The news that an unmarked mass grave with 215 young Indigenous children had been uncovered on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School has become a national scandal, and a source of national grief and sorrow. Those emotions were expressed by hundreds of people from Guelph who showed up for a vigil in front of the Basilica of Our Lady on Tuesday evening.
About 500 people were part of the vigil that started around 6:30 in the evening on Norfolk Street outside the Basilica. The street had been closed, not because of the vigil, but because of a traffic accident down the road near HOPE House.
Members of the local Indigenous community were invited to stand atop the mezzanine overlooking the sidewalk on the western side of the street. Further up the lawn, and closer to the front doors of the Basilica, were row after row of shoes lined up to represent the ones lost at the Kamloops Residential School. It was a memorial that grew with each new arrival for the vigil and it had started to spread to the stairs and walls leading to the church from the street.
Before marching down Macdonell Street to the river, the people heard from many different speakers. They were young and old, but all of them were Indigenous, and they all had a horror story passed down to them from a mother, father, grandparent, or other relation about the terrors witnessed and experienced in Canada’s residential school system.
The event’s co-organizer Desi Fekete recalled how her mother was part of the so-called “Sixties Scoop”, and grew up without the traditions and ceremonies of her ancestral Cree culture. Fekete said that she still had an aunt and an uncle who were unaccounted for, two out of thousands of Indigenous people still missing after they were ripped away from their families.
Co-organizer Hannah Geauvreau-Turner talked about her grandmother’s reaction to the news about Kamloops, and how it prompted strong flashbacks to her own residential school experiences. “She remembers when she was in residential school, seeing the nuns burying things and as children they thought, ‘What are they hiding from us?”” Geauvreau-Turner said. “She said, ‘We thought those were the lucky children and that they actually got to make it home.’ But the sad part is, they did not make it home.”
Lisa, a member of the Timiskaming First Nation, also recalled a shocking story told to her by a grandparent about life in the residential schools. Through tears she talk about her grandfather’s best friend, who was made to eat macaroni he had spilled right off the floor by a nun, and how his friend would later die of blood poisoning at the school.
“My grandpa never saw this little friend again until years later in a bookstore where he stopped, held a book and just stared at it,” Lisa said. “My grandmother asked what he was looking at, and he said, ‘That’s me on the cover, and that’s my friend.'”
Genevieve explained that she was the first person in her family to not attend a residential school or an Indian day school. She remembers hearing horrible stories from her mother, and just always assumed that the conditions at these schools were “just the way school was.”
“My mom told me that when she went to the school her first year she didn’t know English, they only spoke a Ojibwa at home, and if you spoke your language of the school, you would get beaten,” Genevieve said. On one fateful day, her mother needed to use the bathroom, but feared geting beaten if she were to asked in her own language. Instead, she wet herself, and was beaten just the same.
“Over the past couple days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard horrific stories of the things my people have gone through and I’m always met with disbelief, some people just straight up don’t believe me,” Genevieve addded. “My grandparents were ripped away from their parents and never learned how to be parents. They were raised by priests and nuns that sexually abused them, that psychologically abused them, and when they grew up they coped with this through drugs and alcohol because no one taught them how to cope either.”
“I wonder can you see us? Can you really see us? Can you really hear us? And do you believe us?” asked Maani Anna Cheesequay, an Indigenous elder who’s lived in Guelph for four decades. “If you do, what are you going to do about it? I would like to see somebody take the time to ensure that we get justice for these young children in these mass graves. It’s not my system, and there’s so much other work that we have to do to take care of ourselves.”
Cheesequay laid out a list of priorities for First Nations communities across Canada, from fighting for missing and murder Indigenous women and girls, to land struggles in Six Nations and Wet’suwet’en, to the disproportional representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. She asked why Indigenous people can’t be allowed to know their own culture, their own language, or to raise their own children.
“I thank you for coming and acknowledging the beginning of something and that it becomes greater, bigger and larger, and that we can all say no to the past history of genocide, and crimes against humanity that happened in this country,” Cheesequay said. “Nobody can account to it, not even the Queen of England. Nobody will take responsibility. Nobody feels obliged to do anything. But standing here together we can make those changes.”
Skyler Williams, the spokesperson for the land defenders at 1492 Land Back Lane outside Brantford was at the vigil, and reminded everyone that the systemic conditions that resulted in the tragedies at residential schools are still happening.
“One thing that we’ve learned in the last year at Land Back Lane is how many of our people were taken from our community,” Williams said. “We see people rising up and standing together, and they understand that they have a connection. They come back and stand with people like myself and the brothers and sisters that have been down [at Land Back Lane] holding it down for these last 325 days now.”
“I remember the very first day at Land Back Lane, and first OPP officer that approached us after about an hour come up and asked how long we planned to be there,” Williams added. “We kind of laughed and said ‘You know what? Our people have been here for the last 10,000 years and we’re planning on being here for 10,000 more!'”