Volunteers clean up memorial for residential school victims at Calgary City Hall

Children's shoes sit on snowy steps at Calgary's City Hall. Volunteers cleaned up the memorial to residential school victims on March 12, 2023. (Tom Ross/CBC - image credit)
Children's shoes sit on snowy steps at Calgary's City Hall. Volunteers cleaned up the memorial to residential school victims on March 12, 2023. (Tom Ross/CBC - image credit)

Volunteers gathered at Calgary's City Hall on Sunday to clean up a memorial to residential school victims.

Equipped with shovels, thick gloves and a snow blower, the group sorted through piles of shoes and toys, reorganizing them in lines on the building's concrete steps.

The memorial is surrounded by a black fence to protect it from being damaged by snow removal machinery, but it's taken ongoing efforts to keep it visible during one of Calgary's snowiest winters.

"Coming from an Indigenous background, it's really important," said Trevor Bell, one of the volunteers. "We try to keep it maintained, just so everybody can see what happened within the past."

Hundreds of shoes, teddy bears and flowers were first brought to the steps of the building in June 2021 in honour of the children who did not return home from residential schools. The memorial was vandalized that summer but stayed in place and has been a fixture since.

The importance of the memorial extends to calls for Indigenous rights and sovereignty over traditional territories today, said one volunteer.

WATCH | Volunteers work to clear Calgary residential school memorial:

"When we talk about land back, it doesn't necessarily mean giving us our land back, but giving us the rights to speak our language, have our long hair," said Sonny Campbell.

"All these children that these shoes represent, they were the ones who tried to speak their language. They didn't want to assimilate and so they were punished for it."

Campbell said it's also important for youth in the community to see adults caring for the memorial, learning about its history and working for future generations.

"It's a spiritual thing for us, that's how we clean it," said Campbell. "People come here, sing, pray, because we're honouring our ancestors for the next seven generations."

Permanent memorial in the works

The City of Calgary is in the process of creating a permanent memorial "in honour of all the Indian Residential School Survivors and the thousands of children who never returned home." Engagement on the project closed Dec. 30, 2022, and design and construction is meant to start this April.

"This monument will honour survivors and lost children by providing a place for people to gather, pay respects, and ensure that the history and legacy of the schools are never forgotten," reads the city's website.

Bell said a permanent memorial is important to him, but for now he's happy that the one at City Hall is at a location that sees a lot of traffic — making it an effective reminder to make those who see it reflect and "remember what happened in the past, right, see what happened in the Catholic church."

For others, like volunteer Amos Teddy, the permanent memorial is not as important as the remembrance and continued education about the legacies of residential schools.

"It really doesn't matter as long as we're here, we're making a difference, we're here for future generations," said Teddy.

Tom Ross/CBC
Tom Ross/CBC

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.