Crees gathered to mark the first annual National Day for Truth and Reconciliation September 30, which the federal government created this year to replace the informal Orange Shirt Day that had been held the same date to remember the tragedy and injustice of the residential school system.
The Cree School Board (CSB) held events across the communities, including a special commemoration at its head office in Mistissini. There, Elder Kenny Blacksmith, a residential school survivor and former chairperson of the CSB, led the inaugural prayer.
“I think I know the pain, the joy, the journey of what our children went through,” Blacksmith shared. “I am however one who made it home, even though I came home to an empty home. By the time I came home my parents were gone. It’s a solemn time for us to remember every child who didn’t make it, and to take joy in every child who did make it home. Let us pray and let us remember this time of history is painful and yet a history that we cannot forget.”
In a prayer, Blacksmith continued, “We invest all of our hope and all of our belief that one day we will see a healed nation. First Nations and all nations, a healed nation of Canada.”
Doreen Blackned and Harriet Brien, CSB staff who are also residential school survivors, then took part in lowering the three flags flying in front of the school board offices as Blacksmith played a traditional drum song.
“I’m very glad were taking this time today to honour residential school survivors, their families, their communities and recognize them for their strength and resiliency because that’s a gift they’ve given to all of us,” CSB Chair Sarah Pash said in a recorded statement. “Our Cree School Board and Eeyou Education are our response to the residential school experience.”
With schools and education offices closed, children, parents and CSB employees then took part in a memorial and healing walk around the schools and communities.
Bertie Wapachee, Chairperson for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, shared his reflection on the Cree Health website: “My parents were forbidden to speak their mother tongue in and around these schools. They were taught our language and culture was of no use to the new civilized world. If they or their fellow students didn’t comply to the rules, they would pay for it physically or in other forms of punishment. Like many of their fellow survivors, their experience still haunts them in their memories.
Wapachee said the health board will be working to develop new programs and services and accelerate the construction of the healing centre to address addiction and intergenerational trauma.
“While others may have been lucky, many paid the price for being Indigenous, for being scared, for being innocent, for making small mistakes. Some survivors were victims of human experiments, stories so horrific they are hard to believe,” he added. “Let’s face it, these so-called schools were built to destroy the spirit of the Indigenous people in this country.”
by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter