'We're healing': Marches, ceremonies mark first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in B.C.

·4 min read
People watch Tsartlip dancers perform during a ceremony Thursday at Victoria's Centennial Square to honour victims and survivors of the residential school system.  (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)
People watch Tsartlip dancers perform during a ceremony Thursday at Victoria's Centennial Square to honour victims and survivors of the residential school system. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)

For years, the children and staff of the səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation) walked from their reserve every day to the St. Paul's Indian Residential School in North Vancouver, B.C.

The 8.5-kilometre journey took close to two hours.

"That was a lot of hurt and pain that they had to walk into," said Gabriel George, the director of treaty lands and resources for the nation.

More than 2,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the school during its operation from 1899 to 1959. Public records show at least 12 died while attending the school between 1904 and 1913.

On Thursday, several hundred people set out on the same walk, including those who had once made the journey as children. This time, however, it was called a pilgrimage, to commemorate the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

"We wanted to reset the course," George said. "We can do something physically that will help us emotionally, spiritually and mentally."

Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC
Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC

Jen Thomas, the nation's newly elected chief, said her father was among the survivors who once had to walk.

"I'm here for him," she said. "I'm here for the community."

The event mirrored others that unfolded across B.C. on Thursday, as attendees grappled with the legacy of residential schools and reflected on reconciliation. Marches and drum ceremonies were held from Vancouver to Kamloops to Prince George.

Colour unified the events, with participants dressed in orange jackets, sweaters and hats under grey skies.

Sept. 30 was previously known as Orange Shirt Day in honour of residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad, who was six years old when her orange shirt was taken away from her on her first day at St. Joseph's Indian Residential School.

'We all have a part to play'

In downtown Vancouver, a Coast Salish performance at the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza drew people who sought to show their solidarity and learn more about reconciliation.

"I think we all have a part to play," said attendee Peter Robertson.

Robertson said he felt the day should have been a statutory holiday in B.C. The province advised that B.C.'s public sector and schools be closed on Thursday, but didn't mandate a day off.

"I hope that next year it will be," Robertson said.

Doug Kerr/CBC
Doug Kerr/CBC

Nicole Dingle, a University of British Columbia student, said she wanted to spend the day learning about Indigenous history and culture.

Dingle said she spent the night prior reading about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 94 Calls to Action from 2015, including the push to create a statutory holiday.

"I was surprised that it took so long to be implemented and for me to actually learn about it," she said.

"At the very least, it's part of the conversation now. It's really nice to see that a lot of people are trying to learn about it."

Calls for 'meaningful apology'

In Kamloops, B.C., where the remains of more than 200 children were reported discovered in May using ground-penetrating radar, leaders urged for more action.

Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation called for the disclosure of all relevant records from the church and government to help identify missing Indigenous children at former residential school sites, including those in unmarked graves.

"Reconciliation requires truth,'' Casimir said Thursday. "And this is but one milestone along with the restitution and potentially retribution, and a path toward reconciliation. At the very least, steps toward reconciliation demands honesty and transparency.''

Casimir said they want a "meaningful apology'' from the Pope for the trauma to Indigenous children and intergenerational suffering.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Murray Rankin, B.C.'s minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, said the province is providing access to records to First Nation groups investigating residential schools.

"So, there's going to be in our case, at least in the province of British Columbia, as much transparency as possible,'' he said.

In North Vancouver, before embarking on the walk to the former residential school, George reflected on Canadians who may not understand the need for a day of reconciliation and want Indigenous people to "get over it."

"We're healing," he said. "It's going to take us time to do that. We need patience and we need understanding."

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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