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A walk to honour residential school victims

Parents brought their children to the Bruce II to walk, remember and learn about Indigenous children who were victims of the residential school system. – © Rosina Harvey-Keeping


PORT AUX BASQUES – The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a day of rememberance and recognition in Canada to honour the victims of the Residential School system. The day was created in 2013, then known as Orange Shirt day, to raise public awareness and encourage education about the tragic impact the residential school system had on Indigenous people for over a century.

It was instituted as a statutory holiday this year after multiple grave sites of young Indigenous people were found at the sites of several residential schools. Since 1975, the total number of graves found resulting from the residential school system in Canada amounts to 1,802 children as of Sept. 16. However, this number does not represent the total number of children who died within the residential school system. The head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, Murray Sinclair, estimates that up to 6,000 children died as a result of residential schools.

In Port aux Basques, Rosina Harvey-Keeping, in partnership with Joe Lane, organized a community walk honouring the children of the residential schools on Thursday, Sept 30. Harvey-Keeping’s goal is to take a step for each child’s grave that has been discovered. The walk was scheduled to take place on the Grand Bay West walking trail at 10:00 A.M.

Harvey-Keeping discussed the planning surrounding the day’s events.

“Tomorrow, September 30, traditionally has been Orange Shirt Day, recognizing that every child matters. This was really spearheaded by Phyllis Webstad, who was a child who went to residential school, and on the first day of residential school she had an orange t-shirt that was given to her by her grandmother. And upon going into residential school, of course, she was stripped of all her clothing, leaving pretty much a traumatic experience for her. And the stripping of the clothes was just the beginning of what children in residential schools actually experienced,” explained Harvey-Keeping

Given her background in social work, this day is of particular importance to her on a personal level as well.

“I’m a social worker by education and I work with child welfare agencies across Canada, and I particularly work with Indigenous organizations to do this differently and better. So I’ve actually been working with Joe Lane, who is a Mi’kmaq man. He’s a community member here in Port aux Basques, and he’s a member of the Qalipu First Nations here on the island, and together with Joe, it’s coming together,” said Harvey-Keeping.

All residents of the community were invited to the walk and were asked to wear orange to honour the day.

“This is a day of remembering, but it is also a day of spreading awareness. So there will be just some simple ways about spreading awareness, with some Indigenous writings that speak to truth and reconciliation, as well as the experience of Indigenous people across Canada and residential schools,” said Harvey-Keeping.

The weather did prove to be unfavourable, with the constant and sometimes heavy rain proving unco-operative for a walk outdoors. However, through the last-minute efforts of town officials, the Bruce II Sports Centre was opened to host the walk on its indoor track despite the fact that municipal buildings had closed to honour the day.

“It was super last-minute yesterday. It was actually Joe that said we need a bit of a backup plan, because we had planned this event for outdoors. So yesterday I made a frantic call to our new mayor, Brian Button, who worked with the town, and (Town Manager) Leon MacIsaac and Tony Tulk here. And Tony was actually the guy who volunteered to open the place up for us and give us an hour,” said Harvey-Keeping.

The event began with an acknowledgement of the land the group had gathered on.

“I just want to acknowledge that today, that this work is happening on the traditional territory of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq people, and we also acknowledge the Inuit and the Innu people of Labrador as well. This is the land we stand on today as we do this walk,” said Harvey-Keeping.

Next, some chose to participate in a smudging ceremony before the walk.

“Today we are using white sage, and I can demonstrate it for you,” offered Joe Lane.

“Basically what you do first, you smudge your mind, you clear all negative thoughts. Then you take the smoke to your eyes, so you only see positive things. Take the smoke to your ears, so you only listen to positive things. Next is your mouth, so you only say positive things. The next is your heart, so that’s what you feel, so you only want to feel positive thoughts. Then the rest of your body, so you go through a positive walk.”

Those participating also received gift bags, as gift giving is an important part of Indigenous culture.

“I’m not Indigenous, but I’m an Indigenous ally. But one of the things that is super important to me is that when you go to an Indigenous event, the art of gift giving is super important. So today this is just something simple – a water bottle, a granola bar to nourish people’s bodies, and a few little treats. We also did the orange ribbons so people can have a takeaway from today,” said Harvey-Keeping.

Overall, Harvey-Keeping and Lane were pleased with the turnout for the event.

“I was pretty emotional to see all the kids. It’s amazing that the parents who brought their children today, it’s just amazing and beautiful, considering the weather that we had,” said Harvey-Keeping.

Lane noted that this event is a somber one and that educating the public is an important part of their efforts.

“The school did a day yesterday, but see, the thing is, it’s the educational part of this. People start to come around. Like a lot of people are like, ‘Orange Shirt Day for residential schools,’ but they’re not grasping it. This day is not a day of celebration for me. It’s a very emotional day for me. It’s a day of mourning. I know. I knew this years ago, through my culture. It’s just that through the reconciliation board, when Canada set up the commission, the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, some of this started to come to light. But they never got down to this one until this year. Now it’s coming out.”

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