Downtown Winnipeg was transformed into a sea of orange Thursday afternoon as thousands of people marched to the Manitoba Legislature to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Sept. 30 is the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a new federal statutory holiday to honour the children who died while attending residential schools and the survivors, families and communities still affected by the legacy of that system.
The march was one of several events held Thursday to mark the day in Manitoba, including a powwow, a youth and elder tea and several walks and sacred fires happening throughout the day.
Eleanor McKay honoured her parents at the march in Winnipeg with an orange T-shirt that had a photo of her late mother Marie on the front, and her late father Thomas on the back.
Both of her parents were residential school survivors.
McKay said she’s only recently begun to understand how much the residential school system impacted her family.
She said her parents never talked about what they endured as children.
“I didn’t understand then,” she said.
But now that “all the puzzles and the little pieces” have come to light, “everything makes sense to me, and why things happened the way they did to them, and why they didn’t want to talk about it and why there was so much pain and hurt,” she said.
McKay said she came to the march Thursday to honour her parents and others who survived residential schools.
“That’s why I wanted to make a shirt of them, for them — to let them know that … we’re all healing, we’re all together,” she said.
“You can feel so much love in this, in the air.”
Riley Brown, an Oji-Cree woman from Manitou Rapids First Nation, wore a shawl adorned with handprints of her classmates at Urban Circle Training Centre as she danced and walked in the march.
She said she was dancing for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, residential school survivors and those children who didn’t make it home.
“This awareness brings so much meaning to life. I’m very honoured to be a part of this today,” she said.
In addition to the march, about 100 people from Fox Lake Cree Nation arrived in Winnipeg Thursday after beginning their walk near Gillam, Man., on Sept.18 to honour the children who never made it home from residential schools.
The group were making their way to a powwow organized at St. John’s Park along Main Street.
Justina Neepin walked alongside with her sister JJ and her daughter Charlotte. She says her parents never wanted to open up about what happened to them in the residential school system — until people started wearing orange shirts.
“They’ve been so private about it for so many years and they’re finally sharing it. I’m so proud of them for being able to do that,” she said.
Day begins with sunrise ceremony
In Winnipeg, the day began with a sunrise ceremony at location that has been a gathering spot for 6,000 years.
“This ceremony’s never been performed here for over a century, so it’s pretty exciting we’re doing it this morning,” said Niigaan Sinclair, an associate professor of Native studies at the University of Manitoba and the Indigenous curator for The Forks, the national historic site where where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet.
First Nations camped at and used the confluence of the rivers to meet and later, to exchange goods with European fur traders.
Scottish settlers, riverboat workers, railway pioneers and tens of thousands of immigrants followed, and the city of Winnipeg was born.
But as the city grew, so did the mistreatment of First Nations, who were forced off their traditional lands, which were exploited by settlers. First Nations people were forced onto reserves and their children made to attend residential schools in an attempt to assimilate them and eliminate their cultures.
“Much of us are doing the heavy lifting and the heavy emotional labour of helping Canada understand,” Sinclair said.
“But this ceremony is not about that. This ceremony is about us, about us as Indigenous people, and others can partake. Everyone’s welcome here, but it’s a ceremony really to help us and to help us build relationships with the earth and with the world around us.”
About 50 people gathered for the ceremony inside and around a new Indigenous lodge created in the spring.
The lodge, located in a clearing on land formerly known as the South Point of The Forks but now known as Niizhoziibean, is based on Anishinaabek tradition and crafted with tree poles from Manitoba’s north and stones from the south.
Built in May, the lodge officially opened June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day.
On Tuesday, a fire was built in the early darkness as those gathered prepared to welcome the sun with a song, Sinclair said.
“We’re still doing the same ceremonies we’ve been doing for centuries and we’ll continue to do that,” he said.
“We hope that there are those who will join with us in a walk of peace and kindness and start to create some justice in this country.”
A sunrise ceremony is one of the most ancient and revered rituals practiced by Indigenous peoples, performed to mark and welcome the beginning of a new day, as well as express appreciation and thanks for life and nature.
Sunrise ceremonies often include participants expressing what they are grateful for and why, and smudging themselves and their ceremonial instruments with burned herbs as a way to purify oneself and remove negativity.
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