Woman's push for orange crosswalk carries special meaning

·4 min read

Mary Guptill has been trying to solve the puzzle of her family history. She doesn't have all the pieces yet, but she's sharing the most important piece – her pride in her Indigenous ancestry – with her community.

Guptill, who identifies as Sipekne'katik First Nation, successfully lobbied the Town of St. Stephen to install an orange crosswalk in honour of the upcoming National Day for Truth & Reconciliation on Sept. 30. It's a tribute for her grandparents, as well as some of her great uncles and aunts, who attended the residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S.

It's also a piece in her journey toward learning more about her family history and embracing her Indigenous identity.

"With this process of being able to speak out and not hide in the shadows, it's healing onto itself, but it's very scary because you are putting yourself in a place that you have never put yourself in before," she said.

Guptill, who grew up in New Brunswick, said she was motivated to begin advocating for Indigenous representation after a comment she received from a supervisor when she started working for the government as a social worker after finishing school.

She said her supervisor "looked me in the face and told me that there are no (Indigenous) people who live in this area."

"For me, that was a little shocking, and since... [the news about] the mass burial [at residential schools], I have been a little more vocal about who I am," she said, noting St. Stephen is on the unceded territory of the Peskotomuhkati Nation.

As the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation neared this year, Guptill said she started looking for some things that can be done and came across the idea of an orange crosswalk. The colour is associated with Orange Shirt Day, a campaign to remember those who were subjected to the residential school system in Canada.

The Town of St. Stephen decided to act on Guptill's request for a crosswalk. Jeff Renaud, St. Stephen's chief administrative officer, confirmed that the town is working on creating the crosswalk. As of right now, he sid it will just be an orange crosswalk with white stripes on the sides, but there is a chance to put in the feather designs used for these types of crosswalks if the local printing company can print the stencils for that.

"If not, that might be a 2023 addition," he said.

The crosswalk is expected to be painted at the south end of King Street, across Budd Avenue, connecting the Town Square and the Five Kings restaurant location to the main waterfront.

Guptill said she's happy that the town picked up on her request for a crosswalk. In an email she wrote the Town of St. Stephen, she said having this crosswalk will be an honour to "remember all those affected by residential schools."

Her father was born in New Brunswick, but the intergenerational trauma of the residential school system could be seen when her questions about family were not answered by her father, she said. She recalled the conversations were short and her dad was "very close-lipped" on those topics.

Her father was always protective of their identity, she said, and did not tell anybody outside the family that they were First Nations.

Upon the discovery of the 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in British Columbia in 2021, Guptill said she tried asking her father about her grandma's experience at the residential school, but he never spoke about it.

"He didn't wanna talk about it, he didn't wanna bring it up... it was almost like if you don't talk about it, it didn't happen," she said.

"That's why I saw that there's a lot of shame he carried that didn't belong to him."

Guptill has started the work to learn as much as she can about her Indigenous ancestry because she said she came to realize her father, who is now since deceased, couldn't revisit that as it was traumatic.

"If I want to make a change in my life, I have to reconnect with my communities, I have to go seek out people who I am related to in Sipekne'katik, I need to do all that groundwork," she said, "because he was not going to do it."

Rhythm Rathi, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal