“Today is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation,” said Mayor Mario Zanth during a quiet ceremony September 30, “where we remember and honour the lost children and the survivors of residential schools, their families and communities. It is a time to solemnly acknowledge the hurt and harm this system caused.”
Andria Desjardins of Clarence Creek, a Métis Canadian, organized the Walk of Sorrows with the aid of other Clarence-Rockland citizens who, like herself, share a common identity as First Nations residents of Canada. More than five dozen people of all backgrounds took part in the walk and the service in front of the Cenotaph.
“We want you to take this opportunity, this day, and every day,” said Desjardins, “to reflect, get educated, and take action to show your support for Indigenous peoples.”
National Truth and Reconciliation Day is a new federal statutory day to honour the memory of First Nations children taken from their families as part of a federal government program, in partnership with various church groups. It was set up by the Conservative government of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, to teach the children English and assimilate them into Canadian society.
The residential school program no longer exists but recent discoveries of mass graves at former residential school sites have now highlighted the history of abuse reported in the past about the program. The graves are filled with the remains of children who died while at the schools and were buried without any notice or information given to their families.
Many survivors of the residential school system, like Gil McGillivray of Vankleek Hill, are now speaking out about their experiences. McGillivray, a guest speaker at the Rockland ceremony, was sent to the Prince Albert Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan when he was a child. He ran away from the institution three times but was always sent back.
“We need to understand what Truth and Reconciliation is all about,” McGillivray said. “I hope this (event) can continue and that we remember all the little ones they keep finding. I’m glad that I am here, to be able to speak for them. I hope I can be a Knowledge Keeper for you folks and share my knowledge with you.”
The federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report on the residential school system and its abuses in June 2015. The report included 94 “calls to action” for the present and future federal and provincial governments to follow. Copies of the report, in both French and English, are available to read at the Clarence-Rockland Public Library.