WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
The second annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation was marked in Winnipeg by the installation of two fixtures to permanently honour those affected by Canada’s residential school system.
One of those installations was a memorial sculpture unveiled Friday morning outside the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre’s Gathering Place for Truth and Reconciliation on King Street.
The piece was designed by Métis artist Irwin Head, from Cranberry Portage, Man., who became ill and died in the last few months of working on it, said Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre supporting event co-ordinator Katie McKenzie.
Other artists stepped in to complete the project, she said.
Much like the event held to unveil it, the piece honours those lost to and affected by residential schools — particularly the youth, McKenzie said.
“We wanted to make this event centred around youth, because they’re the ones who are going to lead us forward in truth and reconciliation,” said McKenzie, who is from the Gitanmaax Band in northern British Columbia and has roots in Treaty 5 territory, the area that includes most of central and northern Manitoba.
McKenzie said for her, bringing the history of the residential school system and its legacy to light is a critical part of truth and reconciliation.
“It means learning what happened and acknowledging those tragedies — because that’s really the first step, is acknowledging the truth,” she said.
“And then from there we can move into reconciliation, building these relationships and talking about these things and moving forward in a positive direction.”
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization also unveiled a tribute. The Residential School Totem Pole by Kwakiutl artist Charles Joseph was raised Friday morning in Assiniboine Park, the organization said in a news release.
The piece will eventually be featured prominently in the Wehwehneh Bahgahkinahgohn project at the former Hudson’s Bay building in downtown Winnipeg, now owned by the SCO, the release said.
Monument unveiled at former residential school
In another Winnipeg neighbourhood Friday morning, survivors gathered to unveil a commemorative monument and gathering place to honour those forced to attend the Assiniboia Residential School.
That monument, at the school’s former location on Academy Road, includes a sacred fire pit surrounded by bricks etched with the names of students and the communities they came from.
Elder Shelton Cote said in his culture, the sacred fire lit there represents a direct connection to the spirit world.
“So today, we open that doorway with the fire. We open that doorway for the survivors that are here today. We open that doorway for the ones that are up in Creator’s land, as they look down on us and guide us.
“Most of all, we open that doorway for the ones that are being found — the ones that never made it home,” he said, referencing the discoveries across Canada of what are believed to be unmarked graves of children forced to attend residential schools.
Cote talked about the importance of continuing work to heal from the harms caused by residential schools, and specifically acknowledging and honouring two-spirit people in that process.
After performing a pipe ceremony, he spoke through tears about the impact residential schools left on children forced to attend them.
“The spirit is strong here. I cry for the people, the ones that forgot how to cry — the ones that were taught not to cry,” he said.
Cote and Rosa Walker, a board member of the Assiniboia Residential School Legacy Group, both spoke about the instrumental role the late Ted Fontaine played in the monument unveiled Friday.
Fontaine was a respected First Nations leader who wrote about the abuses he suffered in residential schools, including the Assiniboia institution. He died last year at 79.
“I think he wanted to do it not only because it was a way of healing but it was a way of educating,” Walker said, adding that Fontaine had been working on the idea of a monument since 2012.
“It was also a way to show and demonstrate how these people [had] overcome their experiences while in this school.”
For Assiniboia Residential School survivor Martina Fisher, the day brought back memories of her own experiences and those of her relatives forced to attend other schools — including her mother, who went to the Norway House Residential School, and her sister, Mary Young, an educator who went to the Pine Creek Residential School and died in 2015.
“When the truth came out about Indian residential schools, my sister could not handle it, could not cope,” Fisher said, adding that she tried to encourage her sister to share her experiences, but she didn’t.
“I know there was good times at these Indian residential schools, but there was also a lot of pain.
“I wanted to share that, because when [we had] the moment of silence, I thought about my siblings that went to school here, and I thought about my mother.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.