Grief and gratitude in a powerful sea of orange Participating in survivors walk with family — past and present — an emotional journey
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There were so many people who showed up at Oodena Circle Friday morning. The crowd was diverse in nearly every way, and most everyone I saw was wearing an orange shirt in honour of the lost and stolen children.
It was emotional to be in this mass of people.
As my daughter and I got ready to head down to The Forks, I asked her if she understood what the day meant. Did she know why we were going?
“In residential school, they took the kids away from their homes and cut their hair,” she explained to me, her little voice struggling to pronounce the world residential correctly. “They took away their clothes and sometimes they changed their names to something less Indigenous, or even just a number. Some of the kids got killed.”
It is in these moments that I realize that I don’t give her, or young people in general enough credit sometimes. She knew exactly why we were going, and she understood the terrible legacy of residential schools that every single Indigenous person is connected to in some way. At seven years old she knows more than I did, even in my young adult life.
Before we left our home, I stuffed the old black-and-white photo of Nana and Papa in my bag and rummaged through my jewelry box to find the only memento I have that belonged to my grandmother — a white plastic name tag with her name, ‘A. Cook’ in typewriter font on an embossed dark-green label. It was from her days as a cleaning lady at the Selkirk Hospital, long before I was even born. It’s funny that this name tag — an object that she probably didn’t even pay attention to — is one of my greatest treasures. It’s something both of our hands have touched — a piece of her that I wanted to bring to the walk.
If she could have seen the sea of orange that showed up at The Forks today…
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper heading downtown from our home in St. James. We snagged a spot close to the RBC Convention Centre and walked down Broadway to The Forks (well, I walked, my daughter raced alongside on her pink scooter. The closer we got, the more orange shirts there were. It was like the world around us was awash in orange, and it was getting more and more vibrant with each step we took. Then, when we got to the Oodena Circle, we were met by, and became part of, a sea of orange.
“Wow, these people really showed up for the children,” my daughter said.
I pulled the old black-and-white photo out of my bag, and patted my back pocket to make sure my grandmother’s plastic name tag was still there, and I stood there just taking it all in. Even though she died so many years ago, I wanted her to be there with us and the thousands of other people honouring her and the other children like her, who were taken from their families. I wanted her to know that she mattered.
As we walked down Main Street, making our way toward the convention centre, I turned around at one point and saw a woman behind me holding a picture — I don’t know if it was her, or a relative — and underneath it read “Mary Jane Cameron (Bunn) Sagkeeng First Nation, IRS Survivor.” It had a heart beside the word “survivor.”
I become very emotional on days like this; it’s incredible to see how as a society we have changed, and we are moving forward (and please understand that I say this, knowing that there is still so much work left to do) but I also feel a deep sense of sorrow knowing that an event such as today’s walk wasn’t even fathomable in the world my grandmother lived in.
“Today we are reminded, without the advocacy and contributions of Survivors, September 30 would just be another day in he calendar,” Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman Murray Sinclair said in a statement Friday.
”It is only because of the strength and courage of the survivors that we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we now have a National Centre, and today we mark a National Day for this important work.
“Survivors led us to this moment on the journey of reconciliation, while they have been on their personal journeys of healing.
As they continue to seek justice for what took place at the hands of the Government of Canada, the church, and other actors, I remain grateful for their steadfast commitment to uncovering and giving life to the truth.”
Taking part in Friday’s walk was an honour. I am grateful to the survivors for leading us into this moment on the journey of reconciliation, and I acknowledge that many of the children who were taken never got the chance to be in this moment.
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.
Updated on Friday, September 30, 2022 8:29 PM CDT: removes photo