Several individuals line up to wash their bodies with a smudge of smoke. They are preparing to go on a walk that is only a few blocks long through East Vancouver, but in fact is part of a much longer road. It is Orange Shirt Day, one of several events emphasizing the memory and effects of Canadian Residential Schools on indigenous people.
Cindy Tom-Lindley, Executive Director of Indian Residential School Survivor Society (IRSSS) explains, “Today we are here celebrating and honouring survivors and those that did not make it to return home. This is our third walk. The first walk was pretty small, then last year was quite a nice size, and this year is even larger.”
Messages of remembrance and hope inspired the group, including an address from Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, a revered community leader from the Gwawaenuk First Nation. “In breaking open the dark secret that Canada had, we are beginning to change this country,” he tells about 150 people gathered, most in orange shirts.
People attending came for a variety of reasons, such as Shevonne Hall of Mowhawk, Six Nations & Ojibway background who hugged her daughter and explained that she also brought along a couple of elders. “It is healing, you know, intergenerational. I work at Spirit of the Children Society. Been a good day. Good singing, speeches. The singing uplifts our hearts and our souls.”
Elder Lilly Whonnock, a Residential School Survivor from Mount Currie shared her comment. “This walk is good. In residential school, everywhere we went, we lined up –to go to bed, bathroom, meals, everything. This time, we walked free, free.”
Knowledge about the Residential School experience is also advancing through an aboriginal-led charitable organization called Reconciliation Canada which offers workshops and speakers. Shelley Joseph, the Public Outreach Lead explains, “It is built from the dream of my dad Robert Joseph to have everybody here living in unity, feeling accepted, like we all have a role to be here. I go to different organizations and schools to speak about the history and impacts of Indian residential schools and empower everybody to begin to work reconciliation into their own lives.”
A third Reconciliation advancement in the region is at Vancouver City Hall where three commissioned art pieces depicting nature and partnerships now hang in the council chambers as part of that city’s Reconciliation goals. Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer speaks earnestly about the art and process, sharing that “we are really proud to have art from the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh here in our city council chambers. The message we have heard very strongly from our First Nations is that they want to be visible in their own territory. The crown tried to erase their visibility and to have them right here in our city council chambers is the way that we felt we could give the strongest expression to say yes we hear that and we want to change that moving forward.”
“My piece is called Salish Sea Waters,” says Chrystal Sparrow, a Coast Salish artist. “It is moving from past and into the present because water is always moving. Knowing that the space at City Hall in the chamber rooms is where there is decision making about things happening in the city, I am really happy with that. Hopefully it will inspire councillors to remember that First Nations people are here in Vancouver and that housing matters, art matters, culture matters.”
In all versions of the reconciliation process, organizers emphasize that listening and responding share equal importance with telling the stories. Shelley Joseph says plainly, “Reconciliation includes everybody. Not just indigenous people, not just federal government, churches and first nations leadership. Everybody has a role to play in reconciliation.”
There are eleven First Nations represented in the Metro Vancouver region.