished. Many spoke about how shocked, heartbroken, and sad they were to hear about the abuse and mistreatment of children at Canada's residential schools.
"It makes me feel sad for all the kids who didn't get to live their full lives and didn't get to see their families," said Grade 4 student Gwendolyn Domike during the talking circle.
"I said that I hope that things like what happened with the 215 children will never happen again, and that we can all have peace and be kind."
Jamie Thomas, director of culture and tourism for Lennox Island, said she was touched to observe the students take part in the ceremony, learn about the sacred fire, and express their sorrow at the recent discovery.
"Just watching them offer tobacco in recognition of those 215 kids that were found, that was not something that we had planned," said Thomas.
"But it just happened, and it was so heartwarming … like you can tell that some of them really understand how significant that fire is."
'They were meant to be here'
A ceremony in honour of the 215 children was held Monday on Lennox Island, and included local children. Thomas said being able to open up that tribute and include children from École Saint-Augustin was special.
"For me, it's like they were meant to be here today, so that they could be part of it," said Thomas, who said making connections with the Mi'kmaw community and residential school survivors is one way to help children understand what happened and promote healing.
For teacher Julie Gagnon, who is also vice-principal at École Saint-Augustin, talking openly about Indigenous history is key.
"What happened with this tragedy of the 215 kids being found, that's something we need to talk about," said Gagnon.
"Yes, it's a hard conversation. It's not something that you want to hear every day. But we need to talk. We need that. It's to create awareness. And when I heard the students making a prayer or sharing their feelings, it tells me that it touched them, you know, like it got them right to the heart."
She said talking to children about truth and reconciliation should of course be adapted to their age — and resources like books and films are available to assist families and educators. But she said the most important thing is to start those conversations and keep having them.
"There are different things that can be done one small step at a time. The important thing is to talk about it because it is by speaking that we will be able to advance in truth and reconciliation," said Gagnon.
For Gagnon, building a relationship with members of the Lennox Island First Nation is about becoming an ally, and being there to listen and learn, especially in challenging times.
"We need to support them. We need to be together. We need to be a whole," said Gagnon.
Gagnon said the Mi'kmaw flag has been flown in front of her school for over a month now, and will remain there. She said the school is also in the process of developing specific educational curriculum related to truth and reconciliation — and plans are already in the works for students from Lennox Island to visit École Saint-Augustin this fall.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
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