More than 800 join Tsuut’ina Nation walk to honour residential school victims

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

More than 800 people, many wearing orange, walked silently Monday on the Tsuut’ina Nation near Calgary in honour of Indigenous children buried at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Many of the participants wore T-shirts with the number 215 written on them, while others had shirts that read: “Every child matters.” Some were pushing strollers, while those carrying their children held on to them tightly.

People pinned orange and yellow ribbons on a white bulletin board at an outdoor arena where the walk came to an end.

Late last month, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia announced the finding of an unmarked burial site containing what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School site.

Ground-penetrating radar confirmed knowledge of the graves held by the community, the First Nation said.

Prayers and a pipe ceremony were held on behalf of the children during Monday’s march at Tsuut’ina. The mood was sombre, but there was no visible anger.

“The purpose of today here was to conduct a ceremony for those 215 children that were found and I think when we do a ceremony anger has no place in it. It’s about healing,” said Kelsey Big Plume, a band councillor at Tsuut’ina.

“It’s about honouring, remembering those babies and giving them the opportunities to be released to the spirit world. That’s why people here today feel happiness — because something’s being done to help them.”

Coreen Rider attended the ceremony with her daughter, Alanna Bluebird, and her granddaughter, Lindy.

Rider said the news out of Kamloops has triggered suppressed memories and stories she had heard from her grandparents who went to residential schools.

“I heard stories of residential school survivors and the stories are so horrific and I think about those stories and then all those children that were buried together,” Rider said.

“The mass grave that they found triggered so many hurts and pains that our grandparents went through.”

Tsuut’ina First Nation member Ralph Crane says he survived being hung at a residential school in St. Paul’s, Alta., and that when his father attended a residential school in St. Albert he was kept in an attic alongside children’s bodies and would frequently run away. ‘I believe Canada needs to take care of all of the survivors that we have left,’ Crane says. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Bluebird, who was holding her squirming daughter, said family is so important to First Nations that just the thought of what might have happened in Kamloops is hard to take.

“It’s just really heartbreaking to know that those kids never had that closeness of family. I just always cherish my daughter and I’m just really grateful for her,” said Bluebird.

Nation member Ralph Crane said both he and his father suffered abuse at residential schools.

“I believe Canada needs to take care of all of the survivors that we have left,” he said. “A lot of us are all gone.”

There were at least 25 residential schools across Alberta, and more than 821 children died while being forced to attend school in the province, in addition to thousands more deaths across the country. 

Members of the Tsuut’ina Nation wore orange in memory of victims of Canada’s residential schools. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The Kamloops school operated between 1890 and 1969, when the federal government took over operations from the Catholic Church. It operated as a day school until it closed in 1978.

It’s believed many residential schools have burial sites due to the high death rates — but few have locations that are formally documented, and even fewer are maintained. The graves found in Kamloops are believed to represent previously unrecorded deaths. 

Tsuut’ina Chief Roy Whitney said the First Nation will soon begin its own search of the site of the former St. Barnabas School (also known as Sarcee Boys’ Boarding School) on reserve lands.

“It’s been a stressful time for people, going through all of the emotions of it: anger, sadness,” he said.

Tsuut’ina Nation elder Ellery Starlight takes part in a silent march on June 7, 2021, in memory of the 215 unmarked graves found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Big Plume said the healing process would have been helped if Pope Francis had offered an apology on the weekend.

The Pope spoke Sunday in Rome and expressed his pain over the discovery of remains at the former residential school site in British Columbia but didn’t officially apologize.

“Taking accountability is really important, especially if you hold the title and leadership of a religion. Not being able to express a sincere apology really hurt a lot of First Nation people,” Big Plume said.

“We need to have some type of acknowledgement that there were wrongdoings done to our people.”

Premier Jason Kenney has said the province will fund searches for residential school grave sites.

But the premier has also been criticized, even by members of his own government, for making comments about “cancel culture” in response to moves to rename buildings or remove statues that carry the name of architects of the residential school system — comments Whitney called “inappropriate.”

Elder Bruce Starlight questioned whether the premier has travelled enough to see how other countries have reckoned with harmful aspects of their histories.

“Does he see a monument to Hitler?” Starlight said. “No brainer. That’s all I have to say.”

Support is available for anyone affected by residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

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