Hundreds of people poured into the streets on June 4 as part of the Dene Nation’s commemorative walk for the 215 Kamloops children found in unmarked graves.
Yellowknifers gathered at the former site of Akaitcho Hall, the city’s former residential school around noon before proceeding to St. Patrick Catholic Church, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, and the Northwest Territories RCMP G Division for speeches.
The march ended at Somba K’e Civic Plaza where leading guests of honour shared their stories as direct or indirect residential school survivors and called for justice regarding Canada’s historic treatment of Indigenous peoples.
“Today, we are walking on new ground and a new path for ourselves,” National Chief Norman Yakeleya said. “We thank the children for waking up a nation of people across Canada to say no more will we be treated this way.”
The presence of chiefs from across the Northwest Territories added gravity to the solemn gathering at Somba K’e Civic Plaza. Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie, Grand Chief Wilbert Kochon of the Sahtu Dene Council, Chief Gerry Cheezie of the Salt River First Nation, and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation Chiefs Ed Sangris (Dettah) and Ernest Betsina (N’dilo) stood together, presenting a united front.
The march culminated in feeding of the fire and water ceremonies at the plaza’s amphitheatre with prayers and a drum dance. Those who spoke stressed the need to celebrate and honour children to ensure that residential schools never happen again.
Paul Andrew, a residential school survivor and broadcaster from Tulita, gave a stirring speech at the footsteps of the Catholic Church. As small children in the crowd played, Andrew spoke of the need to ensure children are loved and cared for by their families.
“No children should ever again should be separated from their family and no children should ever be separated from their mother, especially” he thundered.
“We’re going to take these little ones here and make the best possible future for them. They deserve better.”
Many young people from St. Patrick High School and Sir John Franklin School were present as were several families with little ones.
Some of the crowd were dressed in orange or adorned orange ribbons to commemorate residential school survivors.
Chief Betsina, who attended residential school in Inuvik during his youth for three years called for justice for children lost and those yet to be found.
He called for the Government of Canada to implement all of the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, especially the release of all archival documentation associated with the residential schools.
“This is a tragic and shameful reminder of Canada’s residential school and its haunting tragic events on our people throughout Canada,” he said. “How many graves are left to be discovered across Canada?
“Why must Indigenous people people continue to plead and beg Canada for justice in our own land? Why are we treated as second class citizens in our own land?”
Chief Sangris led a prayer song and drumming to honour the children lost in Kamloops and to help people who have been hurt across Canada from the news. He made several references to the Creator in seeking guidance and reflected on the Kamloops children as a parent and grandfather.
“I cannot imagine what those children went through,” he said. “When a child gets sick, the most important thing a child wants is comfort from their mom or their parents. But these children died alone.”
Mayor Rebecca Alty broke down during a moving speech and said that resources are available for non-Indigenous people who remain defensive or unsure of the gravity of the residential school legacy.
More attention needs to be invested in bringing healing to those who continue to suffer, she added.
“Our collective past is atrocious,” she said. “Residential schools, Indian hospitals, the Sixties Scoop, the Eskimo identification tag system, and so many more inhumane and racist programs and policies.
Grand Chiefs and forgiveness
Several speakers at times expressed astonishment at the size of crowd present.
Wilbert Kochon, Grand Chief of the Sahtu Dene Council reflected on his life growing up in a small community.
He said when he heard the news of the Kamloops unmarked graves, he hugged his granddaughter and remembered his residential school experience.
From his life experience he has learned to try not to retain anger and to forgive and ask for forgiveness, he added.
He used the opportunity to apologize to RCMP present for being angry at them, but added he felt betrayed when the national police force removed children from their homes to go to residential school after northern Indigenous people helped them settle and survive in the North.
“They turned around and they arrested some of the parents and that really hurt but I tried to rub it off and forgive them,” he said. “Now I hope you hear me, the RCMP. Forgive me now and let’s work together and never arrest a parent for protecting his child.”
Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie said he believes Indigenous and non-Indigenous people must “turn the page” and try to move on, but the after effects of the experience will remain and may take generations to heal. Non-aboriginal governments have to help in this process.
“We cannot change this going to take a long, long time to heal. Hurts, however, to look at the future past,” he said. “We as aboriginal people are hurt so bad, there’s no words to describe how we feel. How do we go forward?
“It is going to take a long, long time to heal. That is how we have to look at the future.
“We have to learn how to forgive. As hard as it is. If we don’t forgive, we will never work side by side.”
Salt River First Nation Chief Gerry Cheezie said he is having a hard time accepting the concept of his forgiveness following his experience at Holy Angels residential school in Fort Chipewyan.
“I feel conflicted when we talk about forgiveness. I feel conflicted because part of me wants to forgive. But the other part of me doesn’t.”