It was a day of remembrance, education and reflection as multiple ceremonies took place across the region to commemorate the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.
The day marks a federal holiday to honour lost Indigenous children and survivors of the residential school system. Due to the pandemic a number of the events were carried out virtually.
Mayor Don Scott opened the morning by introducing an honour song from Mikisew Cree First Nation traditional drummer Randy Martin and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation drummer Mitch Mercredi on the municipality’s Facebook page.
The song was dedicated to survivors, their families, communities and the children that never made it home.
“We are committed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action,” said Scott during the Facebook Live event.
“On this special day we pray that you may have healing and peace in your hearts. I want you to know that you are heard, believed and above all that you matter. As a region we support you in your healing journey for yourselves, your families and your communities.”
The municipality also hosted a virtual discussion with author Michelle Good as part of the It’s Time to Talk: Indigenous Speaker Series.
Good, whose first novel Five Little Indians received the Governor General’s Literary Award, discussed the policies that led to the creation of residential schools.
The wide-ranging talk also covered Good’s views on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, the Indian Act, the child welfare system and allyship.
“Indigenous people have carried the burden of educating non-Indigenous people for far too long,” said Good, during the discussion.
“There are so many resources that are available now. It’s simply unacceptable that when we are needed in our communities to contribute to the growth, healing and wellbeing of our communities, that’s where we should be putting our time.”
In Fort Chipewyan members of Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) walked from the Nunee Health Centre to the Arbour Centre, the site of the former Holy Angels Residential School.
It’s expected the site will be searched for unmarked graves later this fall once surveying is completed.
Chief Peter Powder of MCFN said that it was an emotional day and that the sharing of stories from elders was part of the healing process.
Powder ran away from Holy Angels as a child and said the memories for him are still fresh in his mind.
“I am a survivor, I was there,” said Powder. “As a leader I’m going to support my community in its healing. We need to heal. We also can’t forget what happened. It’s a lot of emotions, a lot of different things.”
In August, a memorial for residential school victims and survivors outside Jubilee Centre Plaza was vandalized. The memorial was established in response to the discovery of unmarked graves at residential school sites and featured hundreds of shoes placed on the stairs in front of the plaza.
Powder said that the vandalism served as a reminder that people still don’t understand the meaning of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the legacy of residential schools.
“They don’t feel the pain,” said Powder. “It just tells me that people aren’t educated and then they go and do these stupid things. If one of them was at a residential school I guarantee they wouldn’t have touched the shoes.”
Members of the Fort McKay First Nation (FMFN) took to the community radio station to observe a moment of silence and shared messages from Chief Mel Grandjamb and council before a ceremony outside the community's band office.
Grandjamb said that he was disappointed that Alberta elected not to recognize the day as a holiday.
“I think it’s sad and unfortunate that a number of provinces did not acknowledge and initiate this special day for us, because we are across this country,” said Grandjamb. “I've talked with the provincial government and they keep saying Aboriginal people are key to the future. They didn’t put their foot in the right spot and acknowledge today.”
FMFN also recently painted two trucks to honour residential school victims and survivors and raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The community has also been collecting stories and art from residential school survivors as well as other community members in advance of Sept. 30. Grandjamb said it was heartbreaking to read some of the accounts.
“Our community is a small community,” said Grandjamb. “Our elders were the first group impacted, then the second group was our fathers, my father. My generation is now dealing with the second and third generations of those impacted. There are a lot of hardships felt. We’re in for a long haul and there is a long journey of healing ahead.”
Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today